For only the second time in its 19-year history the International Impac Dublin Literary Award has been won by a Spanish-language work.
Colombian writer Juan Gabriel Vásquez today emerged as the 2014 winner with the third of his novels to appear in English, The Sound of Things Falling, translated by Canadian Anne McLean. Vásquez is also the first South American to win.
The prize is one of the richest in the literary world, at €100,000, and nominations were made by public libraries from around the world.
The win is significant for several reasons. It now brings the tally of winners in translation to eight, as the prize, although open to works written in languages other than English as long as translations are available, has been dominated by English-language writers.
Vásquez (41) studied at the Sorbonne, and in addition to his years in Paris, has also lived in the Ardennes in Belgium and Barcelona, before returning to his birthplace, Bogotá, to settle.
He became internationally established on the publication of his coolly assured, historical thriller The Informers in 2008, which drew on a marginalised Nazi witch hunt as its inspiration. The Secret History of Costaguana (2007; English translation 2010) is the story of an angry man who believes that Joseph Conrad stole his life.
The Sound of Things Falling is a hard-edged narrative influenced by the legacy of drug trafficking in Colombia. It is an emphatically contemporary work, independent of the influence of magical realism that has tended to define Latin American fiction.
In Vásquez’s book, the narrator, Yammara, a young lawyer, becomes seriously wounded when in the company of an acquaintance, a former drugs trafficker. Yammara has other problems, however, and becomes intent on finding out what kind of a man he has become. In order to do so, he must not only examine himself, he must investigate his country’s past.
Chance plays a central part in the story. Adopting the role of a keen anthropologist Vásquez pieces together various events, including two dramatic plane crashes balanced against the image of a hippopotamus escaped from the bizarre zoo created by drug baron Pablo Escobar in the Magdalena Valley.
The photograph of the animal shot dead by captors in 2009 reminded Vásquez of seeing the body of Escobar collapsed on a roof after the shoot out that ended his life.
The range in Spanish literature is extraordinary, and it should have had a far wider Impac presence. Madrid-born Javier Marias won the Impac award with A Heart So White in 1997. It is a long time ago.
This year, Vásquez was one of two short-listed South American writers, the other being Argentinean Andres Neuman, whose operatically ambitious Traveller of the Century is a far showier extravaganza and obvious crowd-pleaser, clinging to the vestiges of magic realism.
Also short-listed was Norwegian Karl Ove Knausgaard's at times hilariously over-wrought international best-seller auto-fiction, A Death in the Family, the 2010 Impac winner, Netherlander Gerbrand Bakker with The Detour, as well as Irish writers Donal Ryan (The Spinning Heart) and David Park (The Light of Amsterdam), Malaysian Tan Twan Eng's 2012 Man Booker contender The Garden of Evening Mists, Californian Patrick Flanery's South African study Absolution, Michelle De Kretser's Questions of Time Travel and Marie NDiaye's Prix Goncourt-winning Three Strong Women.
The question that now remains is who will sponsor the 2015 prize?
Impac 2014 shortlist
The Detour - Gerbrand Bakker
Questions of Travel - Michelle de Kretser
Absolution - Patrick Flanery
A Death in the Family: My Struggle Book 1 - Karl Ove Knausgard
Three Strong Women - Marie NDiaye
Traveller of the Century - Andrés Neuman
The Light of Amsterdam - David Park
The Spinning Heart - Donal Ryan
The Garden of Evening Mists - Twan Eng Tan
The Sound of Things Falling - Juan Gabriel Vásquez