In 1990 ‘The Independent’ launched the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize to honour contemporary fiction in translation within the United Kingdom. It only lasted six years before being suspended, however it was revived in 2001 after Arts Council support, with the Award being made in 2002 for a work published in 2001, and in 2011 Booktrust took over the administration of the award, however the “independent” was retained. So we have had nineteen award winners since the award started and to date it has been won by nineteen male writers.
This year four of the final fifteen books were by women, last year it was four as well, however two of them made it to the final six works. It has been a similar tale throughout the history of the award with women sadly under represented. This year the females have a lone work on the shortlist, and it is “The End of Days” by Jenny Erpenbeck (she was longlisted for her book “The Book of Words” in 2008 and made the shortlist in 2011 with “Visitation”), all of her works on the lists being translated by Susan Bernofsky.
Our novel opens with a very small child, just born, taking her last breath and dying. We have the impacted lives voices telling their emotional tales. Due to the premature death, the husband wife relationship cannot bear the strain and they go their own separate ways, him to America:
When it’s his turn, he’s brought into the examination room and told to undress completely. He doesn’t understand the instructions in English, but even after an interpreter translates them for him, he doesn’t move. Have the Americans lost their minds? Or do they really think of it as a second birth when you set foot in their country? In any case, his examinations at the Technical University in Vienna – which certainly weren’t easy – had gone differently.
Come on they say, meaning: Hurry up.
There’s no help for it: More naked than he ever stood before his wife, he must now, like it or not, stand here in the light and present himself to an entire group of doctors. If only you could know in advance where the path you choose freely will lead. His coat and clothing are meanwhile being disinfected, when he gets them back after the examination they are crumpled. Shame, then, is the price one pays for this life of freedom, or is this itself the freedom: that shame no longer matters? Then America really must be Paradise.
This early section deftly plays on your emotions, it draws you into the shattered world of the players, the wife, the husband, the grandmother. It is a world destroyed by a child’s death.
But what if one of the parents had thought to grab a handful of snow and put it on the child’s chest, forcing it to breathe again? The story would be reimagined. Could there be a different outcome?
In between the “Books” (five in number) there is an “Intermezzo” where the story of the child is changed, generally due to a very minor event, causing the whole future of events to be profoundly different (or are they?). Book Two imagines the life of the young girl, but does she die a tragic death as well, only to have an “Intermezzo” and a different sequence of events occurs.
Set in pre-World War Two Vienna, through the War, into Stalin’s Moscow and onto a recent Berlin, this work also addresses Germany through extremely turbulent times. Our longlist this year had a large representation of German works (Daniel Kehlmann’s “F”, Judith Schalansky’s “The Giraffe’s Neck”, Stephanie de Velasco’s debut “Tiger Milk” and Timur Vermes’ “Look Who’s Back”) – possibly too many for my liking, making it a little top heavy for one language and country.
Addressing a raft of human issues, from refugees, to underground meetings, from prostitution, to loving relationships, from birth to death:
A day on which a life comes to an end if still far from being the end of days.
We have references to Goethe, more specifically “Iphigenia”, who was saved from death but not in her homeland. And if I was writing a thesis, I’d probably research that work and the parallel’s here, but I’m not, I’ve got more translated books to read!!!
Book three overs to a detailed explanation of our protagonist (the girl who dies on page one or thereabouts) and her joining the Communist Party of Austria, a reverse explanation whilst she is living in Russia, writing to get her citizenship. What pile will her application end up on, the one for the firing squad? Such random events determining our existence.
Generally I like to put a few different quotes from works into my reviews, however with this work, I believe you need to fall into the flow of the story and the style of the writing as you read it, and to quote sections from later parts would destroy the context and the emotional train that took you there.
Personally I found the clinical Stalinist section a little too removed (so it did as it set out to do???) as each reimagining of a life melds your mood into a different shape and form.
I’m going out on a limb here (or am I???) this book is by far the stand out work of the 2015 official shortlist, and in my mind Erpenbeck will be the first female writer to win the award – about time!!! One from twenty? Hey judges you got a bit of catching up to do!!!
PLEASE NOTE: After publishing this post, it was pointed out to me that there was a “lost” winner of the 2001 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize and it was taken out by a female. The work was “The Alphonse Courrier Affair” by Marta Morazzoni. Although the shortlist was provided to me from a blog (a reliable one at that) this win is probably confirmed by “The Guardian of 13 October 2001” which stated “The Alphonse Courier (sic) Affair, winner of numerous awards, including this year’s Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.”
Therefore may Jenny Erpenbeck become the second female winner of the prize and may she not be “lost” to history.
You do know what that means for this crazy reader, don’t you? I’m going to have to find a copy of Morazzoni’s work and review it!!!
Ohhh- and I’ve updated Wikipedia to reflect the win. No longer a “lost” winner.