I love this time of year. Between the UK’s Independent Foreign Fiction Prize and the US’s Best Translated Book Award (the longlist to be announced on April 7), there are some excellent books in translation sitting in the spotlight. I look forward to it, and finally the longlist for this year’s Independent Foreign Fiction Prize has been announced.
It’s their 25th longlist, and I think it looks fantastic, with books from Colombia, Equatorial Guinea, Korea, China, Sweden, Norway, etc. Sadly, only four of the fifteen titles were written by women. Maybe they’ll fair better this year than in years past. The shortlist will be announced on April 9. The winner will be announced on May 27, so there’s plenty of time for you to join in and read these books.
In the comments below, please let me know if you’ve read any. If you’ve written reviews (or see some you find particularly helpful) link to them. Tell us what looks interesting. Spread the word. This is important.
The Shadow Jury
This year eleven bloggers from around the world have joined forces to conduct a Shadow Jury for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, headed, once again, by Chairman Stu:
- Chairman Stu himself: Winstonsdad
- Tony Malone: Tony’s Reading List
- Joe Schreiber: Roughghosts
- Messy Tony: Messenger’s Booker
- Emma Cazabonne: Words and Peace
- Chelsea McGill: The Globally Curious
- Julianne Pachico: Never Stop Reading
- Clare: A Little Blog of Books
- Bellezza: Dolce Bellezza
- David Hebbelthwaite: David’s Book World
- Grant Rintoul: 1st Reading
You can find brief bios of each here at Chairman Stu’s blog. I highly recommend following the prize and following their verdicts. In past years I’ve supplemented the title descriptions with links to reviews. I’m not sure I can keep up with them this year, but below please find the books, the publishers’ descriptions (to be taken with a grain of salt), and some links to reviews.
by Tomas Bannerhed
translated from the Swedish by Sarah Death
The fields at Raven Fen yield barely enough for Agne and his family to live on, and his young son Klas can only watch as despair consumes his father. While Klas dreams of migrating birds — of escape — Agne imagines his crops devoured by insects never seen in Sweden, predicts endless cycles of storm and drought, hears only the ceaseless crowing of the ravens — and obsesses over the day when his son will take on his burden of toil.
But it is Sweden, it is the 1970s, and Klas can’t accept the life his father has chosen for him. Caught between loyalty to his father and fear of his apparent destiny, Klas takes solace in nature, with the cuckoos, curlews and lapwings, far from the tormented world of Raven Fen. And as his father, like his father before him, falls deeper into madness, Klas begins to wonder if he himself might be insane.
“The hiss of suspense culminates in a late turn to melodrama that leaves this sad story open to the charge of sensationalising mental illness, yet the headlong rush of the final pages also leaves us with the sense that we’ve just seen a tragedy unfold from the point of view of someone who didn’t want to look.” ~Anthony Cummins, The Telegraph
“The climax of the novel is no less disturbing for its inevitability; however, Klas’s feelings have become by that stage ambiguous, which cleverly undercuts what would otherwise have been too simple a conclusion. The strange world of Raven Fen lingers long in the imagination, though as believable characters who should engage our helpless sympathy, Klas and his family are somewhat lost in translation.” ~Melissa Harrison, The Financial Times
The End of Days
by Jenny Erpenbeck
translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky
“We are born and we die — but many things could happen in between. Which life do we end up living?” From one of the most daring voices in European fiction, this is a story of the twentieth century traced through the various possible lives of one woman. She is a baby who barely survives beyond her first breath, and suffocates in the cradle. Or perhaps not? She lives to become as an adult and dies beloved. Or dies betrayed. Or perhaps not? Her memory is honored. Or she is forgotten by everyone. Moving from a small Galician town at the turn of the century, through pre-war Vienna and Stalin’s Moscow to present-day Berlin, Jenny Erpenbeck homes in on the moments when life follows a particular branch and ‘fate’ suddenly emerges from the sly interplay between history, character and pure chance. Fully alive with ambition and ideas, The End of Days is a novel that pulls apart the threads of destiny and allows us to see the present and the past anew.
“Erpenbeck’s Chekhovian talent for letting us into the shifting consciousness of her characters’ various incarnations is such that with each death our loss feels definitive. But while in Chekhov there are no exits from personality, here there are no exits from history.” ~Kapka Kassabova, The Guardian
“Erpenbeck has important things to tell us; and she tells them beautifully.” ~Will Gore, The Independent
by Marcello Fois
translated from the Italian by Silvester Mazzarella
When Giuseppe Mundula first sees Michele Angelo Chironi across the corridor of a Sardinian orphanage, the reserved blacksmith realizes he has found the son and heir he never knew he needed. And when, a few years later, Michele himself looks down from a church rooftop and sees the beautiful Mercede, the quiet orphan realizes he has found the woman he will marry.
So begins Marcello Fois’ magisterial domestic epic of the lives and loves of the Chironi family, as they struggle through war and fascism. Deftly endowing familial horrors with mythical resonance, Fois creates a Dantesque triptych that inscribes the history of twentieth-century Sardinia onto a single misbegotten household.
“Family sagas tend to be epic in length as well as scope. By the end of a Buddenbrooks or a One Hundred Years of Solitude, the reader has spent so long in the company of its characters that a sense of mourning greets the final page. Bloodlines has the scope — the horrors of two world wars, and also a side story tracing the Chironi name back to the days of the Inquisition, when Sardinia was a Spanish dependency — but is shorter and more fragmented. It leaves the reader satisfied rather than satiated.” ~Jethro Soutar, The Independent
In the Beginning Was the Sea
by Tomás González
translated from the Spanish by Frank Wynne
The young intellectuals J. and Elena abandon the parties, the drinking and the money of the city, and start a new life on a remote tropical coast. Among mango trees, hot sands and everlasting sunshine, they plan to live the Good Life, self-sufficient and close to nature.
But with each day come small defeats and imperceptible dramas. Gradually paradise turns into hell, as brutal weather, mounting debts, the couple’s brittle relationship, and the sea itself threaten to destroy them.
Based on a true story, In the Beginning Was the Sea is a dramatic and searingly ironic account of the disastrous encounter of the imagined life with reality — a satire of hippyism, ecological fantasies, and of the very idea that man can control fate.
“For all its exoticism, a novel that probes how hippydom is often built on the labours of the poor may well cause its new European readers more than a few twinges of conscience.” ~Julius Purcell, The Financial Times
“It feels slightly strange to judge González by this short first novel rendered into a foreign tongue. While their descent into failure is never less than gripping, neither J nor Elena prove especially likeable or sympathetic. This may well be a bold critique of their microcosmic act of colonisation, their disregard for people, lives and ideas bigger than themselves, but it does make you tire of their moodiness, discourtesy and ineffectiveness.” ~James Kidd, The Independent
The Dead Lake
by Hamid Ismailov
translated from the Russian by Andrew Bromfield
A haunting Russian tale about the environmental legacy of the Cold War. Yerzhan grows up in a remote part of Kazakhstan where the Soviets tests atomic weapons. As a young boy he falls in love with the neighbor’s daughter and one evening, to impress her, he dives into a forbidden lake. The radio-active water changes Yerzhan. He will never grow into a man. While the girl he loves becomes a beautiful woman. “Like a Grimm’s Fairy tale, this story transforms an innermost fear into an outward reality. We witness a prepubescent boy’s secret terror of not growing up into a man. We also wander in a beautiful, fierce landscape unlike any other we find in Western Literature. And by the end of Yerzhan’s tale we are awe-struck by our human resilience in the face of catastrophic, man-made, follies.” Meike Ziervogel, Peirene Press
“The release of Hamid Ismailov’s hauntingly beautiful novella is doubly exciting. Firstly, this frightening fairytale is set in a place unknown to most — the Kazakh steppes near the Semipalatinsk Nuclear Test Site (SNTS), the largest in the former Soviet territories. Second, because The Dead Lake comes to us from the author of The Railway. Ismailov’s sane vision of insane history in action relates the tragicomic meetings of mullahs and Bolsheviks, the clash between nomads and modernity that came with the ‘iron road’ that traverses 20th-century Uzbekistan.” ~Kapka Kassabova, The Guardian
by Daniel Kehlmann
translated from the German by Carol Brown Janeway
The Friedland brothers have nothing in common.
Martin is a priest with no faith.
Ivan is an artist with no integrity.
Eric is a financier – now, with no money.
Each, in their own way, a fake.
Each about to step into the abyss.
“It cannot be an easy thing to write a comic novel about the death of God. Still, the German novelist Daniel Kehlmann may just have pulled it off. “F” is the protagonist of a book within a book, the debut novel of Arthur Friedland, a rather disorganised buffoon who never had any success as a writer until an encounter with a hypnotist gave his life its chilly purpose: ‘This is an order, and you’re going to follow it because you want to follow it, and you want to because I’m ordering you, and I’m ordering you because you want me to give the order. Starting today, you’re going to make an effort. No matter what it costs. Repeat!'” ~Simon Ings, The Guardian
“For the novel, with its sly Möbius-strip-like connectedness, doesn’t just hint at the possibility of a plan behind the scenes; it enacts that plan in the very telling, its elegant, unfolding construction revealing the author’s intended pattern by book’s end; a sign of hope, perhaps, or even faith, if one chooses to interpret it that way.” ~Joseph Salvatore, The New York Times
Boyhood Island (My Struggle: Book 3)
by Karl Ove Knausgaard
translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett
Childhood is exhilarating and terrifying. For the young Karl Ove, new houses, classes and friends are met with manic excitement and creeping dread. Adults occupy godlike positions of power, benevolent in the case of his doting mother, tyrannical in the case of his cruel father.
In the now infamously direct style of the My Struggle cycle, Knausgaard describes a time in which victories and defeats are felt keenly and every attempt at self-definition is frustrated. This is a book about family, memory and how we never become quite what we set out to be.
“This process of self-questioning and self-renewal can lead to an extraordinary purity of attention that transfigures the most unlikely things even as it places deliberate strain on the reader’s patience. ‘Meaningful, meaningless, meaningful, meaningless,’ writes Knausgaard in book three, ‘this is the wave that washes through all our lives and creates its inherent tension.’ Word from Scandinavia suggests that he returns to the wave’s agonised peak in subsequent volumes of Min kamp. Until then, this book will just about keep the heads of his readers above water.” ~Tim Martin, The Telegraph
“But even the most avid Knaus-fiend might concede that this isn’t the revelation past volumes were, partly because the injustices of boyhood are better documented than those of fatherhood, but mainly because Knausgaard fixes the point of view to his child self; gone is the fluid structure that drifted between the remembered moment and the moment of remembering.” ~Anthony Cummins, The Guardian
By Night the Mountain Burns
by Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel
translated from the Spanish by Jethro Soutar
By Night the Mountain Burns recounts the narrator’s childhood on a remote island off the West African coast, living with his mysterious grandfather, several mothers and no fathers. We learn of a dark chapter in the island’s history: a bush fire destroys the crops, then hundreds perish in a cholera outbreak. Superstition dominates: now the islanders must sacrifice their possessions to the enraged ocean god. What of their lives will they manage to save? Whitmanesque in its lyrical evocation of the island, Avila Laurel’s writing builds quietly, through the oral rhythms of traditional storytelling, into gripping drama worthy of an Achebe or a Garcia Marquez.
“Reading By Night the Mountain Burns is like listening to an old man tell a story that is so clear to him that his eyes look out through his child self onto a world he no longer inhabits. The novel’s multi-faceted narrator drives the novel; he is an adult, yet one still pondering questions that infused his childhood. At the end, the narrator expresses the hope that this story might be found by someone else who inhabited this small island with him. It is not a text of voyeurism or tourism; it is a text for remembering together.” ~Emma Schneider, Full Stop
by Jung-Myung Lee
translated from the Korean by Chi-Young Kim
Fukuoka Prison, 1944. Beyond the prison walls the war rages; inside a man is found brutally murdered.
Yuichi Watanabe, a young guard with a passion for reading, is ordered to investigate. The victim, Sugiyama — also a guard — was feared and despised throughout the prison and inquiries have barely begun when a powerful inmate confesses. But Watanabe is unconvinced; and as he interrogates both the suspect and Yun Dong-ju, a talented Korean poet, he begins to realize that the fearsome guard was not all he appeared to be . . .
As Watanabe unravels Sugiyama’s final months, he begins to discover what is really going on inside this dark and violent institution, which few inmates survive: a man who will stop at nothing to dig his way to freedom; a governor whose greed knows no limits; a little girl whose kite finds her an unlikely friend. And Yun Dong-ju — the poet whose works hold such beauty they can break the hardest of hearts.
As the war moves towards its devastating close and bombs rain down upon the prison, Watanabe realizes that he must find a way to protect Yun Dong-ju, no matter what it takes. This decision will lead the young guard back to the investigation – where he will discover a devastating truth . . .
At once a captivating mystery and an epic lament for lost freedom and humanity in the darkest of times, The Investigation — inspired by a true story — is a sweeping, gripping tale perfect for fans of The Shadow of the Wind.
“The Investigation is a fictional account of the actual dissident Korean poet, Yun Dong-ju. Like countless Koreans, Yun suffered the oppression of Japanese colonialism and did not make it out of the war alive. But thanks to a professor and a friend, manuscript copies of his only collection of poetry, The Sky, the Wind, the Stars, and Poetry did survive. Lee provides an inventive, compelling narrative to tell Yun’s tale, while treading artfully on the subject of Korean-Japanese relations. This translation, which includes several of Yun’s poems, will be invaluable in providing Yun’s work — as well as Lee’s — a wider audience beyond Korea.” ~John W. W. Zeiser, Asian Review of Books
“In this hellish jail, poetry both subverts and redeems, and “Only the purest language could testify about the most brutal era”. Now, Britain’s penal authorities become the “executioners of literature” as they ban the gift of books. So this Korean bestseller deserves to fly across our own prison walls.” ~Boyd Tonkin, The Independent
While the Gods Were Sleeping
by Erwin Mortier
translated from the Dutch by Paul Vincent
“It sounds dreadful,” I said to him one day. “But actually the war is the best thing that ever happened to me.”
Helena’s mother always said she was a born poetess. It was not a compliment. Now an old woman, Helena looks back on her life and tries to capture the past, filling notebook after notebook with memories of her respectable, rigid upbringing, her unyielding mother, her loyal father, her golden-haired brother. She remembers how, at their uncle’s country house in the summer of 1914, their stately bourgeois life of good manners, white linen and afternoon tea collapsed into ruins. And how, with war, came a kind of liberation amidst the mud and rubble-and the appearance of a young English photographer who transformed her existence.
Lyrical and tender, filled with images of blazing intensity, While the Gods Were Sleeping asks how it is possible to record the dislocation of war; to describe the indescribable. It is a breathtaking novel about the act of remembering, how the past seeps into our lives and how those we have lost leave their trace in the present.
“Always, as the old woman crams notebooks with this harvest of memory, Helena aspires, via her writing, “to squeeze my foot in the door of the definitive”. Spurning the big, vague picture in its transit from one densely textured close-up to another, this novel does precisely that. Although “jealous of the painters” because their art revels in “intensity” not “meaning”, Helena commands – thanks to Mortier’s sumptuous verbal gifts – a kaleidoscopic palette. As translator from the Flemish, Paul Vincent makes every detail shine, and every colour blaze.” ~Boyd Tonkin, The Independent
Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage
by Haruki Murakami
translated from the Japanese by Philip Gabriel
Tsukuru Tazaki had four best friends at school. By chance all of their names contained a color. The two boys were called Akamatsu, meaning “red pine,” and Oumi, “blue sea,” while the girls’ names were Shirane, “white root,” and Kurono, “black field.” Tazaki was the only last name with no color in it.
One day Tsukuru Tazaki’s friends announced that they didn’t want to see him, or talk to him, ever again.
Since that day Tsukuru has been floating through life, unable to form intimate connections with anyone. But then he meets Sara, who tells him that the time has come to find out what happened all those years ago.
“I had a vague premonition this book would be rooted in common human experience, less up my alley than the alien textures woven throughout The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. Yet I also sensed strange notes forming, coiling within a small wound that would not heal. Whichever aspect of himself Murakami drew from in order to create Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, it lies somewhere among the stones of his mystical labors.” ~Patti Smith, The New York Times
“A reader without Japanese is completely at the mercy of Murakami’s translators; when the prose lowers to cliche or commonplace — as it seems to do surprisingly often in this novel — there is no way of knowing if Philip Gabriel is accurately representing his client or letting him down.” ~Mark Lawson, The Guardian
The Giraffe’s Neck
by Judith Schalansky
translated from the German by Shaun Whiteside
Adaption is everything, something Frau Lohmark is well aware of as the biology teacher at the Charles Darwin High School in a country backwater of the former East Germany.
A strict devotee of Darwin’s evolution principle, Lohmark views education as survival of the fittest: classifying her pupils as biological specimens and scorning her colleagues for indulging in “favorites.” However, as people move West in search of work and opportunities, the school’s future is in jeopardy and the Lohmark is forced to face her most fundamental lesson: she must adapt or she cannot survive.
“Schalansky’s short, choppy sentences, expertly translated from the German by Shaun Whiteside, add to the sense of Lohmak trying to keep control of a changing world around her and her place within it: people are leaving to move to the west; the old values are disappearing; the school’s future is in doubt. The East Germany she has grown up in is in flux too: the Berlin Wall has fallen, communism has ended and what will happen next is unknown. Will she and it adapt and change, or will they remain as they are and become anachronisms?” ~Flemmich Webb, The Independent
by Stefanie de Velasco
translated from the German by Tim Mohr
We need to practise for later on, for real life. We need to know everything so nobody can ever mess with us.’
Nini and Jameelah are best friends forever. This summer they’re going to grow up. Together. On their terms. But things don’t always turn out the way you plan…
Tender, funny, shocking and tragic, Tiger Milk captures what it is to be young.
“This is a novel of breathless urgency, which is also nostalgic for an innocence that is so readily cast aside.” ~India Ross, The Financial Times
Look Who’s Back
by Timur Vermes
translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch
Berlin, Summer 2011. Adolf Hitler wakes up on a patch of open ground, alive and well. Things have changed – no Eva Braun, no Nazi party, no war. Hitler barely recognizes his beloved Fatherland, filled with immigrants and run by a woman.
People certainly recognize him, albeit as a flawless impersonator who refuses to break character. The unthinkable, the inevitable happens, and the ranting Hitler goes viral, becomes a YouTube star, gets his own T.V. show, and people begin to listen. But the Führer has another program with even greater ambition — to set the country he finds a shambles back to rights.
Look Who’s Back stunned and then thrilled 1.5 million German readers with its fearless approach to the most taboo of subjects. Naïve yet insightful, repellent yet strangely sympathetic, the revived Hitler unquestionably has a spring in his step.
“To this reader, the novel feels oddly cosy. No doubt it is much more thrillingly transgressive in Germany, where it remains a criminal offence to give a Nazi salute, as various characters do here with mounting enthusiasm. But Brits have been making fun of Hitler since the 1930s. And here he seems a cutely domesticated Adolf, one who could easily do a slightly amusing talking-head turn on Grumpy Old Men, complaining as he does about how young people don’t look where they’re going in the street because they are entranced by their smartphones.” ~Steven Poole, The Guardian
“But on the whole, Vermes is too busy manufacturing one-liners to get to the heart of modern Germany’s contradictions. Nazi symbols are still banned to prevent a resurgence of Nazism and out of respect for its victims; yet a gang of neo-Nazi serial killers in East Germany went undetected for years because investigators blamed Turkish gangsters for their crimes.” ~Sophie Hardach, The Telegraph
The Last Lover
by Can Xue
translated from the Chinese by Annelise Finegan Wasmoen
In Can Xue’s extraordinary book, we encounter a full assemblage of husbands, wives, and lovers. Entwined in complicated, often tortuous relationships, these characters step into each other’s fantasies, carrying on conversations that are “forever guessing games.” Their journeys reveal the deepest realms of human desire, figured in Can Xue’s vision of snakes and wasps, crows, cats, mice, earthquakes, and landslides. In dive bars and twisted city streets, on deserts and snowcapped mountains, the author creates an extreme world where every character “is driving death away with a singular performance.” Who is the last lover? The novel is bursting with vividly drawn characters. Among them are Joe, sales manager of a clothing company in an unnamed Western country, and his wife, Maria, who conducts mystical experiments with the household’s cats and rosebushes. Joe’s customer Reagan is having an affair with Ida, a worker at his rubber plantation, while clothing-store owner Vincent runs away from his wife in pursuit of a woman in black who disappears over and over again. By the novel’s end, we have accompanied these characters on a long march, a naïve, helpless, and forsaken search for love, because there are just some things that can’t be stopped — or helped.
“So the theme of East and West locked together in stories of mutual desire joins a broader interrogation of love as both the final fruit of selfhood and a way to break its chains, given that ‘Some people are an unsolvable mystery to other people.’ At the finale, Joe travels East to meet Vincent — and to encounter his former life — in the ‘village of dreams.’ Translated by Annelise Finegan Wasmoen with all the hallucinatory clarity that her prose demands, Can Xue guides us through that bewitching place.” ~Boyd Tonkin, The Independent
“By threading the fable with image patterns and reoccurring onomatopoeias like “weng weng,” Xue stitches themes together and succeeds in creating a unique, immersive, tale of “intersecting dreamworlds.” It is a challenging work, but readers committed to experimental and innovative fiction will be snared by this mental journey.” ~Publishers Weekly