Impac list shows worldwide vitality of fiction


Library readers of the world have presented judges with exciting choices, including novels by four Irish writers, a huge range of works in translation, and a strong US representation, writes EILEEN BATTERSBY

SEVERAL OF the finest novels published in the world in recent years have been nominated by an international panel of libraries for this year’s International Impac Dublin Literary Award.

The longlist, which is announced this morning, is the most exciting in the €100,000 award’s history.

Featured among the 156 titles, many of the strongest of which are in English translation, are four Irish writers including Sebastian Barry with his Costa prize-winning The Sacred Scripture, Deirdre Madden for Molly Fox’s Birthday, David Parks for The Truth Commissionerand Joseph O’Neill for Netherland.

Book-buying may have declined in these recessionary times but books are certainly being read, libraries are sustaining readers and making a breathtaking range of titles available; gifted translators are apparently working overtime; and readers are not only reading, they are reading the best writers in the world. Siberian Andrei Makine, who writes in French, has been nominated for Human Love, and 1998 Nobel Laureate José Saramago features for Death with Interruptions.

On its own, the nomination of two major Chinese writers – Jiang Rong for his stark, autobiographical Wolf Totem, which laments the death of an ancient culture; and Ma Jian, for Beijing Coma– testifies to the importance of this year’s longlist.

Veteran American master Phillip Roth has been nominated for Indignation, while 1993 Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison’s A Mercy, a prologue of sorts to Beloved (1988), is included. A little piece of award history has been made with the inclusion of husband and wife Paul Auster and Siri Husvelt.

Possibly the most favoured of the US entries is Pulitzer prize-winning author Marilynne Robinson of Gilead, who is nominated for Home, a novel which has a vast international readership. Canadian original Kenneth J Harvey should impress the judges with Blackstrap Hawco, a daring extravaganza of voices about a Newfoundland family.

The Australians are well represented by the invariably inventive Peter Carey for His Illegal Self; Geraldine Brooks is a strong contender with Peoples of the Book, a complex historical narrative based on a true story; while Helen Garner’s The Spare Room, a compelling account of a frenzied death as watched by an exasperated friend, the narrator, features as does Steve Toltz’s Booker-shortlisted debut, A Fraction of the Whole, in which a son recalls an unusual father.

Tasmanian Richard Flanagan is deservedly nominated for Wanting, a beautiful book exploring colonial brutality.

The 1994 Booker prize winner, Scottish writer James Kelman, would be expected to make the shortlist with his majestic performance, Kieron Smith, Boy, yet this will be a tough shortlist to select. Promising English newcomer Ross Raison is longlisted for In God’s Own Country, while the 2008 Impac winner, Rawi Hage, is again nominated, this time for Cockroach.

Indian fiction is well represented by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s dazzling yarn, The Palace of Illusions, which makes inspired use of the legends of the Mahabharata. The ethereal Pakistani-born, London-based Nadeem Aslam, who was Impac shortlisted with Maps for Lost Lovers in 2006 when Colm Tóibín won, has been nominated for The Wasted Vigil, a strong novel as beautiful as it is important – a potential challenger.

London-born of Caribbean parents, Laura Fish, draws on the family history of Elizabeth Barrett, later wife of the poet Robert Browning, in an atmospheric short novel, Strange Music. French academic Hédi Kaddour has already thrilled European readers with his epic Waltenberg. Far more terrifying is Dutch writer Stefan Brijis’ elegant period shocker, The Angel Maker, which follows the career of the enigmatic Dr Victor Hoppe. A very different Dutch novel, Gerbrand Bakker’s wonderful debut, The Twin, follows the likeable, now middle-aged Helmer, doomed to live on the family farm after the death years earlier of his brother.

One of my books of the year in 2006, do read Bakker’s wonderful novel even if it never makes the shortlist. Similar advice applies to Danish author Peter Adolphsen’s marvellous Machine, a cerebral exploration of existence. Playfully original German writer Ingo Schulze is long listed for New Lives: The Youth of Enrico Turner in Letters and Prose.Bosnian-born Sasa Stanisic, who writes in German, is nominated for his debut How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone– a clever but moving meditation on war and how to survive it. Also translated from the German is Bulgarian Iliya Troyanov’s European bestseller, The Collector of Worlds, which is based on the reimagined life of English explorer Sir Richard Burton.

Not surprisingly, best-selling author Egyptian Alaa Al Aswany is long listed for Chicago, which takes a post-9/11 look at a number of Egyptian and American characters pursuing their daily lives.

But where Impac has tended to triumph, and could well do so again this year, is by showcasing the best of international fiction in translation. The readers of the world’s participating libraries have presented the judges with a magnificent list of world-class contenders. The onus is now on that panel to select quality finalists reflective of this extraordinary longlist.