Independent Foreign Fiction Prize 2014

I’ve had the pleasure of being on a shadow jury for this year’s Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, and my opinions, along with those of my four fellow readers, appear on Booktrusts’s website – part one and part two. For the sake of completeness (and posterity), here are my answers to the questions posed by the prize organisers.

A Man in Love by Karl Ove Knausgaard (translated by Don Bartlett)

What was the most interesting element you discovered about the country/culture featured in the book?

There’s a fascinating interplay between Norway and Sweden in the book. Sweden is portrayed as orderly, compartmentalised, tidy, as middle class and aspirational. But, crucially, these opinions are always those of Norwegians, of outsiders, but made from the inside, from experience. I find the suggestion that it’s only outsiders who can tell you how a place really is very compelling.

What was your favourite line from the story?

You couldn’t live a double life even if you wanted to, it’s not something you can make happen. There’s a one-to-one relationship between life and morality in you. So you are ethically unassailable. Most people are Peer Gynt. They fudge their way along life’s road, don’t they? You don’t. Everything you do has the uttermost seriousness and conscientiousness.

Based on this book, would you read other works by this author?

I can’t wait. I want to read everything. Being utterly convinced by the truth of this book, and Knausgaard’s post-writing view that there’s no worth in fiction, will make fascinating context for reading. I’m completely intoxicated by raw power – by the stripping away of all artifice, pretence and structure. Or the appearance of a stripping away…

What did you think about the quality of the translation?

The book is such a tour de force that I find the idea of translating it baffling. The translation captures the emotional truth and the near-oppressive self doubt, but for me is most exceptional when it deals with dialogue – with the conversations that are rendered vital and potent.

I did struggle with one notion, that kept recurring – referred to as ‘form’ and as far as I could tell, interpreted variously as precedent, norm, pattern or rule… all of which match up with the definition of form, and yet somehow in context the word jarred somewhat. I’ve made a note to ask my Norwegian friend about this!

Would you recommend this book to other readers and why?

Without doubt – I’ve already talked to two of my friends about it. This will be one of those books (there are about three precedents) that I will buy over and again as gifts. Why? Because of the choking honesty, the ubiquitous questioning, the examination of life, the intimacy. But more than anything, I feel like I’ve found myself in this book, and so giving it to my friends feels symbolically like I’m giving a piece of myself to them.

Revenge by Yoko Ogawa (translated by Stephen Snyder)

What was the most interesting element you discovered about the country/culture featured in the book?

Though the collection of tales is set over a very small area, it’s hard to pinpoint the exact country or culture being portrayed – it’s both identifiable and alien. The overriding sense is of the dark heart of average town, and the ease with which this blackness takes control and becomes visible.

What was your favourite line from the story?

His voice came from deep within his chest, yet it was soft and almost meek, and trembled ever so slightly at the end of a phrase. It filled the room like music, like liquid, and I felt I could reach out and scoop it up in my hands.

Based on this book, would you read other works by this author?

Absolutely. Ogawa takes obvious relish in rendering unspeakable acts as lustrous and desirable, imbuing otherwise unremarkable characters with deviousness and peculiar obsessions. I think there’s lots of fun to be had in indulging light-hearted petty-minded naughtiness every now and then.

What did you think about the quality of the translation?

The richness of the prose seeps into the imagination and paints brilliant pictures of food, places, people… the language is beguiling and seductive. The book relies on a tightly woven tapestry of coincidences and overlapping lives, and the translation keeps these important details firmly illuminated. I think it’s a wonderful translation.

Would you recommend this book to other readers and why?

I’d recommend this book as three hours of perfect deviance. It’s rare to come across a book that can work its way through despair, obsession, death, suffering, mutilation and torture in an almost gleeful way. It’s got a sense of the maniacal about it, and it freshens the senses in that special way that only books can.

A Meal in Winter by Hubert Mingarelli (translated by Sam Taylor Portobello)

What was the most interesting element you discovered about the country/culture featured in the book?

How pervasive a culture of oppression is; how pernicious and corrosive are regular exposure to hostile conditions like hunger and cold; how much perspective can shrink in the face of horrific choices.

What was your favourite line from the story?

Outside, through the window, the light was dim and still fading. The flames in the stove lit us up from behind. As we ate, our shadows accompanied us by dancing on the table.

Based on this book, would you read other works by this author?

Certainly – there’s a finely developed sensibility about the writing that is deep, subtle and which oscillates between hope and despair. It means difficult subjects like this can be handled lightly, leaving a sense of disquiet.

What did you think about the quality of the translation?

I thought it was incredibly succinct and sure, beautifully flowing and rich with metaphor.

Would you recommend this book to other readers and why?

I’d recommend this book. I think it’s really important to uphold a sense of perspective with regards the atrocities of our collective past, and this book steers clear from judgement, instead serving us with a sorry picture of ordinary people who, even when morality is overshadowed by desperation, demonstrate their capacity for love and an overwhelming vulnerability.

The Mussel Feast by Birgit Vanderbeke (translated by Jamie Bulloch)

What was the most interesting element you discovered about the country/culture featured in the book?

The perceived differences between East and West Germany: that West Germany is portrayed as a place for the aspirational, the learned and the wealthy.

What was your favourite line from the story?

The ringing heralded the end of the world, at precisely the same time that everything had fallen apart for my mother, because she’d confessed that, like Medea, she’d wanted to poison us all, a thought she’d at least not had to lose much sleep over, because she never imagined she’d ever betray her fantasy, and the telephone would have to ring right at that very moment, we thought.

Based on this book, would you read other works by this author?

I’m really curious about work by Birgit Vanderbeke, because Mussel Feast seems so singular: it’s breathlessness expunges any vestige of normal family life – and it’s hard to imagine that this style or format (very like a one act play) is a consistent feature of her work. I’d like to read more by Birgit Vanderbeke to see how other work measures up to this yardstick.

What did you think about the quality of the translation?

The ceaseless repetition of phrases and motifs and the frenetic pace of the storytelling are striking props that stylistically support a sense of drama in complete harmony with the action in the story: translating this deliberately edgy and abrasive language is no mean feat.

Would you recommend this book to other readers and why?

I’d recommend this book as a masterclass in simple, compelling drama. It transforms a familiar place, scratching the surface of routine to find chaos, and demonstrates the menace of an absent adversary. I think the ethos behind the press is fantastic, and this one-sitting book packs a tense punch.

The Iraqi Christ by Hassan Blasim (translated by Jonathan Wright)

What was the most interesting element you discovered about the country/culture featured in the book?

The book is set in a variety of locations, but the common feature across the short stories seems to be the hangover or side-effect of conflict and death. Having a strong surreal cast, the stories seem to suggest that, contrary to popular belief that people in conflict zones become de-sensitised to death and suffering, the opposite is true – that when events occur that don’t fit with an individual’s world view, the the world view distorts and mutates.

What was your favourite line from the story?

The hero sits trapped in the darkness there and thinks alone: ‘How can I reconcile my private life with an awareness that a world is collapsing in front of my eyes?’ ‘That’s a questions that has weighed on my life. It has kept me awake, like an open wound’, said Christ.

Based on this book, would you read other works by this author?

Yes. Blasim’s prose touches places that other writing rarely does – corners of my mind that I rarely want to expose to the light – so I wouldn’t pick up another work lightly, but I think regular discomfiture is really healthy.

What did you think about the quality of the translation?

The style of the writing is, in large stretches, very perfunctory. Stories are relayed in a blow-by-blow manner, and the resulting void of feeling (especially over such emotive subject matters) left me feeling uneasy. However, it soon becomes apparent that there is not other way for these stories to be told – the risk of seeming mawkish or sentimental is great – the overriding tone of fact is a necessary element of the narration. This style of story-telling has long tradition, yet Blasim regularly disrupts this convention, and I think it remarkable that the translator has kept pace with these deliberately shifting sands.

Would you recommend this book to other readers and why?

Yes – on the proviso that the reader really commit to it. I thought there was an incredible pay-off in the final two stories, because the perspective of these two stories provide a lens through which the preceding stories begin to make sense. It’s a mean feat, considering that the stories don’t have much continuity of theme, and almost no continuity of character. I also think that the book breaks ground: there is reference to the fact that not much fantasy fiction comes out of one of the countries in which a particular story is set, and I think The Iraqi Christ traverses this void in an interesting way.

Strange Weather in Tokyo by Hiromi Kawakami (translated by Allison Markin Powell)

What was the most interesting element you discovered about the country/culture featured in the book?

I think the culture of socialisation, especially revolving around food and drink, is the most pervasive in the book. There’s a really curious mix of individual passions about food, and a measure of distance – even regulars to a bar don’t become ‘friendly’ with the staff – and I wonder if this is indicative of Japanese culture at large?

What was your favourite line from the story?

I had a habit of acting as though I were having a conversation with someone beside me – with the me who was not really right there beside me – as if to validate these random effervescences. What I see in the room is not my own lithe, naked body, more than necessarily subject to gravity – I’m not speaking to the me who is visible there, but rather to an invisible version of myself that I sense hovering somewhere in the room.

Based on this book, would you read other works by this author?

I’d give another book a try, because I feel Kawakami is eminently readable, but I generally look for greater emotional weight or complexity.

What did you think about the quality of the translation?

I thought the language was a smokescreen – it was incredibly simple and yet totally obfuscatory. The story exudes a kind of formal distance, and I read the characters as recalcitrant, so the quality of the translation holds true to the emotional heart of the characters. What better accolade?

Would you recommend this book to other readers and why?

This won’t be a book that I recommend simply for its own sake. That said, I can imagine circumstances where this book would come to mind as a recommendation – for people interested in romantical stories about characters that are emotionally stilted, modern day Japan and the importance of food to culture, or loneliness as a condition in populated areas.

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2 thoughts on “Independent Foreign Fiction Prize 2014

  1. First off I would like to say awesome blog! I had a quick question which
    I’d like to ask if you do not mind. I was curious to know how
    you center yourself and clear your head prior to writing.
    I’ve had difficulty clearing my thoughts in getting my
    ideas out there. I truly do enjoy writing but it just
    seems like the first 10 to 15 minutes are lost simply just trying to
    figure out how to begin. Any ideas or hints? Many thanks!

    • Hello. Thanks for your comment. The thing with writing is that you simply have to find your own way to do it. I don’t think 10 or 15 minutes of thinking time is ‘lost’ – because writing isn’t simply about the process of typing words – the thinking is integral to that. That said, writing is about writing – sometimes I have to start somewhere, and where I start doesn’t always turn out to be the beginning, but I get to the beginning in the end, having worked it out through writing. So give yourself a break, and don’t expect to start at the beginning!

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