Your Guide to the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize Shortlist

Umberto Eco’s fifth novel, The Prague Cemetery is the headline choice for this year’s Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, the winner of which is due to be announced on May 14.

Eco’s sprawling tale of gluttony and global conspiracy heads an eclectic and surprising six-strong shortlist, which also includes stories rooted in 17th-century Iceland, wartime Ukraine and Finland, and modern-day Germany and rural China. Yan Lianke’s pitch-dark Dream Of Ding Village makes another appearance having also been shortlisted for this year’s MAN Asian Literary Prize.

Uniquely among literary prizes, the £10,000 fund is split equally between the winning author and translator.

Alice by Judith Hermann (from German; trans. Margot Bettauer Dembo)
The clarity of Judith Hermann’s prose won her a place on the shortlist for Alice, a collection of five inter-linking short stories based around a single central protagonist and the death of a different friend or acquaintance. Technically it’s hard to fault, but the repetitive nature of the stories sometimes drags. The problem is not in the book’s observational qualities, but in its fundamental lack of insight. People die and she moves on, illuminating little about the process of grief, and prompting the reader to question precisely what Hermann had in mind when it came to creating this slim volume. She’s a novelist of considerable repute in Germany, so she’s probably way better placed to answer the question. Until she does, in the context of a major literary shortlist, Alice will remain entirely, perplexingly unremarkable.

Blooms of Darkness by Aharon Appelfeld (from Hebrew; trans. Jeffrey M. Green)
Appelfeld is a prominent Israeli novelist who has written over 40 works of fiction, most concerning the Holocaust. Blooms Of Darkness tells the story of Hugo, an 11-year-old Jewish boy, who escapes the Nazis in an unnamed town in Ukraine by hiding out in a cupboard in a local brothel. Hugo befriends a prostitute, Mariana, and as the novel develops so does their relationship: some might say, given Hugo’s age, in a somewhat unlikely and/or disturbing fashion. Appelfeld’s story is based on truth: he escaped a Nazi concentration camp in 1941 and hid out in a forest with, as he puts it, “underworld figures.” Appelfeld would be the first to admit Blooms Of Darkness is nothing particularly new, but it is nevertheless a worthy addition to the literature of the Holocaust. Its most significant triumph is its understated prose — so heartfelt it could almost have been written in a whisper.

Dream of Ding Village by Yan Lianke (from Chinese; trans. Cindy Carter)
Lianke’s grim tale of a Chinese blood-selling scandal which sweeps an HIV epidemic through countless small communities was also shortlisted for the MAN Asian Literary Prize. Unsurprisingly banned in his homeland, Dream Of Ding Village serves as a damning indictment of China’s irresistible push towards a form of controlled capitalism. It serves as a vicious allegory of the whole bust-up Chinese communist machine. With the villagers dying in scores, the rabidly profiteering blood-sellers must seek out ever more inventive ways to maintain their cash flow. Blackmail and corruption are rife: this is a society rendered hopelessly naïve by long years of bludgeoning single-party rule. Lianke is merciless in heaping misery upon his subjects, which makes this a terribly bleak book. But it is also highly readable, and undeniably important.

From The Mouth of the Whale by Sjon (from Icelandic; trans. Victoria Cribb)
From the Oscar-nominated composer Sjon comes his second novel, From The Mouth Of The Whale, which is every bit as baffling and brilliant as his first, The Blue Fox, which was previously longlisted for the prize. Set in volcanic 17th-century Iceland, where snow burns and whales grow to the size of mountains, Sjon conjures a fantastical tale of the purging of pagan rituals and the banishment of a scientist and doctor, Jonas Palmason The Learned, to a remote island as punishment for his alleged heresy. There are exorcisms, infant deaths, an uproarious sketch involving unicorn horns and, in the book’s most unforgettable scene, the brutal slaughter of a band of visiting Basque whalers. Sjon’s rich, almost mythical prose never falters for a moment, and the extraordinary success of Victoria Cribb in losing none of its potency in her translation from its original Icelandic deserves to be celebrated. This is a wild, tumultuous, utterly unique novel.

New Finnish Grammar by Diego Marani (from Finnish; trans. Judith Landry)
New Finnish Grammar is a wholly admirable book, telling the story of a sailor found grievously wounded on the quayside in Trieste towards the end of the Second World War. He has lost both his memory and his language, and carries no identifying documents. Taken in by a passing Finnish doctor, Petri Friari, the pair struggle to rebuild his identity: Friari convinces himself the man is also Finnish, on account of a nametag found in his jumper, and sends him to Helsinki in the hope of reigniting some dormant memories. There, he (re-) introduces his subject to the notoriously complicated Finnish language, evoking myths and legends of his country’s past as the mystery of the man’s identity slowly begins to unfurl. Marani highlights important issues surrounding language and identity, and if it is a little dry at times, valuing intelligence over intimacy, he has written a technically excellent and thought-provoking book.

The Prague Cemetery by Umberto Eco (from Italian; trans. Richard Dixon)
The extrovert, octogenarian Italian is back with a book many are calling his best yet. Fans of Eco will recognize his style from the start: grueling, disconcerting and often frustrating, it often feels that Eco is deliberately taking liberties with his reader, and yet The Prague Cemetery is astonishingly vivid, and never less than engaging. Eco weaves fact and fiction to devastating effect to unveil the mystery of a real-life document entitled The Protocols Of The Elders Of Zion, which was contrived to unite nations against the (supposed) Jewish plot for world domination, and would later by cited by Hitler in Mein Kampf. A master forger, Simone Simoncini, who has tricked and murdered his way through Turin and Paris, is tasked with creating the document. It is its inherent truth which gives The Prague Cemetery an extra dimension. It serves as devastating proof of how falsehoods can shape history, and misery can be heaped upon whole peoples by the stroke of a pen.

Your Guide to the Man Asian Literary Prize Shortlist

Although an expanded total of seven books made the shortlist for this year’s Man Asian Literary Prize, the biggest news was probably one that didn’t: Haruki Marukami’s super-hyped but critically divisive 1Q84. Instead, Japan is represented on the shortlist by the much slimmer form of Banana Yoshimoto’s twelfth novel, The Lake.

The Wandering Falcon, written by octogenarian Jamil Ahmad, is the first Pakistani novel to be nominated, while other shortlisted subjects include a vivid history of Guyanese coolies, inter-generational conflict in South Korea, a seafaring epic in nineteenth century Canton, a Chinese blood-selling scandal, and arranged marriage in modern India. It’s a broad, engaging list, and probably all the better for not being dominated by such a powerful figure as Marukami. Here are the contenders that are still left standing:

The Wandering Falcon by Jamil Ahmad: Ahmad, now almost eighty, spent much of his life working for the Pakistani Civil Service in its remote border regions: no-go zones that flash up on Western news reports as Taliban hidey-holes or the destination de rigeur of unmanned drones. The Wandering Falcon focuses on the tribes of those areas, casting overdue light on their deeply religious and honor-bound societies. Ahmad’s era may be pre-Taliban – he wrote the book thirty years ago, before being persuaded to seek publication by his wife – but his fractured tales, loosely based around the wanderings of Tor Baz, the eponymous Black Falcon, indicate a resistance to outside interference which would escalate in decades ahead. A masterpiece of focus and brevity, and brilliant in its evocation of an unforgiving landscape, Ahmad’s book is also now – for a book that came out thirty years late – remarkably timely.

The Sly Company of People Who Care by Rahul Bhattacharya: Bhattacharya won high praise for his book on Pakistani cricket, Pundits From Pakistan, which was published in 2005. Sly Company is a partly autobiographical picaresque of one young man’s journeys in Guyana, a nation with which the author fell in love during a previous cricket tour. Bhattcharya’s central character is retracing the steps of the boatloads who set sail from Calcutta and Madras in the mid-nineteenth century, lured by tales of a land of gold. The descendants of those so-called coolies as well as the emancipated slaves from Africa have created a unique, tempestuous nation which Bhattacharya succintly captures with his convincing – but at times almost impenetrable – mix of Rasta patois and Hindi movie references. Aiming only for a kind of inner fulfilment, his character hunts diamonds in the country’s thick, dark interior, then falls in love and heads for Venezuela. His adventures are underpinned by constant reminders of Guyana’s colonial past, and the heavy price it still pays for it.

River of Smoke by Amitav Ghosh: River Of Smoke is the second novel in Ghosh’s planned trilogy, the first of which, Sea Of Poppies, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2008. It’s an epic by any standards: 517 paperback pages, describing the early skirmishes which would ultimately lead to the 1840 Opium Wars, the Treaty of Nanking, and the secession of Hong Kong to British rule. Bahram, a Parsi trader from Bombay, seeks to land the enormous haul which will finally buy him the respect of his rich wife’s family back home. But the Chinese are determined to make trading in opium illegal, and as their crackdown becomes more unforgiving, so Bahram and the brigade of British merchants in whose company he has become inveigled must consider increasingly drastic options. It’s all a bit bogged down by an unnecessary sub-plot that is likely left over from his previous book. That said, Ghosh has written a story of such a grand scale that it deserves its opportunity to stand alone.

Rebirth by Jahnavi Barua: Rebirth is the only book on the shortlist for which overseas rights are yet to be granted. For that reason, if you manage to track down this book outside India, you’re a better literary detective than I. All of which is a shame, because reviews on the sub-continent suggest it is a delicate, deeply affecting novel deserving of wider readership. Set in modern-day Bangalore, Kaberi is pregnant with a longed-for child nobody else knows about: neither her estranged, unfaithful husband, nor her parents or friends. Rebirth takes the form of a monologue from mother to baby in which she expresses her doubts about her marriage and her life, and ultimately seeks, and finds, some form of redemption. In time, it’s likely its shortlisting will open it up to a bigger readership; for the time being, the next best thing is probably this comprehensive review via The Hindu Literary Review.

Please Look After Mom by Kyung-Sook Shin: Kyung-Sook Shin is something of a literary phenomenon in South Korea. Please Look After Mom (Mother outside the US) is her seventh novel, and it has sold in excess of one million copies in her homeland. Maybe the most remarkable thing about her latest offering is how she manages to fashion something so unique and soul-searching out so ordinary a conceit. So-nyo, an ailing wife and mother, disappears on the Seoul subway on a trip from the country to visit her eldest son. Her siblings and their father join together in a futile quest to find her. In the course of their search – split between the points of view of son, daughter, father and finally, So-nyo herself – they agonise over how they took her for granted, and in doing so raise the kinds of questions that can apply to us all. Most of all, it offers rare glimpses of life in rural South Korea, and asks whether the nation’s insatiable push for progress has come at a price.

The Lake by Banana Yoshimoto: She’s big in Japan, inspiring a cult following and selling upwards of six million novels, but Banana Yoshimoto will always polarise opinion. Critics may be tempted to call her Murakami-lite, given her fondness for the same kind of broad subjects as her heavyweight compatriot – ultra-modern and slightly otherworldy paeans to urban restlessness. But that comparison probably doesn’t do Yoshimoto too much justice. Certainly, Murakami could learn from her brevity. The Lake revolves around the relationship between two fragile students, Chihiro and Nakajima. Nakajima bears the scars of a terrible past, and the plot – such as it is – concerns Chihiro’s attempts to figure him out (complete with a visit to a couple of Nakajima’s mysterious old friends who live in a run-down shack by the side of a conveniently misty lake). It has its moments, and her champions – of whom there are many – will doubtless shout her claims from the rooftops. But if this was the best book to come out of Asia this year then I’m – well – a Banana.

Dream of Ding Village by Yan Lianke: Set in modern, rural China, Dream Of Ding Village addresses a topic of unimaginable grimmness: the story of the Chinese blood-selling scandal which swept an HIV epidemic through countless small communities, while the authorities, in thrall to the relatively new concept of controlled capitalism, looked away. The most extraordinary thing about Lianke’s tale – narrated by the murdered son of the man most culpable for this local tragedy – is his rich use of satire, creating an astonishing allegory of the whole bust-up Chinese communist machine and its clumsy lurch into the free market. With the villagers dying in scores, the rabidly profiteering blood-sellers must seek out ever more inventive ways to maintain their cash flow. Blackmail and corruption are rife: this is a society rendered hopelessly naïve by long years of bludgeoning single-party rule. Lianke is merciless in heaping the misery upon his subjects, and just as cutting in his implied criticism of his country. This is, no doubt, a terribly bleak book. In Lianke’s expert hands, however, it is also a very readable and eminently worthy one.