“As we ate, and the soup disappeared, the music changed. The spoons made more noise in the mugs and the saucepan. Suddenly, out of nowhere, Emmerich murmured, ‘We should let him go.'”
A white snowflake embroidered on the hat of a Jew held captive. A salami and half an onion to go with the Italians’ cornmeal which will make soup. A hope that a soldier’s son left at home should not start smoking. And what do these things have in common? Nothing but what they represent: a life without hate. A life without suffering. A life without war.
Emmerich, Bauer, and the narrator beg their commanding officer to be allowed to go hunting. For if they set off in the freezing cold, succeed in finding a Jew, and bring him back, they will not have to be a part of the executions on the base.
When Emmerich sees a group of trees with less frost on them than others, he discovers the hiding place of a young Jew. As the four of them make their way back to base, they discover an abandoned house along the way. Stopping there, they put the Jew in the storeroom, and proceed to make a meal which requires burning almost every piece of wood they can find: chairs, cupboards, doors.
The hot meal gives them comfort, until they must face what to do with their prisoner. For by including him in the merest resemblance of life, a meal, they have taken away his prisoner status.
It is a dreadful irony; who is the hunter and who is the hunted? Surely our guilt, surely our memory, surely our humanity, will torment us about all the others even if we let one prisoner get away.
It was with great excitement and joy that the Shadow Jury for the IFFP, organized by Stu and Tony, read the list of fifteen books which were long listed on March 8. When we emailed one another our results, we all agreed that the top six should be as follows:
- The Infatuations by Javier Marias
- Brief Loves That Live Forever by Andrei Makine
- The Sorrow of Angels by Jon Kalman Stefansson
- The Mussel Feast by Brigit Vanderbeke
- A Man in Love by Karl Ove Knausgaard
- The Corpse Washer by Sinan Antoon
Content with our decision, I went to bed on April 5 certain that the official short list would include several of the top books from our list. Surely, I thought, it will contain my personal favorite: The Sorrow of Angels.
The Independent Foreign Fiction prize short list included instead the following six:
- The Iraqi Christ by Hassan Blasim
- A Man in Love by Karl Ove Knausgaard
- A Meal in Winter by Hubert Mingarelli
- The Mussel Feast by Birgit Vanderbeke
- Revenge by Yoko Ogawa
- Strange Weather in Tokyo by Hiromi Kawakami
Now, I don’t want to criticize the judges because who am I, but simply a life-long reader who is passionate about translated literature. I am not a broadcaster, an author, a lecturer, nor even a former stand-up comedienne. Note the judges below:
- Alev Adil, Artist in Residence, Principal Lecturer and Programme Leader for MA Creative Writing at the University of Greenwich
- British writer, broadcaster and former stand-up comedian Natalie Haynes
- Nadifa Mohamed, award-winning author
- Boyd Tonkin, Senior Writer and Columnist, The Independent
- Literary translator Shaun Whiteside
Perhaps it will become clear some day, to someone, just why these five judges chose the titles they did. Personally, I suspect that the reasons lie beyond literature and take on more of a political nature. Be that as it may, I can’t suggest strongly enough that should you choose to read outstanding translated literature, you take as “must read titles” those from the Shadow Jury’s list. Especially those in the top four slots. They will comprise some of my favorite reading of the year, of that I am certain.
Sinan Antoon The Corpse Washer (Arabic; translated by the author) Yale University Press
Hassan Blasim The Iraqi Christ (Arabic; trans. Jonathan Wright) Comma Press
Julia Franck Back to Back (German; trans. Anthea Bell) Harvill Secker
Sayed Kashua Exposure (Hebrew; trans. Mitch Ginsberg) Chatto & Windus
Hiromi Kawakami Strange Weather in Tokyo (Japanese; trans. Allison Markin Powell) Portobello Books
Karl Ove Knausgaard A Man in Love (Norwegian; trans. Don Bartlett) Harvill Secker
Andrej Longo Ten (Italian; trans. Howard Curtis) Harvill Secker
Ma Jian The Dark Road (Chinese; trans. Flora Drew) Chatto & Windus
Andreï Makine Brief Loves that Live Forever (French; trans. Geoffrey Strachan) MacLehose Press
Javier Marías The Infatuations (Spanish; trans. Margaret Jull Costa) Hamish Hamilton
Hubert Mingarelli A Meal in Winter (French; trans. Sam Taylor) Portobello Books
Yoko Ogawa Revenge (Japanese; trans. Stephen Snyder) Harvill Secker
Audur Ava Ólafsdóttir Butterflies in November (Icelandic; trans. Brian FitzGibbon) Pushkin Press
Jón Kalman Stefánsson The Sorrow of Angels (Icelandic; trans. Philip Roughton) MacLehose Press
Birgit Vanderbeke The Mussel Feast (German; trans. Jamie Bulloch) Peirene Press
Ample make this bed.
Make this bed with awe;
In it wait till judgment break
Excellent and fair.
Be its mattress straight,
Be its pillow round;
Let no sunrise’ yellow noise
Interrupt this ground.
With this poem as its foundation, Gerbrand Bakker writes the most piercing novel I have read all year. It unfolds slowly slowly slowly before us as he teases out the reason why Emilie has come to Wales, to live in a thatched cottage once inhabited by old Mrs. Evans, and dwell there with the white geese who gradually are reduced to only four.
Halfway through the novel a boy with black curly hair, and a great dog named Sam, join her. The boy cooks for her, and fixes up the garden, and refuses to leave each time she asks him. He doesn’t inquire about the way her lucidity slips away from time to time, nor about the strips of pills from which she gradually presses more than one to ease her pain. He simply stays with her resolutely.
Far away in Amsterdam, Emilie’s husband decides to look for her. He meets with her parents, he hires a detective, and eventually he sends a card which simply says her name, and his, with the words “I’m coming” in between.
I chose to read this book because it was short listed for the IFFP; I feel no need to read any of the other contenders. It is so completely satisfying, so beautifully told, so multi-layered and rich in meaning that I am hoping already it is declared the winner.
(Found out on May 20, 2013 that The Detour did in fact win the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.)
It is an extraordinary undertaking, and one not without controversy – as Knausgaard’s family and friends would certainly attest. They have unwittingly found themselves at the centre of a story about the rise of Norway’s latest literary sensation.
Sometimes a novel feels like a closed circle – you reach the last page and sense that everything has been tidied away. This is not one of those novels. Though it reaches a natural conclusion, it lingers like a thick stink. Everything is elliptical.
A Dutch woman arrives in rural Wales to begin an indefinite stay at a rented farm cottage. As she settles into her new life, we are drip-fed details. She is an academic fleeing some sort of scandal. Her marriage is in tatters and she is plagued by aches and vivid dreams. She begins to unwind and seems little surprised when a stranger wanders in off the hills one morning, and established himself in her home. The perspective switches and suddenly we are with her husband. He is working to piece his life back together and soon he is on her trail, accompanied by a weirdly over-familiar detective. The novel skips back and forth between these strands until they become inevitably knotted.
HHhH, the debut novel from Laurent Binet, tells the story of Operation Anthropoid, two Czechoslovakian parachutists’ mission to assassinate Nazi commander Reinhard Heydrich. With skill Binet guides us through Heydrich’s cruel ascent to power, the Resistance fighters’ preparations and the crucial showdown in Prague. But Binet also shows us something less familiar to the historical novel.
Interwoven with the narrative of the Nazi monster and the Resistance heroes is the narrator’s own story. He regularly digresses from Operation Anthropoid for brief asides on the nature of historical fiction and the impossibility of ever reconstructing historical events with absolute accuracy. The novel is made up of short, self-referential chapters, hopping from 1942 to the present day where the narrator struggles with ideas of veracity as he writes the book. Lines such as ‘there is nothing more artificial in a historical narrative than this kind of dialogue’ and ‘once again I find myself frustrated by my genre’s constraints’ should give you some idea of what to expect. While this might seem like a familiar form of postmodernism, don’t despair.
The Sound of Things Falling begins in Bogotá, Colombia in 2009, where Antonio Yammara reads a news article about a hippopotamus that has gone astray from the private zoo of the late cocaine lord Pablo Escobar. The article leads him back to his memories of Colombia during the eighties and nineties, his near-death in a mafia assassination, and the man who was the real target: Ricardo Laverde, a half-broken man with a murky past and a cassette tape whose mysterious contents may well have been what got him killed.
Ivan is a the last remaining speaker of the imaginary Vostyach language, but he has been struck dumb after witnessing his father’s murder in a Siberian mine. He has never known exactly why he and his father were consigned to the mine, and he has been there so long that the supposed crime hardly matters to him. Twenty years after Ivan’s father’s death, the guards desert their posts and Ivan escapes. Guided by a mysterious force, he returns to his home and meets a linguist who is amazed to discover Ivan’s language. Soon, Ivan becomes the centre of a complex plot involving sabotage, desperation and violence.
The Last of the Vostyachs won two literary prizes in Italy – The Premio Campiello and The Premio Stresa – and it’s easy to see why. It’s a complex and immersive novel which will reward a patient reader. Although the beginning feels disorientating, in keeping with Ivan’s state of mind, the narrative soon finds its feet. There is humour, but this is expertly balanced with a poetic and profound connection with nature and the landscape. This is a short novel, but it packs a real punch: profound, mysterious and thought-provoking.
In September 1943, German soldiers march on Gjirokastër, the first city in their invasion of Albania. The townspeople, expecting the worst, try to hide in their homes as eighty hostages are taken and rounded up in the town square. But then something unexpected happens: Instead of bullets, they hear music. It sounds like Brahms, and Strauss, and Schubert. It is coming from the gramophone in Dr Gurameto’s house.
What happens in Dr Gurameto’s house that night will change the course of Albania’s history and come to define the doctor’s own personal fate. But what really does happen? As Albania moves through Nazi occupation to communism, the people keep returning to that mysterious dinner party, looking for answers as their country descends into madness.
In a place near Mozambique where no one knows the boundary, drought is changing everything. Tens then hundreds of people seek refuge in a forgotten outpost where a clinic is run by lonely souls of uncertain training, nuns staunchly determined to serve. But the inundation soon becomes too much for them, and there is no help from outside. Within the small community of outsiders a plan takes shape that is as outrageous as it is inspired, when Brand de la Rey, an ecologist who is researching the local baboons, organizes a desperate mission for more supplies, using a damaged airplane that is unfit for purpose.
Samuel Riba, until recently a successful Barcelona publisher and drinker of alcohol – now very much an ex-publisher, a teetotaler and an imperfect husband spooked by turning sixty – wants to make the English Leap. He wants to be at the Centre. He’s bored and antsy and frustrated that he has never, in his long publishing career, discovered the one writer of genius who would have made it all worthwhile. He wants to go to Dublin on Bloomsday and hold a funeral for the printed word. He doesn’t know what he wants.
1980s Syria, our young narrator is living a secluded life behind the veil in the vast and perfumed house of her grandparents in Aleppo. Her three aunts, Maryam, the pious one; Safaa, the liberal; and Marwa, the free-spirited one, bring her up with the aid of their ever-devoted blind servant. Soon the high walls of the family home are unable to protect her from the social and political changes outside. Witnessing the increasing crackdowns of the ruling dictatorship against Muslims, she is filled with hatred for her oppressors, and becomes increasing fundamentalist. In the footsteps of her beloved uncle Bakr, she takes on the party, launching herself into a fight for her religion, her country, and ultimately, her own future. On a backdrop of real-life events that occurred during the Syrian regime’s ruthless suppression of the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1980s, In Praise of Hatred is a stirring, sensual story. Its elegant use of traditional, layered storytelling is a powerful echo of the modern-day tragedy that is now taking place in the Middle East.
Let’s get one thing out of the way before we begin: The Murder of Halland is a Scandinavian crime novel. It’s set in Denmark, the titular Halland is shot at the beginning, and the rest of the book is structured around the police’s attempts to find out who dunnit. These facts, however, are the least interesting things about it: if anything, Pia Juul’s cool, oblique, unsettling novel invokes membership of a genre only to flagrantly disregard its requirements.
In post-Napoleonic Germany, a traveller on his way to Dessau stops off for a night in the mysterious city of Wandernburg. He intends to move on the following day, but the town begins to ensnare him with its strange, shifting geography. After befriending an old organ grinder and falling for the daughter of a local merchant, he soon finds it impossible to leave. A novel of philosophy and love, politics and waltzes, history and the here-and-now, Traveller of the Century is a journey into the soul of Europe, penned by one of the most exciting South-American writers of our time.
Trieste opens with an old woman, Haya Tedeschi, sitting alone in Northern Italy awaiting the retiurn of her son after sixty-two years. Gradually, the reasons for his absence become clear: fathered by an SS officer, he was abducted by the Nazis as part of their Lebensborn programme for “racially pure” Europe, and never made it home again. The ensuing narrative largely takes place within the multiplying refractions of Haya’s kaleidoscopic memory – stories of loss, resistance and atrocity that speak in a clamour of competing voices. The past, quite literally, refuses to lie quiet, and as much as anything else this is a novel about remembrance and its discontents.