Book Review - Other worlds, other cultures

The presentation of this year’s Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, in the elegant surroundings of the Royal Institute of British Architects in London, proved as popular as ever and was packed with authors, publishers, journalists, agents and other literary professionals. The award is one of the few to recognise that fiction in translation has to be a successful coalition between author and translator; each gets £5,000 and a magnum of champagne.

The 2010 winner, Broderick’s Report by French novelist Philippe Claudel, translated by John Cullen, was described by Boyd Tonkin, chair of the judging panel, as “a beautiful, sinister and haunting fable of persecution, resistance and survival”. Claudel was published by MacLehose Press, a division of Quercus Books. In fact, five out of the six short-listed titles were published by independent presses, suggesting that it is the smaller, independent publishers – often working on a shoestring – that are keeping international fiction alive in this country. New publishers seem to spring up all the time but inevitably struggle to get the publicity and coverage enjoyed by larger publishing houses and translated fiction became even thinner on the ground in 2009.

But why is contemporary international fiction so important? Perhaps because, like travel, it expands our minds and our hearts. In the words of the late, great travel writer Ryszard Kapuściński: “These other worlds, these other cultures, are  mirrors in which we can see ourselves, thanks to which we understand ourselves better – for we cannot define our own identity until having confronted that of others, as comparison.”

Arabia Books were also on the Foreign Fiction Prize’s shortlist with Rafik Schami’s acclaimed The Dark Side of Love, translated by Anthea Bell.  Robin Yassin-Kassab, writing in the Guardian, suggested that it “may turn out to be the first Great Syrian Novel”.  Arabia aims to publish the best contemporary fiction from the Arabic world but, even with the current interest in the region, they will need all the support they can get to realise their ambition of publishing ten titles a year.

Saqi Books has been at the forefront of publishing books from and about the Middle-East for almost thirty years and has certainly fed most of my reading on the subject.  But fiction often gives a far more detailed portrait of a country or region than non-fiction and Saqi seems to have taken this on board when they diversified and founded Telegram. One title to watch out for from its literary fiction imprint is Three Sisters by Bi Feiyu, one of the most respected authors and screenwriters working in China today, translated by Howard Goldblatt and Sylvia Li-chun Lin.

As a Westerner, how do you begin to know what it was really like to live under Saddam Hussein? Last year, I discovered Aflame Books by way of Thirsty River by Rodaan Al Galidi, translated by Luzette Strauss, which I reviewed for Tribune.  Aflame has been publishing fiction and poetry in English translation since 2005. Thirsty River blends great storytelling with the political – it follows the fortunes of the Bird family from Boran in southern Iraq and provides a refreshingly original take on life under a dictatorship.

I love the ability of foreign fiction to transport you to another world entirely. Dalkey Archive Press has trail-blazed the way with various global translation initiatives. Its Best European Fiction 2010, featuring short stories and extracts from longer works, is a hugely enjoyable and intriguing introduction to some of Europe’s hottest young writers. I am also looking forward to being introduced to the complexities and contradictions of Mozambique by reading The Word Tree by Teolinda Gersão, translated by Margaret Jull Costa and published by Dedalus Press. For fans of crime fiction, Arcadia Books is one of the best in the field for bringing us these works in translation. French novelist Dominique Manotti is a personal favourite in their Euro Crime series.

Just last week, I met Meike Ziervogel, a German writer and journalist living in London, who has recently set up Peirene Press, and is dedicated to publishing contemporary European fiction. What makes Peirene unique is that they only publish books under 200 pages, like the Catalan classic with the enigmatic title, Stone in a Landslide by Maria Barbal, translated by Laura McGlouglin and Paul Mitchell.

Ultimately it is up to us, the readers and fans of international fiction, to ensure that these small courageous presses stay in business. Visit their websites, buy the books and recommend the titles you like.

First published in Tribune, 14 June 2010