Independent Foreign Fiction Prize Winner 1996

With the long list for the International Booker Prize of 2021 announced a few days ago, it seems only appropriate to finally reveal the winner of the missing Independent Foreign Fiction Prize of twenty-five years previously. This was a project I began back in the UK’s first lockdown in March last year, attempting to discover which books might have made it onto a 1996 long list (the prize itself was in abeyance between 1996 and 2000). In July I announced the long list:

In the Hold by Vladimir Arsenijevic, translated from the Serbian by Celia Hawkesworth (Harvill Press)

Your Name Shall Be Tanga by Calixthe Beyala, translated from the French by Marjolijn de Jager (Heinemann African Writers Series)

The Pyramid by Ismail Kadare, translated by David Bellos from the French version of Albanian by Jusuf Vrioni (Harvill Press)

Slowness by Milan Kundera, translated from the French by Linda Asher (Faber and Faber)

Death in the Andes by Mario Vargas Llosa, translated from the Spanish by Edith Grossman (Faber and Faber)

The Gardens of Light by Amin Maalouf, translated from the French by Dorothy S Blair (Quartet Books)

Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me by Javier Marias, translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa (Harvill Press)

The Trap by Ana Maria Matute, translated from the Spanish by Maria Jose de la Camara and Robert Nugent (Latin American Literary Review Press)

Hypnotism Made Easy by Marie Nimier, translated from the French by Sophie Hawkes (Angela Royal Publishing)

Nevermore by Marie Redonnet, translated from the French by Jordan Stump (University of Nebraska Press)

The History of the Siege of Lisbon by Jose Saramago, translated from the Portuguese by Giovanni Pontiero (Harvill Press)

The Emigrants by W. G. Sebald, translated from the German by Michele Hulse (Harvill Press)

Although I largely stuck with the rules of the prize (altering the timeframe slightly by including anything published within the calendar year of 1996 rather than April to April) I eventually had to include two US published titles to ensure at least four women writers were present. The list was also far more Eurocentric than I would have liked with only three writers originating from elsewhere. It features an unusually high proportion of writers who were then, or are now, regarded as world class, including two Nobel Prize winners: Kadare, Kundera, Vargas Llosa, Marias, Saramago and Sebald are all unarguably major names. Perhaps too predictably, I would have certainly placed four of them on any short list, discounting Kadare and Saramago as I felt in each case these were weaker works. The final two places would have gone to Amin Maalouf and (my discovery during the judging) Marie Redonnet.

As for a winner, it finally came down to one of two books:

Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me by Javier Marias, translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa (Harvill Press)

The Emigrants by W. G. Sebald, translated from the German by Michele Hulse (Harvill Press)

Both Marias and Sebald are unique stylists. One might even argue they have a lot in common in their circuitous, meandering narratives where plot plays only a minor role, and their concerns with identity, choices and loss. Today, of course, they feel like established writers, but The Emigrants was Sebald’s first book to be translated into English and Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me was Marias’ third. Sebald later won the prize (posthumously) in 2002 with Austerlitz; Marias has only ever made it as far as the short list, with Your Face Tomorrow 2: Dance and Dream in 2007. Ultimately, as my review shows, there were elements of The Emigrants I found uneven, whereas for me Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me remains among the perfect novels, and so takes this imaginary and entirely meaningless prize.

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6 Responses to “Independent Foreign Fiction Prize Winner 1996”

  1. Tony Says:

    A great choice, and I suspect those two final choices would have been high up on my list, too 🙂

  2. JacquiWine Says:

    Lovely! I have a copy of the Marias on my shelves – very much looking forward to reading it.

  3. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    Very interesting Grant! 😀

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