Tag: Independent Foreign Fiction Prize

IFFP 2015: the shadowing begins

shadow iffp

It’s time for this year’s Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, and once again I will be joining the shadow jury in reading the longlist and selecting our own ‘winner’. But that’s getting ahead of myself; for now, here;s the longlist:

Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel, By Night the Mountain Burns (Spanish: trans. Jethro Soutar), And Other Stories

Tomas Bannerhed, The Ravens (Swedish: trans. Sarah Death), Clerkenwell Press

Jenny Erpenbeck, The End of Days (German: trans. Susan Bernofsky), Portobello Books

Marcello Fois, Bloodlines (Italian: trans. Silvester Mazzarella), MacLehose Press

Tomás González, In the Beginning Was the Sea (Spanish: trans. Frank Wynne), Pushkin Press

Hamid Ismailov, The Dead Lake (Russian: trans. Andrew Bromfield), Peirene Press

Daniel Kehlmann, F (German: trans. Carol Brown Janeway), Quercus

Karl Ove Knausgaard, Boyhood Island (Norwegian: trans. Don Bartlett), Harvill Secker

J.M. Lee, The Investigation (Korean: trans. Chi-Young Kim), Mantle

Erwin Mortier, While the Gods Were Sleeping (Dutch: trans. Paul Vincent), Pushkin Press

Haruki Murakami, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage (Japanese: trans. Philip Gabriel), Harvill Secker

Judith Schalansky, The Giraffe’s Neck (German: trans. Shaun Whiteside), Bloomsbury

Stefanie de Velasco, Tiger Milk (German: trans. Tim Mohr), Head of Zeus

Timur Vermes, Look Who’s Back (German: trans. Jamie Bulloch), MacLehose Press

Can Xue, The Last Lover (Chinese: trans. Annelise Finegan), Yale University Press

I’ve read five of those already, and reviewed four. The official shortlist will be announced on 9 April, and we’ll reveal our shadow shortlist just before then. I am aiming to have read everything by then, and will try to review as much of the shortlist as I can.  I’ll be using this post as an index, so you can click on the links above to see what I thought of each book.

General impressions of the longlist? I must admit, I would like to have seen Mathias Enard’s Zone and Elvira Dones’ Sworn Virgin make the cut. But there are writers on here whom I’ve been meaning to read, like Erpenbeck and Xue; it’ll be interesting to try Knausgaard and Murakami once again; and there are certainly some very intriguing books on that list. (As an aside, I also have to say that this list shows how vital small publishers are to fiction in translation.)

Finally, let me introduce you to the other bloggers in this year’s shadow jury:

Stu of Winstonsdad

Tony of Tony’s Reading List

Bellezza of Dolce Bellezza

Tony of Messengers Booker (and more)

Joe of Roughghosts

Chelsea of The Globally Curious

Clare of A Little Blog of Books

Emma of Words and Peace

Grant of 1streading

Julianne of Never Stop Reading

I hope you’ll join us in exploring and celebrating fiction from around the world in the coming months.

The IFFP winner and the shadow Desmond Elliott shortlist

Iraqi ChristWe announced our shadow ‘winner‘ on Wednesday, and last night the actual 2014 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize was awarded to The Iraqi Christ by Hassan Blasim, translated from the Arabic by Jonathan Wright and published by Comma Press. Blasim is an interesting writer whose short stories combine the fantastical and macabre with the realities of life in post-war Iraq; I didn’t get chance to review The Iraqi Christ myself, but I have previously reviewed his first collection, The Madman of Freedom Square, which I liked very much.

The IFFP judges also gave a special mention to Birgit Vanderbeke’s The Mussel Feast, translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch and published by Peirene Press; it was very nice to see such recognition for a fine book. Indeed, the result all round was a huge — and well-deserved — vote of confidence for small presses and short fiction in translation. Finally, on a more personal note, it was really gratifying to hear Moira Sinclair from Arts Council England mention the shadow jury in her opening speech; the whole IFFP shadowing process has been immensely enjoyable and rewarding anyway, but that nod was a reminder that we have left a mark (83 reviews of the longlisted books between us, if nothing else).

I’m struck that both book blogging and literary translation are acts of sharing – sharing books we love, and thoughts about them. After the IFFP yesterday, I only want to explore translated fiction further, and share it more. Thanks to everyone involved in the IFFP, and especially to my fellow shadow-jurors. I’m looking forward to next year already!


But there’s the Desmond Elliott Prize before then, and we now have our shadow shortlist:

  • The Letter Bearer by Robert Allison (Granta)
  • The Shock of the Fall by Nathan Filer (HarperCollins)
  • A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing (Galley Beggar Press)

It’s a really strong list (my personal shortlist would replace The Letter Bearer with Donal Ryan’s The Spinning Heart, but Allison’s book is very close behind); I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the actual shortlist turned out to be very similar. We’ll find out when the Desmond Elliott judges announce their shortlist on Monday; we’ll then declare the shadow ‘winner’ on Wednesday 2 July, the day before the award ceremony.

#IFFP2014: The shadow winner

An announcement from the IFFP shadow jury…

In 2014, for the third year in a row, Chairman Stu gathered together a group of brave bloggers to tackle the task of shadowing the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. It’s not a task for the faint of heart – in addition to having to second-guess the strange decisions of the ‘real’ panel, the foolhardy volunteers undertook a voyage around the literary world, all in a matter of months…

On our journey around the globe, we started off by eavesdropping on some private conversations in Madrid, before narrowly avoiding trouble with the locals in Naples. A quick flight northwards, and we were in Iceland, traipsing over the snowy mountains and driving around the iconic ring road – with a child in tow. Then it was time to head south to Sweden and Norway, where we had a few drinks (and a lot of soul searching) with a man who tended to talk about himself a lot.

Next, it was off to Germany, where we almost had mussels for dinner, before spending some time with an unusual family on the other side of the wall. After another brief bite to eat in Poland, we headed eastwards to reminisce with some old friends in Russia – unfortunately, the weather wasn’t getting any better.

We finally left the snow and ice behind, only to be welcomed in Baghdad by guns and bombs. Nevertheless, we stayed there long enough to learn a little about the customs involved in washing the dead, and by the time we got to Jerusalem, we were starting to have a bit of an identity crisis…

Still, we pressed on, taking a watery route through China to avoid the keen eye of the family planning officials, finally making it across the sea to Japan. Having arrived in Tokyo just in time to witness a series of bizarre ‘accidents’, we rounded off the trip by going for a drink (or twelve) at a local bar with a strangely well-matched couple – and then it was time to come home 🙂

Of course, there was a method to all this madness, as our journey helped us to eliminate all the pretenders and identify this year’s cream of the crop. And the end result? This year’s winner of the Shadow Independent Foreign Fiction Prize is:

Sorrow AngelsThe Sorrow of Angels by Jón Kalman Stefánsson
(translated by Philip Roughton, published by MacLehose Press)

This was a very popular (and almost unanimous) winner, a novel which stood out amongst a great collection of books. We all loved the beautiful, poetic prose, and the developing relationship between the two main characters – the taciturn giant, Jens, and the curious, talkative boy – was excellently written. Well done to all involved with the book – writer, translator, publisher and everyone else 🙂

Some final thoughts to leave you with…

– Our six judges read a total of 83 books (an average of almost fourteen per person), and ten of the books were read and reviewed by all six of us.
– This was our third year of shadowing the prize and the third time in a row that we’ve chosen a different winner to the ‘experts’.
– After the 2012 Shadow Winner (Sjón’s From the Mouth of the Whale), that makes it two wins out of three for Iceland – Til hamingju!
– There is something new about this year’s verdict – it’s the first time we’ve chosen a winner which didn’t even make the ‘real’ shortlist…

Stu, Tony, Jacqui, David, Bellezza and Tony would like to thank everyone out there for all their interest and support over the past few months – rest assured we’re keen to do it all over again next year 🙂

You can read Jacqui’s guest review of The Sorrow of Angels here, and find the main index of my 2014 IFFP posts here.

#IFFP2014 guest post: Jacqui on The Sorrow of Angels

Time for another IFFP guest review from my fellow shadow-juror Jacqui Patience. Last month, Jacqui looked at Ma Jian’s The Dark Road; now it’s The Sorrow of Angels by Jón Kalman Stefánsson. Of course, now the shortlists are out, we know that Stefánsson’s book made it on to the shadow shortlist but not the official one; I’m sad not to see it in the actual final six, as it has been one of the discoveries of the shadowing process for me.I’d go so far as to say that The Sorrow of Angels is the best written/translated book on the longlist; I’m still unsure what I think of the novel overall, but there’s a re-read to come before the shadow shortlisting.

Anyway, enough from me; here’s Jacqui…


Sorrow of AngelsThe Sorrow of Angels by Jón Kalman Stefánsson
Translated from the Icelandic by Philip Roughton

Jón Kalman Stefánsson’s The Sorrow of Angels is the second volume in a trilogy that began with Heaven and Hell (published in 2011). Set in a small fishing village in 19th-century Iceland, a place that feels close to the end of the world, the story opens with the arrival of Postman Jens in the community; he’s in a bad way, battered by the bitter wind and snow, almost frozen solid on his horse. After a short recovery, Jens is challenged by Sigurður (the local doctor and someone with considerable influence) to cover another postal route. The terrain is treacherous, ‘likely hellish after constant snowfall, relentless wind, only to be ventured by highly experienced travellers’ and our man is unfamiliar with the area. If Jens fails to deliver the post on time, his job will be at risk; if he succeeds, it strengthens his position against the doctor and there is no love lost between these two. Jens quickly accepts the mission, the prospect of getting one over on Sigurður being too tempting to resist.

However, the central character in The Sorrow of Angels is the boywho, some quick research tells me, is the main protagonist in the earlier book Heaven and Hell. The boy, unnamed throughout, is dispatched to accompany Jens on his perilous journey to transport the mail in good time. The postman is afraid of the sea and would never make it alone over the fjord that forms the initial leg of their course. He needs someone with him who can ‘row him over, keep a decent pace with him on the trek’.

By now we’re about one-third of the way into the novel and it’s at this point that the narrative really kicks in for me. The expedition itself plays out over the remaining 200 pages and we follow the pair as they battle through blizzards and incessant winds, struggling to survive everything the environment seems determined to throw their way:

The snow piles up on them, they keep going, step-by-step, cold but undefeated. Then Jens falls for the fifth time. Perhaps because the land has started to rise; not much, but enough. It snows and snow blows over them, blows down from the mountain in enormous amounts, blows violently, it’s nearly impossible to breathe and Jens gropes feebly for the postal trumpet, tries to free it from his shoulder and hand it to the boy, opens his mouth to say something but his tongue is frozen, because first it’s words that freeze, then life. (pgs 139-140)

They forge ahead in their endeavour to deliver the mail. The occasional isolated farmhouse offers a brief respite from the elements and some welcome, if meagre, nourishment. It’s a world where visitors are few and far between, where the kindness of strangers is everything, where small gestures speak volumes:

The boy gulps his coffee to burn off the fatigue; he would have preferred to sleep longer, Jens sits with his head bowed but looks up when Jakobina returns with flatbread and butter; she’s tall, her movements are strong and graceful, her brown eyes meet those of the postman, she places the tray between them, brushing as if by accident, Jens’ hand, which rests solidly on the table. A hand that touches another hand in this way is saying something; Jens knows this but dares not respond. (pg 201)

Alongside their physical struggle to survive, there are other journeys taking place, other battles being fought. Jens, sullen and uncommunicative, is deep in thought wrestling with his feelings for Salvör, a woman who has experienced darkness in her past. He knows he should open his heart and express his feelings to her, otherwise he risks losing a chance to find contentment. But so far he’s been unable to commit.

The boy, meanwhile, is trying to anchor himself following the loss of loved ones. As an adolescent, he’s also grappling with new emotions and thoughts of Ragnheiður, a girl from the fishing village, flicker through his mind. Keen to talk, the boy probes Jens about the cause of his soul-searching.

During their journey Jens and the boy develop an understated, yet heartfelt, bond. They come dangerously close to losing one another on more than one occasion, but Jens remains mindful of the need to take care of his young companion. Up on the heaths and mountains, the space between life and death seems very narrow as we become acutely aware of the fragility of life.

Night is surely approaching and death is surely approaching, that invisible being, constantly lurking, stealing jewels, hoarding rubbish, doesn’t turn up its nose at anything, and sends fatigue, cold, hopelessness and surrender out ahead, four savage dogs that sniff out anything living in blind storms. (pg 181)

The Sorrow of Angels is a spellbinding novel, beautifully written in a lyrical, poetic style. Everything seems to flow effortlessly, from Stefánsson’s luminous prose through to Philip Roughton’s excellent translation. Stefánsson creates an ethereal, almost otherworldly atmosphere in this novel and it vividly captures man’s struggle with the adversities of life.

The publisher’s notes indicate that all parts of this trilogy can be read independently. However, having read The Sorrow of Angels, I do wish I’d had the time to start with Heaven and Hell before embarking on part two of the trilogy. I just felt a little disorientated at the beginning of the narrative and I’m sure I missed some of the nuances and subtleties in the interplay between characters in the village community.  That said, I’ve read thirteen of the fifteen books longlisted for this year’s IFFP and The Sorrow of Angels is most certainly in my top three. I’m delighted to see it in our shadow-group shortlist and the closing scenes left me yearning for the next part in the trilogy. And of course I shall have to go back and read Heaven and Hell to fill in those gaps.

The Sorrow of Angels is published in the UK by MacLehose Press.

Source: library copy.


Read more reviews of The Sorrow of Angels by the shadow IFFP jury: Tony’s Reading List; Messenger’s Booker; Dolce Bellezza.

Read Jacqui’s other IFFP reviews: Brief Loves that Live ForeverButterflies in NovemberA Man in LoveA Meal in WinterRevengeStrange Weather in TokyoTen; The Dark Road; The Mussel Feast; Back to Back;.

This post is part of a series on the 2014 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.

#IFFP2014: the shortlist

After the shadow jury’s shortlist comes the actual one:

  • The Iraqi Christ by Hassan Blasim (tr. Jonathan Wright)
  • Strange Weather in Tokyo by Hiromi Kawakami (tr. Allison Markin Powell)
  • A Man in Love by Karl Ove Knausgaard (tr. Don Bartlett)
  • A Meal in Winter by Hubert Mingarelli (tr. Sam Taylor)
  • Revenge by Yoko Ogawa (tr. Stephen Snyder)
  • The Mussel Feast by Birgit Vanderbeke (tr. Jamie Bulloch)

I find this fascinating: any juried shortlist is of course the product of a consensus, but it’s rare that we get to see the consensuses of two different groups of people about the same set of books side by side. What’s so striking to me is that both shortlists have a strong aesthetic coherence, yet are so very different.

Generally, the shadow shortlist leans towards big, authoritative voices; think of Marías’ dense, essayistic style; or Stefánsson’s storm-lashed prose. In contrast, the overriding aesthetic of the official shortlist is quieter (one might say subtler): Ogawa’s menacing sideways view of reality, for example, or Mingarelli’s starkness. (It’s interesting, too, to consider how the two books in common, Knausgaard and Vanderbeke, change when viewed through the different lenses of each list.) We end up with two equally valid, but nicely idiosyncractic, takes on the IFFP longlist.

(If you’re wondering, my own personal shortlist would be somewhere between the two: Kawakami, Makine, Marias, Ogawa, Stefansson, and Vanderbeke. What can I say, I like both aesthetics.)

So, what should win? For me, the three best books on the official shortlist are those by women, and it would come down to Ogawa or Vanderbeke; I think both of those stand a good chance of actually winning. We’ll find out whether I’m right when the IFFP announcement is made on 22 May.

This post is part of a series on the 2014 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.

#IFFP2014: the shadow jury's shortlist

The scores are in, the numbers have been crunched, and the shadow IFFP jury has a shortlist. Here it is:

  • The Corpse Washer by Sinan Antoon (tr. the author)
  • A Man in Love by Karl Ove Knausgaard (tr. Don Bartlett)
  • Brief Loves that Live Forever by Andreï Makine (tr. Geoffrey Strachan)
  • The Infatuations by Javier Marías (tr. Margaret Jull Costa)
  • The Sorrow of Angels by Jón Kalman Stefánsson (tr. Philip Roughton)
  • The Mussel Feast by Birgit Vanderbeke (tr. Jamie Bulloch)

I think we have an interesting list there, with some good books (you can see my reviews by clicking on the links above). Now we on the shadow jury will be re-reading the books we’ve chosen, with a view to selecting our shadow ‘winner’. I’d like to thank my fellow shadowers: Stu, Tony Malone, Jacqui, Tony Messenger, and Bellezza; it’s been a fascinating and highly enjoyable journey, and I look forward to the next stage.

There’s just one more thing: the actual IFFP shortlist, which will be announced tomorrow. Check back here then to see how close (or not!) it is to ours.

This post is part of a series on the 2014 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.

#IFFP2014 guest post: @JacquiWine on The Dark Road

Today I have a guest post from the one member of the IFFP shadow jury who doesn’t have their own blog, Jacqui Patience (@JacquiWine on Twitter). Various blogs (including Winston’s Dad, Tony’s Reading List, and The Writes of Woman) have been hosting Jacqui’s thoughts on the longlisted titles (see the end of this post for links); and now she’s been kind enough to visit Follow the Thread, with a review of Ma Jian’s The Dark Road. So, without further ado, I’ll hand you over to Jacqui…


Dark RoadThe Dark Road by Ma Jian 

Translated from the Chinese by Flora Drew

The infant spirit sees Mother sitting on the edge of her bed, her hand clutching her swollen belly, her legs trembling with fear…

Meili rest her hands on her pregnant belly and feels the fetus’s heartbeat thus like a watch beneath a pillow. The heavy banging on the compound gate grows louder, the dim light bulb hanging from the ceiling sways. The family planning officers have come to get me, she says to herself. She raises her feet from the basin of warm water in which they’ve been soaking, hides under her quilt and waits for the gate to be forced open. (pg. 1)

That’s the opening section of Ma Jian’s latest novel The Dark Road. The subject is shocking and deeply disturbing as it tackles issues raised by China’s state-enforced one-child policy. Set in relatively recent times in the provinces along the Yangtze, the novel tells the story of a young woman, Meili, and her family. Meili, born into a simple peasant family, is married to Kongzi, a rather stubborn schoolteacher and direct descendant of Confucius (76th generation Kong). They have a two-year-old daughter, Nannan, but Kongzi is desperate for a son and heir to maintain the family line; daughters serve little purpose in this respect:

My brother has no sons, so it’s my responsibility to continue the family line. Our daughters will join their husbands’ family when they marry, and their names won’t be recorded in the Kong register. So they serve no purpose to us. (pg.34)

Family planning officers are combing the villages, implementing a regime of draconian measures including enforced abortions and sterilisations – any pregnant woman who doesn’t have a birth permit is given an immediate abortion together with a 10,000-yuan fine. It’s an environment where threatening slogans cry out from walls at almost every turn:


After the first child: an IUD. After the second child: sterilisation. Pregnant with a third or fourth? The fetus will be killed, killed, killed (pg. 32)


The state’s birth control policies dictate that a couple in Kongzi and Meili’s situation can have a second child once their daughter turns five, but Meili falls pregnant too soon, two or three years before her permitted time. While Meili has been able to conceal the early stages of her pregnancy, the couple are forced to go on the run fearing for the safety of their unborn child.

The story then follows the family as they journey down the ‘Dark Road’ of the Yangtze and Gui rivers on a boat, attempting to evade the authorities in the process. They join a world of migrant workers — many of whom are also fleeing from a similar threat — as they head towards Heaven Township. For Meili, this destination represents a glimmer of light on the horizon; it’s the one place where ‘you can live in complete freedom…no one checks how many children you have’. (p 27)

The Dark Road depicts a world where women suffer repeated acts of horrific cruelty.  Scenes of enforced abortion are described in merciless and brutal detail. In the following passage, the police discover a woman heavily pregnant with her third child as she hides in the reeds near a reservoir:

The wife was dragged to the school, where family planning officers strapped her to a wooden desk and injected two shots into her abdomen. The aborted fetus is now lying at Kong Qing’s feet in a plastic basin. It has its father’s flat nose and small eyes. Scraps of amniotic fluid are still stuck to its black hair. (pg 7-8)

It’s unflinching stuff, stark in its portrayal of the sheer savagery of abuse forced upon these families by the authorities.

Once I get going, I rarely abandon a book. But in all honesty, if it weren’t for my involvement in the IFFP shadow group, I would have been quite close to bailing on The Dark Road at the 75-page mark. That’s not to say it’s a bad book; it’s well-written, the main characters and their environment are vividly painted and I admire Jian for the way he’s used fiction to expose these atrocities. But this is a book suffused with tragic encounters and shocking acts of brutality, all of which makes for a very distressing and heart-wrenching read. The only rays of hope here are Meili’s determination and her desire to seek a better life for her family…and that’s what spurred me on to finish reading this one.

While researching and writing The Dark Road, Jian posed as an official reporter to gain access to family planning offices and hospitals where forced abortions and sterilisations are carried out. He also lived as a vagrant to experience life among those on the run from the consequences of China’s one-child policy. Jian has clearly drawn on this experience to great effect in his uncompromising depiction of the horrors that haunt this corner of the world.

Finally, turning to The Dark Road’s chances as a contender for the IFFP, Ma Jian is a well-respected writer and considered one of China’s leading dissident voices. It’s a book that tackles an unpalatable topic and many of its images will linger in the mind long after the last page is turned.  Even though it’s not one of my personal favourites from this year’s longlist, I wouldn’t be surprised if it progresses to the next stage…we shall see when the shortlist appears on 8th April.

The Dark Road is published in the UK by Chatto & Windus.

Source: library copy.


Read more reviews of The Dark Road by the shadow IFFP jury: Dolce Bellezza; Winston’s Dad; Tony’s Reading List;

Read Jacqui’s other IFFP reviews: Brief Loves that Live Forever; Butterflies in NovemberA Man in Love; A Meal in Winter; RevengeStrange Weather in Tokyo; Ten.

This post is part of a series on the 2014 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.

#IFFP2014: Ogawa, Knausgaard, Mingarelli

Yoko Ogawa, Revenge (1998)
Translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder (2013)

RevengeI’ve read two of Yoko Ogawa’s books previously (see my thoughts on Hotel Iris and The Diving Pool); each time, I have been struck by how she anatomises the dark psyches of her characters. Revenge is a little different: a collection of eleven linked stories, it unsettles more through the overall effect of the tales as a composite.

Revenge begins with ‘Afternoon at the Bakery’, whose narrator goes to buy two strawberry shortcakes; a conversation with someone from the neighbouring shop reveals that the narrator is doing this in memory of her six-year-old son, whom she found dead in a refrigerator. This is how Ogawa’s stories work: mundane details are shown to have dark, sometimes even absurd, underpinnings.

‘Afternoon at the Bakery’ ends with its narrator discovering a young woman crying in the bakery’s kitchen.  This young woman reappears in the second tale’s, ‘Fruit Juice’, when she invites that story’s narrator, a boy from her school, to go with her as moral support to a meal with the father she is about to meet for the first time. Strawberry cake is served is served at this meal; by story’s end, we not only know why the young woman is crying as she sits in her kitchen, we also anticipate with dismay what her reaction to the current customer’s order is likely to be.

As Ogawa’s collection continues, more links emerge between the stories: at first, isolated details reappear; then characters seem to recur (the identities of some remain sketchy, so you can’t be entirely sure whether or not character X mentioned in one story is also character Y from another); one story in Revenge may appear to be fictional in the reality of another; images and events are repeated or echoed in strange new contexts. The relative straightforwardness of Ogawa’s prose (and Stephen Snyder’s effectively matter-of-fact translation) only heightens the sense of being caught up in a world where it’s uncertain which is worse: the thought that all the details of reality won’t cohere, or the thought that they might. Revenge is one of those story collections that works, and is best appreciated, as a complete whole; it’s also one that stays in the mind long after reading.

Karl Ove Knausgaard, A Man in Love: My Struggle, Book 2 (2009)
Translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett (2013)

Knausgaard 2Where Volume 1 of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle focused on its author’s adolescence and reaction to his father’s death, Volume 2 chronicles the period when Knausgaard left his first wife and moved to Sweden, where he fell in love with Linda, and examines his life as a husband and father. Reading A Man in Love has been a strange experience because, while the general palette of the first book remains – the dense treatment of everyday minutiae, punctuated by reflections on life and art – some quality that made A Death in the Family feel transcendent to me is missing.

Knausgaard takes up his key concerns from the first volume: that he feels preoccupied by the business of everyday life when what he really wants (needs) to do is write; and that he is more deeply moved by contemplating art and the natural world than by those closest to him. In this volume, he also talks more about how fatherhood affects his sense of masculinity; feeling constrained by Swedish society; and how the heady rush of falling in love with Linda didn’t last.

Don Barlett’s translation is as fine as ever, but A Man in Love doesn’t touch me as deeply as its predecessor did. When I read A Death in the Family, I could feel the clash of Knausgaard’s emotions rising off the page; with this book, that clash is still on the page, but it stays there. To me, A Death in the Family felt like something that Knausgaard needed to write in order to work through that part of his life; A Man in Love is good enough as far as it goes, but doesn’t have that same sense of urgency.

Hubert Mingarelli, A Meal in Winter (2012)
Translated from the French by Sam Taylor (2013)

Meal in WinterHubert Mingarelli is a prolific author in his native France, but A Meal in Winter is the first of his books to appear in English. It’s a novella narrated by one of three German guards who are sent out to retrieve an escaped Jewish prisoner. On their way back to the prison camp, the guards and their captive stop off in an abandoned house, and start to prepare a meal of soup. When a Pole walking past the house also seeks shelter, his raw anti-Semitism leads the guards to question what they’re about to do.

With A Meal in Winter being so short, the stage is set for a tight, intense piece of fiction. In some ways, this is exactly what we get: Mingarelli strips out most of the historical detail, thereby closing the distance between reader and book. The characters’ world is not ‘World War Two’ understood as a period of history; their world is this journey, this landscape, this house, and we are there with them.

It doesn’t seem quite right, though, to say that we come to empathise with the guards as the novella progresses. It’s more that we see the contours of their worldview, and how that is challenged by their experiences; empathy at a further remove, perhaps. But I can’t shake the feeling that the full intensity of this situation doesn’t quite come through the sparseness of Mingarelli’s prose (or Sam Taylor’s translation). For me, A Meal in Winter is almost there… but only almost.


What of these books’ chances on the IFFP shortlist? Even though the Knausgaard disappointed me, I will be extremely surprised if it doesn’t make the shortlist (though I don’t expect it to be my preferred winner). I would be happy to see Ogawa’s book on the shortlist, and suspect it has a good chance. The Mingarelli, I don’t know: it didn’t really work well enough for me to want to see it shortlisted, but it has been better received in the reviews I’ve seen, so it may just be a book that didn’t click with me.

This post is part of a series on the 2014 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.

#IFFP2014: Javier Marías and Andreï Makine

Javier Marías, The Infatuations (2012)
Translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa

Andreȉ Makine, Brief Loves that Live Forever (2011)
Translated from the French by Geoffrey Strachan (2013)

My first IFFP titles are both by veteran authors whom I’m reading here for the first time.

InfatuationsJavier Marías’ The Infatuations is narrated by one María Dolz, who takes breakfast at the same café as an attractive couple who are clearly very much in love; though she doesn’t speak to them, María enjoys being in the same place as them, feels her life is brightened by the simple fact of their happiness. All this is disrupted when the couple stop appearing at the café, and María discovers that the man, a businessman named Miguel Desvern (or Deverne – his family changed their name for their film distribution business; nothing settles into stable certainty here) was murdered. When María later sees the woman of the couple return to the café alone, she introduces herself; she and the woman – Luisa – become fast friends, then María gets to know Javier Díaz-Varela, a museum???friend of Luisa’s. As María becomes more attracted to Díaz-Varela, she has to face not just that he has feelings for Luisa, but that she might not know him at all as well as thinks.

Perhaps Marías’ key concern in The Infatuations is the gap between what can be thought and what can be known. At the start, María watches Luisa and Miguel from afar; she wonders who they might be, though of course she can’t know. Then she tries to imagine what Miguel might have thought before he died, and realises she can’t know that either. The novel is full of its characters’ second-guessing others’ thought processes, or recalling their own thoughts to such a degree of detail that the very amount of information causes us to doubt its truth. The more you think, Marías seems to say, the less you can really know.

But this uncertainty is not confined to thoughts; when Marías’ characters engage in lengthy, discursive speeches, we see that the author’s techniques are distorting the reality of his novel as well, when his characters engage in lengthy, discursive speeches. This creates an interesting contrast between content and style: at the centre of the novel is an act of extreme violence, but the text that surrounds it – that mediates and tries to make sense of it – is still and reflective. In the end, perhaps reflection is all we have; as one character remarks, even the darkest of life’s events will eventually recede and become memories. It is the distinct texture Marías creates from layers of subjectivity (and Margaret Jull Costa has done a superb job of conveying this texture through her translation) that makes The Infatuations for me.


Brief Loves‘The fatal mistake that we make is looking for a paradise that endures,’ says the unnamed narrator of Andreȉ Makine’s Brief Loves that Live Forever, pointing towards the central theme of this novel: that the things which last in life are actually the fleeting moments, the memories and experiences. Makine (a Russian author who writes in French) guides us through key moments in his protagonist’s life, when the narrator experienced a transitory instance of love, which has nonetheless stayed with him: seeing a girl run into the arms of the grandmother she’s never met, for example; or a summer affair by the Black Sea.

Alongside this are glimpses of Brezhnev’s Soviet Union, often represented by structures which are ignored or decaying (or both): the grandstand for a parade, which is soon emptied; an factory bearing a slogan that claims permanence but goes unnoticed; perhaps most striking of all, a giant orchard that was intended to make a statement, but not to be harvested. These structures may pass into ruin, but the emotions experienced in their shadow remain.

The interplay between these two aspects lies at the heart of Makine’s novel, and leaves its mark on our narrator: though he sees flaws in the Soviet project, he has not entirely discarded it by the time of perestroika; but it’s not that he clings to the old times so much as he recognises that they have provided the context for the life he has lived Makine’s prose and Geoffrey Strachan’s translation are elegant, and the novel’s reflections on love and history insightful; all adds up to a fine short novel.


What about these books as contenders for the IFFP? They strike me as well-made mid- to late-career novels, but not as the kind of major work that I’d want to see winning an award like the IFFP. I admired, enjoyed, and would recommend both books; but, at the same time, I suspect they are not the best that their respective authors have written. So I could see either of these novels making the shortlist, but I’d hope for more from a potential winner.

This post is part of a series on the 2014 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.

Reading project: #IFFP2014

This year, I’m taking part in the shadow jury for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. The IFFP is given to a UK-published work of fiction in translation (with the prize split equally between author and translator). The shadow jury, organised by Stu from Winston’s Dad, is a group of bloggers/tweeters who read and review the IFFP longlist, then select their own shortlist and ‘winner’. I’m really excited at the prospect of joining in.

The IFFP longlist was announced yesterday; so, without further ado, here it is:

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

(Details taken from the Independent.)

I’ve read only three of these, so I can’t say a lot at the moment; but this certainly seems a nicely diverse selection. Ten languages represented, three short story collections, and a third of the titles by women (which is higher than the proportion among UK-published translated fiction as a whole).

The official IFFP shortlist will be announced on 8 April, and the winner on 22 May. So how am I going to tackle the reading in that time? I’ll start with the books I haven’t read (though I do hope to re-read the others as well); current plan is to blog two books per post, around 300 words each, but that’s not set in stone. I will use the list above as an index of reviews; I’ve already reviewed Exposure and The Mussel Feast, but I’ll revisit them if time allows.

Finally let me introduce you to the other members of the shadow jury:

Winston’s Dad

Tony’s Reading List

Dolce Bellezza

Utter Biblio

Messengers Booker (and more)


There’s also this post at The Mookse and the Gripes, which is tracking reviews of the longlisted titles.

OK, I think that’s everything: time to start reading…

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