The Independent Foreign Fiction Prize shortlist is now out — here are the six finalists!
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
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
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
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
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 Shadow IFFP Jury has also released their shortlist, and it doesn’t look a lot like the list above :-) (which makes more sense when you know the Shadow Jury pulled in a book that wasn’t even on the IFFP longlist). You can see there here. I’m excited to read their thoughts!
Also, the only cross-over book among the IFFP longlist and the BTBA longlist was Can Xue’s The Last Lover, which is no longer in the IFFP running.