Outstanding longlist, good shortlist

 

This year’s judges of the Impac prize were provided with literary gold-dust in the books selected by library readers – and for the most part, they have produced a shortlist reflecting that quality, writes EILEEN BATTERSBY

SO MANY YEARS on and even the most objective literary prize watcher would concede that the International Impac Dublin Literary Award, now in its 16th year, has earned its place as a serious endorsement of reading and readers. This is, after all, at least initially, a readers’ prize, as it is the readers from an international panel of libraries who make the first step by nominating novels. This year’s longlist of almost 160 novels brought together an exciting range of outstanding international literary fiction, and rarely has a panel of judges, even an Impac panel, been provided with such riches. This had the potential to be the strongest of literary shortlists anywhere and, bearing in mind that the London IndependentForeign Fiction Prize shortlist is invariably breathtakingly astute, any Impac jury enjoys the additional advantage of being able to select fiction translated into English as well as works written in English. Every novel, written in any language but also available in English, has a shot at the Impac. To be a judge must be akin to having a holiday in a chocolate factory.

At first glance, seeing the welcome presence of Dutch debut novelist Gerbrand Bakker’s engagingly wry The Twinon the shortlist, this year’s panel of judges seem deserving of such a privilege. Bakker’s novel is the story of Helmer, whose life has been destroyed by his twin’s death. The day his brother died in a car accident was the day Helmer’s dreams died, and he faced a future spent on the family farm.

This is a novel that, once you read it, you want everyone to share the pleasure. First published in the Netherlandsin 2006, it was one of my books of the year in 2008 when David Colmer’s beautifully perceptive English translation was published by Harvill Secker. I can only thank Bakker for writing the book in the first place, for my good luck in reviewing it and for the readers who sent me cards. It is fitting that a novel like this is on the shortlist – it has ignited a community of readers which grows on each reading because every reader wants to pass on the message of “hey, you have to read this”. It is what fiction’s all about.

The presence of The Twinin the race suggests there is a Kauto Star waiting to emerge as favourite, and if ever there was a popular favourite, here it is.

Another popular and accomplished first novel of recent years, Englishman Ross Raisin’s In God’s Own Country(2008), has also deservingly, made the list. If not quite in the class of The Twin, In God’s Own Countryarticulates, through the heartfelt and often scrambled thoughts of young Sam Marsdyke, all the exasperation and wistful anger of youth. Ten times more convincing, at least in my opinion, than The Catcher in the Rye, this is a book about being young, unhappy and misunderstood. Sam is living in enforced exile on his father’s remote Yorkshire sheep farm when blow-ins from London arrive and everything changes. This is a novel that gave British fiction a much-needed blood transfusion.

If The Twinis the shortlist’s Kauto Star, German Christoph Hein’s The Settlementis the Denman. Hein was previously Impac- shortlisted for Willenbrock, which was published in Frankfurt in 2000 and then in New York in Philip Boehm’s translation in 2003. Willenbrock’s eponymous central character is a used-car dealer in the newly unified Germany, and his story makes a terrific novel, blunt and funny.

This year’s nominee, The Settlementis darker, far more serious and immensely important. The shadowy life and times of an angry displaced person, Bernhard Haber, is reconstructed through the memories of five individuals who once knew him. In the process of discovering more about Haber, whose life was dominated by the stigma of being a post-war refugee – his homeland was given to Poland – the five narrators reveal a great deal about themselves and also about Germany. Published in Frankfurt in 2004, the translation, again by Boehm, was completed for the US edition in 2008. It is a strong book, the kind of novel that the Impac serves so well.

There will be few objections to the inclusion of Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland, a novel that has experienced mixed fortunes. Widely praised – at times excessively, with comparisons even being made to The Great GatsbyNetherlandis accomplished and ambitious. When it appeared on the Man Booker Prize longlist of 2008, it seemed an obvious eventual winner, greatly overshadowing Sebastian Barry’s The Secret Scripture. However, when the shortlist was announced, O’Neill was absent while Barry not only survived but seemed a possible winner. This time, Netherland, a novel that continues to divide opinion, has re-emerged with renewed energy and definite home interest as the only Irish contender, while The Secret Scripturefailed to move beyond the longlist.

EVERY SHORTLIST NEEDSits novel of ideas and French philosopher Muriel Barbery has certainly provided exactly that with her charmingly eccentric meditation, The Elegance of the Hedgehog, which celebrates the allure of information, fact and fancy.

Early in the narrative there is a wonderful confession: “I have read so many books . . . And yet, like most autodidacts, I am never quite sure of what I have gained from them.” Calvino and Borges may well be having fun on the sidelines here, along with hints of Kundera. Barbery, in this, her second novel, is enjoying it all, and Alison Anderson’s translation catches the mood: “Day after day, already wearied by the constant onslaught, we face our terror of the everyday, the endless passageway that, in the end – because we have spent so much time walking to and fro between its walls – will become a destiny.”

No, it should not win, but it is fun.

There is no disputing that the US veteran, Marilynne Robinson, is the major voice on the shortlist. Author of Housekeeping(1981), one of the finest 20th-century American novels, and the Pulitzer-Prize winning Gilead(2004), she has been nominated for Home, one of the international books of the year in 2008.

Robinson inspires readers for the way she writes as much as for the stories she tells. Home returns to the same Iowa setting of Gilead, the town in the earlier novel. This time the action looks to Jack, the prodigal godson of the John Ames who had spoken to his baby son in a letter intended to be read from beyond the grave in Gilead. Robinson is exploring huge themes of life and death, love and family. She brings wisdom to storytelling. Though not as appealing as The Twin, it is a great book, emotional and profound. Here is the challenger; in fact, it probably is the winner.

It is impossible to understand why Zoë Heller’s third novel, a slick, popular family sitcom, The Believers, could possibly feature on a shortlist that has overlooked monumental Chinese novels such as Jiang Rong’s magnificent Wolf Totemand Ma Jian’s equally powerful Beijing Coma. Either of these works would have been deserving and inspiring winners, as would the great James Kelman’s finest novel, Kieron Smith, Boy. But instead we have Heller’s knowing beach read, populated by foul-mouthed characters who could have wandered out of any reality television show.

The Believersis a crude novel, rife with cliche and references to popular culture. Above all, it takes an unsophisticated, very English and superficial look at the US. Placing it in a shortlist which includes novels such as Netherland, also set largely in New York, merely emphasises how second-rate The Believersis. Despite, its literary pretensions, it has little going for it other than smart-alec dialogue. Why include it and omit Nadeem Aslam’s beautiful lament, The Wasted Vigil? Wasted indeed. Helen Garner’s The Spare Roomis far more convincing than The Believers, while Richard Flanagan’s beautiful, savage Wanting is also vastly superior on all counts to Heller’s effort.

But, as if by way of compensation, the jury has included one of the unsung heroes of British literary fiction, Yorkshireman Robert Edric. Author of In the Days of the American Museum(1990), Elysium(1995), Peacetime(2002) and Gathering the Water(2006), Edric is a solid, compelling writer committed to story and character. In Zodiac Light, he deals with the aftermath of the Great War and the damaged generation who survived it. There are shades of Pat Barker’s Regeneration, the first volume of her Ghost Roadtrilogy. It is a sympathetic book, told through a kindly voice.

Edric has always been a calm, deliberate writer and this shortlisting will alert new readers to his understated and underrated talents.

THIS IS Agood shortlist, but many Impac watchers will be aware of the dominance of English titles. It contains only three novels in translation (though last year there were only two). Because of the long timespan, justified because of the submission policy, Impac lists invariably include novels that many readers are already familiar with, as, for example in this year’s list, Home, Netherlandand In God’s Own Country. But the presence of novels in translation has always been the strength of the Impac, and its ability to introduce readers to outstanding foreign fiction is the major achievement of the award, as is its recognition of the towering contribution made by literary translators, the quiet heroes.

It is important to keep the prize international, and the readers certainly are doing this. An Impac judging panel is, thanks to those library readers, dealing with gold-dust. The shortlist is as important as the eventual winner, and in this case a tremendous longlist has produced a good shortlist.