Archive for the ‘Independent Foreign Fiction Prize 2013’ Category

Independent Foreign Fiction Prize 2013

March 5, 2013

The long- list for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize was announced on Saturday as follows:

The Detour, by Gerbrand Bakker; tr from the Dutch by David Colmer
Bundu, by Chris Barnard; tr. from the Afrikaans by Michiel Heyns
HHhH, by Laurent Binet; tr. from the French by Sam Taylor
Trieste, by Dasa Drndic; tr. from the Croatian by Ellen Elias-Bursac
Cold Sea Stories, by Pawel Huelle; tr. from the Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones
The Murder of Halland, by Pia Juul; tr. from the Danish by Martin Aitken
The Fall of the Stone City, by Ismail Kadare; tr. from the Albanian by John Hodgson
In Praise of Hatred, by Khaled Khalifa; tr. from the Arabic by Leri Price
A Death in the Family, by Karl Ove Knausgaard; tr. from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett
Satantango, by Laszlo Krasznahorkai; tr. from the Hungarian by George Szirtes
Black Bazaar, by Alain Mabanckou; tr. from the French by Sarah Ardizzone
The Last of the Vostyachs, by Diego Marani; tr. from the Italian by Judith Landry
Traveller of the Century, by Andrés Neuman; tr. from the Spanish by Nick Caistor & Lorenza Garcia
Silent House, by Orhan Pamuk; tr. from the Turkish by Robert Finn
The Sound of Things Falling, by Juan Gabriel Vásquez; tr. from the Spanish by Anne McLean
Dublinesque, by Enrique Vila-Matas; tr. from the Spanish by Rosalind Harvey & Anne McLean

This year I’ve read a grand total of three of the books already:

Trieste
The Fall of the Stone City
Dublinesque (unfortunatley no review for this)

Four of the books are also on the long-list for the Best Translated Book Award: A Death in the Family (published in the US as My Struggle); Santantango; Traveller of the Century; and Dublinesque.

As last year, I intend to read as many as I can, although this does tend to favour the shorter texts – unfortunate as I would imagine that Traveller of the Century must be one of the front-runners. I may just have to hope it makes it to the short-list next month!

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The Fall of the Stone City

December 5, 2012

stone city2

For his latest novel to appear in English (the original is a recent 2008) Ismail Kadare has returned to the city of his birth, Gjirokaster. He has written about Gjirokaster before, most notably in Chronicle in Stone which was first published in 1971. In that novel Kadare describes its history of occupation:

“At dusk the city, which through the centuries had appeared on maps as a possession of the Romans, the Normans, the Byzantines, the Turks, the Greeks, and the Italians, now watched darkness fall as part of the German empire.”

The end of Chronicle in Stone and the opening of The Fall of the Stone City almost exactly coincide: Gjirokaster comes under German occupation after the withdrawal of the Italians during the Second World War. Similar events occur (presumably based on what actually happened) – the German convoy is attacked by partisans, they in turn attack the city, and an unknown person waves a white flag to end that attack. In Chronicle in Stone it is described as follows:

“No-one ever found who it was that rose up like a ghost over the city only to sink back down into the abyss after waving that white something at the Germans.”

The Fall of the Stone City tells us, “One of the inhabitants had apparently waved a white sheet from a roof top, nobody could tell exactly where.” The novel goes on to take us through the rest of the war culminating in a further occupation by Soviet troops and ending with the death of Stalin in 1953.

The novel is largely concerned with a mysterious dinner party which takes place shortly after the German invasion. The German commander is invited to the house of an old university friend, Big Doctor Gurameto who convinces him to release the hostages taken after the partisan attack. He is ‘Big’ Dr Gurameto because there is also a Little Dr Gurameto:

“Although they bore the same surname they had no family connection and had it not been for medicine their destinies would surely never have been entwined; still less would they have acquired the labels ’big’ and ‘little’, which created a relationship between them that doubtless neither desired.”

This tells us something about the tone of the novel which is written from a communal viewpoint, almost as if by the city itself. Despite its often dark subject matter there is a lightness to it; not the lightness of humour but an off-handedness that suggests a nodding acquaintance with a malicious fate. The two doctors (the other doctor has no real impact in the novel’s plot; although arrested at the same time as ‘Big’ Dr Gurameto, the other “seemed to have evaporated like a ghost in front of their eyes”) become part of a wider concern with identity. The city itself has no clear identity: a large Greek population sits alongside its Albanians; some support the German occupiers, others await Communist liberation. Later it transpires that the German commander was not in fact an old friend of Dr Gurameto, but someone impersonating him for reasons which are never established.

This is revealed in the third and final part when the Soviet-backed state police arrest and torture Gurameto: how did he convince the Germans to release the hostages? That the torture takes place in a dungeon created one hundred and fifty years before by an Ottoman prince suggests the inevitability of it all. (Kadare also has retired Ottoman judges offering their services to every new regime). This is the novel’s strongest section as Kadare reveals the workings of the interrogators with great skill and one of them, Shaqo Menzini, is probably the most realised character in the novel.

By its very nature the novel can seem slightly sketchy. It delivers history in broad sweeps and its characters (including the central character of Dr Gurameto) seem only to matter as they intersect with the plot. The narrative voice itself is deliberately distancing, and no explanation is ever delivered for the events at the dinner party on the 16th September 1943. However, what Kadare offers us is a fascinating insight into war mentality, a mentality that continued into the cold war across Eastern Europe. As with all Kadare’s recent novels, there are no easy answers to these questions of the past.

Trieste

September 10, 2012

Trieste by Croatian writer Dasa Drndic is a novel about family. This is demonstrated visually (in a novel that is also scattered with photographs) as early as pages 6 and 7 when we encounter the family tree of the main character, Haya Tedeschi. The early part of the novel takes us through her family’s experiences, beginning prior to the First World War, but this is really background for its main concern, the Second World War and the Holocaust. Family, then, is more important than ever before, particularly for a Catholicized Jew like Haya.

She exists in a limbo throughout. Initially this is created by her vague grasp of her own identity which allows her to have an affair with a German officer, Kurt Franz, in Italy, but then suffer for it as a result of her Jewish background. Not only is she abandoned by Franz, but her son is taken from her as part of Himmler’s Lebensborn programme to promote Aryan children. This creates a second limbo as she waits for years for any information on what happened to the child. throughout Drndic paints a damning picture of almost all involved: not only those who ran the concentration camps, many of whom seem to have suffered little in the way of punishment, but the Catholic Church, the Red Cross, and those who guarded the records of the Nazi regime after the war.

This is a novel that tells more than the story of a character – indeed so much of it is factual that it may well be the case that no part of it is fiction. Drndic uses a number of techniques to achieve her aim of presenting truth in a way that goes beyond the normal parameters of literature: not only by including the photographs already mentioned, but also by utilising a series of voices. These include testaments from both Nazis officers and camp inmates. Not all are literal as a number of them end in a declaration of death (“Later I am killed in Warsaw, in 1943”), but this does not alter their effectiveness. Some are presented as question and answer, as if in court.

The novel also contains a 44 page list of all the Jews who were either killed in Italy or deported, and a section presenting brief biographies of many of the Nazis involved in this. Drndic questions everything. Why did the Red Cross feed Jews travelling through Switzerland on German trains but, though aware they were going to their death, did nothing to prevent this? Why did the Catholic Church seek to protect Nazi war criminals? Why was it made so difficult to obtain access to Nazi records after the war? In particular, the novel still has the power to shock in two main ways. Firstly in the inhuman cruelty of those involved in the movement and murder of Jews. As one camp inmate says:

“One simply could not grasp that it was possible – extermination.”

Secondly, and perhaps more surprisingly, the way in which many of those responsible remained unpunished, or were given very lenient sentences. – a large number were not even tried until the 1960s.

Of course, it is possible to argue that there have already been very many books about the Holocaust and that perhaps it is time for writers to move on. Reading this, however, you can’t help but feel that that will never be the case.