x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Foreign literature makes its mark

The Independent Foreign Fiction Prize shines the spotlight on contemporary authors who don't write in English, offering a chance for wider exposure in the international market.

The Nobel Prize-winning Turkish author Orhan Pamuk.
The Nobel Prize-winning Turkish author Orhan Pamuk.

Literary prizes are often regarded as self-serving: a cabal of authors and publishers celebrate the artistic merits of their marginalised work over a nice lunch, while the rest of us enjoy the bestsellers.

Certainly, the coverage these prizes receive in the newspapers regularly bears little relation to the number of people who end up reading the winning books. But The Independent Foreign Fiction Prize is different because, every year, it shines the spotlight on contemporary authors who don't write in English and whose only chance for wider exposure is to be recognised on the prize circuit.

Of course, the caveat is that the IFFP only celebrates fiction translated into English in the past year - so it can't quite be the definitive snapshot of world fiction it would like to be. Still, it was cheering to find the Syrian-German Rafik Schami's brilliant The Dark Side of Love on the shortlist last year. It gave a real boost to Arabia Books, which dedicates itself to publishing the most exciting contemporary fiction from the Arab world. While it was surprising that no books translated from Arabic were recognised for the 2011 prize, the shortlist, announced last week, still covers writing from Turkey, Peru, Venezuela, Norway, Germany and Argentina.

Ironically, despite the judge Boyd Tonkin's laudable talk of exciting new voices from across the world, the shortlist contains one of the most recognised "foreign" language authors of our times. The Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk's tale of forbidden love in a changing Istanbul, The Museum of Innocence, immediately became hot favourite to win the prize awarded in June. But even Pamuk has recently bemoaned the English-speaking world's dominance in literature. "For those writing in other languages, their work is rarely translated and never read," he said at the Jaipur literary festival earlier this year. "So much of human experience is marginalised."

The experience, then, of Norway's Per Petterson might help brighten Pamuk's mood, should they find a common language on the night of the awards ceremony in May. Winning both the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award and the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2006 for his outstanding novel Out Stealing Horses was the trigger for international success. Shortlisted this year for I Curse the River of Time, in which a thirtysomething attempts to make sense of life in 1989 as his marriage crumbles and his mother is diagnosed with cancer, Petterson is a success story of which the IFFP can be proud.

The Peruvian writer Santiago Roncaglio can also testify to the wider importance of snaffling a well-regarded literary award. The novel for which he is shortlisted - Red April - was admittedly the winner of the Alfaguara Prize for Spanish literature way back in 2006. But the wait has been worth it; this is a wonderful evocation of Peru beset by bribery, corruption and poor government, framed around a murder investigation.

Staying in South America, the debut from the Venezuelan author and poet Alberto Barrera Tyszka has also been widely recognised in the Spanish-speaking world. The Sickness took the Herralde Prize in 2006 and, reading Margaret Jull Costa's translation, it's not difficult to see why. It's the multifaceted story of an obsessive hypochondriac whose decision to stalk his doctor widens into a subtle, philosophical mortality tale. If that sounds daunting, Tyszka has been called the "Venezuelan Ian McEwan" - The Sickness is perceptive rather than polemical.

It's certainly been South America's year at the IFFP - the Argentine writer, journalist and filmmaker Marcelo Figueras also makes the shortlist for Kamchatka, about a 10-year-old boy in 1970s Buenos Aires whose parents decide to go into hiding when the junta takes control.

Again, this was a book originally published in 2003 - but it proves that the best novels do, eventually, find an audience.

The list is completed by Jenny Erpenbeck's Visitation. At the shortlist announcement, Tonkin called her book "a lyrical vision of German history via a single house and its inhabitants", and if there's an entry that might pip Pamuk to the £10,000 prize, it's hers.

And if it does, the translator Susan Bernofsky will take home half the money. It's a feature of the IFFP that the glory is shared in this way - and rightly so. Good translators need to be encouraged - as do amenable publishers - if Pamuk's dream of wider access to the "human experience" is to be fulfilled.