Monday, 29 September 2014

Teenage Kicks on Video

You may recall me making a big song and dance in advance of an event I co-hosted with Slow Travel Berlin. And then it went rather quite afterwards. I hope you didn't think it was a flop because it wasn't – I was elated by how well it went, almost everything went smoothly and I and my on-stage guests Brittani Sonnenberg and Christiane Neudecker all had a great evening. The lovely ACUD Club was packed to the rafters and ran out of chairs, the music was great and I think people had a good night all round.

It's just that it took ages for us to get this video sorted out, not least because it and the whole event involved six people donating their time and effort for free. I'm applying for funding to make it a regular fixture in 2015, so cross your fingers and toes that the people with the money would like to support a salon where German-speaking and English-speaking writers share a stage with me. If it works out it will be called Parallel Lines (so that I can channel Debbie Harry) – a name kindly suggested by someone in the audience.

In the meantime, enjoy. The video's not perfect because our budget was zero. But it should give you an idea of what happened – and just imagine what we could do if we had some money!

Sunday, 28 September 2014

A Women's Prize for Translated Books

Since the panel asking "Where are the women in translation?" at this spring's London Book Fair, I have been thinking about how to raise awareness of women writers in translation. Significantly more books by men get translated into English than books by women, and at International Translation Day we held a session to start doing something about that. You can read chair Sophie Mayer's excellent briefing about it on the Free Word website.

There are lots of things we can do. We can review books written by women to help redress the imbalance in review coverage; reviewing books by women in translation will also, ideally, improve translator visibility. We can address funding issues so that translation grants are more evenly distributed, and a working group was formed to do just that. We can look at best practice and acknowledge those publishers who are doing it right. We can address gatekeepers – many of whom, as another working group established, are women: teachers, booksellers, translators, readers, editors. There are already grassroots initiatives promoting writing by women on Twitter, for instance.

What I wanted to do was to establish a prize for women's books in translation. I'm pleased to say that the idea was popular and we formed a working group at the end of the session to try and make it a reality. So let me outline my idea in more detail here and share some of what we talked about on Friday.

I'll start with what Sophie Mayer points out in her briefing notes:
Since its inaugural award in 1996, the Orange Award (now the Bailey’s Women’s Prize) has shown an unerring ability to celebrate and promote emerging writers who are now fixtures in the literary heavens. According to The Bookseller, the Orange Prize is a  proven driver of sales, and libraries that promote the prize reported a reader survey in which 48% of respondents said that they had tried new writers as a result of the promotion, and 42% said that they would try other books by the new authors they had read.
Yet, from its inception, the Award has been controversial, losing its first sponsor (Mitsubishi) and courting criticism from its own judges as well as reviewers and authors. AS Byatt called it ‘sexist… The Orange prize assumes there is a feminine subject matter – which I don't believe in’, although the award does not stipulate gendered subject matter, and has rewarded historical epics, crime thrillers and experimental writing, genres often associated with male writers.
With awards to Andrea Levy, Zadie Smith and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (and to Diane Evans and Irene Sabatini in the short-lived Orange Award for New Writers), Orange juries have also been more attentive to the multiethnic and transnational diversity of Anglophone writing than more established UK literary prizes.  That raises the intriguing possibility of replacing the Orange New Writers award with a Bailey’s Writing in Translation award that continues to extend the prize’s global awareness.
What I am interested in setting up is not a translation prize especially for women writers (or indeed translators); it would not be a sub-category of the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, which should continue to be awarded to the translated book judged to be the best of the year. The IFFP has never yet been awarded to a woman, almost certainly reflecting the imbalance in submissions. In my view, however, it must continue to consider quality above all other criteria while ensuring that the judges are a balanced mix.

What I want is a women's prize for translated fiction; a little sister to the Bailey's Prize, for instance. It would raise awareness for great women's writing from the non-Anglophone world rather than for great non-Anglophone writing by women. I know that's a subtle distinction but I think it's an important one.

The Bailey's Prize prompts debate every year through its mere existence, and every year people point out that women are still at a disadvantage in publishing. A women's prize for translated books would use exactly the same arguments – except that the translation stage actually amplifies this disadvantage, meaning that significantly fewer books by women are available in translation than books by men. In 2013, about 25-35% of new translated fiction published in the USA (the only figures we have) was written by women.

A women's prize for translated books would highlight those books that do make it through. It would give booksellers, journalists, reviewers, bloggers, tweeters and interested readers a hook and get them arguing and help them to discover diverse writing by women. It would celebrate the work of women writers and their translators. It would reward those publishers who do bring out books by women in translation. I suspect it would even be possible, at this point, to publish a preliminary list of all the books written by women published in translation in the UK in a particular year, before drawing up a longlist and a shortlist. Almost everyone loves a list these days, and book prizes are a useful way of exploiting that mental laziness we all share.

So it's a fairly simple idea because we have a precedent. Now all we have to do is put it into practice. We can do it. And the awards ceremony will be amazing.

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Swiss Book Prize Shortlist

It's that time of year again, the day when I realize which German writers are actually Swiss. Nationalities are all nonsense anyway, surely?

Here's the list of five (pardon the bullet points, I seem to be incapable of deleting them):

  • Lukas Bärfuss: Koala - man reflects on brother's death and marsupials 
  • Dorothee Elmiger: Schlafgänger - group reflects on refugees and borders
  • Heinz Helle: Der beruhigende Klang von explodierendem Kerosin - man reflects on philosophy, unhappiness and sex in New York
  • Guy Krneta: Unger üs  - man reflects on family in Swiss German dialect
  • Gertrud Leutenegger: Panischer Frühling - woman reflects on London and loss in London.
  • Jesus, I can't get rid of these bloody bullet points. Anyway,
  • (I've decided to embrace them)
  • the winner is announced on
  • 9 November and gets 
  • 40,000 Swiss Francs. 
  • That's € 33,000
  • or £ 26,000.
  • The Helle book and the Elmiger book will both be available in English translation at some point. Elmiger's my favourite, obviously, but I'm a fan of Helle too.   

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Olga Grjasnowa: Die juristische Unschärfe einer Ehe

Here is a novel written exactly and deliberately the way you’re not supposed to write a novel. And yet, or maybe for that very reason, it works, and it had me racing through it at breakneck speed, twice over. Which is why I wrote ages and ages ago that I couldn’t wait to review it and then made you wait all this time – because after first reading it I knew I wanted to read it again so I didn’t write any notes. And now I’ve read it again and yes, it still does everything wrong but there seems to be a little more system to it, and yes, it still works.

I’m most delighted, of course, by a scene very reminiscent of my evening out with Olga Grjasnowa while she was working on the novel. Chapter minus twenty-nine, in case you’re interested. But regardless of that, this is very possibly one of those books that you have to read if you’re interested in the future of writing or indeed non-heteronormative sexuality in Azerbaijan. Because as the title suggests (it translates as: the legal blurriness of a marriage) it’s about relationships, mainly between Leyla and her husband Altay but also between Leyla, Altay and Leyla’s girlfriend Jonoun in Berlin. And then a little bit between Altay and another man in Baku, Farid.

Now look at me avoiding certain words. Those words are: Muslim, Jewish, ex-Soviet, American, Israeli, Azerbaijani, gay, lesbian, bisexual, homosexual, love. The words are contained in the book but the characters don’t apply them to themselves.

Leyla is a ballet dancer from Baku. Altay is a psychologist from Baku. They get married in Moscow because they get along well and they want to get their parents off their backs. Then they move to Berlin to get Moscow off their backs – Leyla the pressure of the Bolshoi, Altay the pressure of his homophobic colleagues. Jonoun comes from all over the place, would like to be an artist, and works behind a bar in Berlin. Normally, it’s the reviewer’s task to compile this type of pithy plot and character descriptions, but in this book the author does it for us. Grjasnowa’s prose is swarming with short, sharp psychological characterizations and one-liners. She tells more than she shows, and her omniscient narrator has a dark, cynical sense of humour.

But she gets away with all that because there are things she shows, and those things are less about her characters than about the world around them. The novel is cleverly structured around a central episode, chapter zero, which is placed at the beginning of the book. Leyla has been arrested in Baku for illegal car racing and is tortured by the police. It’s a scary thing to start with, and the device of singling out that chapter rather than letting it stand for itself might seem heavy-handed if it weren’t for the fact that half of this book is about a thoroughly corrupt and oppressive regime. If you’re going to write a novel set partly in Azerbaijan there’s not much point in being delicate about it.

So before chapter zero, chronologically, comes the countdown to it, the story of Leyla growing up and to some extent Jonoun and Altay too, and the story of Leyla and Jonoun meeting and Jonoun moving in and moving out again, and Leyla going away on her own. We look at their messy lives from the relative stability of Berlin. And after that fulcrum comes the Baku half, which is just as messy and involves a road trip during which Leyla and Jonoun fall thoroughly out of love, leaving Altay to fall for a golden boy who’s built a nest for himself in the regime’s comfortable closet. And then comes the jaded fairytale ending, which Grjasnowa gives away rather with her choice of quote for the second half. And the best thing is: she does it deliberately, I’m sure of it, her narrator being cynical for so many understandable reasons. Really, the only possible reaction on closing the book is a tired laugh, a Woody Allen kind of laugh at how crap the world is. Allen, incidentally, delivers the novel’s first prefacing quote.

There are a few leitmotifs here that don’t quite come to the fore – more birds, some folklore elements that might be more prominent in a different novel or if Grjasnowa’s characters didn’t wave them off with amused disinterest. I almost didn’t notice them on my first reading, so I do wonder if they’re even necessary or don’t just muddy the waters. The way I read Die juristische Unschärfe einer Ehe, though, is that Grjasnowa is writing against norms and classifications. Her characters are neither bad nor good, neither fish nor flesh, not passionate about much at all, and not really classifiable in society’s preferred terms when it comes to sexuality either (neither Berlin’s preferred terms nor Baku’s, incidentally – there’s an amusing scene when Farid berates Altay for being gay in a Western way, interested in art and film and culture, and shudders at the thought of a gay pride parade).

And it seems to me that Olga Grjasnowa is trying to achieve the same effect with her writing, rebelling against much-repeated creative writing programme wisdoms like “show, don’t tell”. And if you read it like that then it’s funny, despite the depressing subject matter. Like Woody Allen. I assume he, too, is in there to make us feel slightly uncomfortable about sexuality and the family. It works for me.

Monday, 22 September 2014

Franz Friedrich: Die Meisen von Uusimaa singen nicht mehr

Another impressive first novel, this time with a complex structure. And more birds. Are birds as important in other literatures? I can think of four recent or forthcoming German books off the top of my head in which birds are essential to the plot. In this case, it’s the grey-headed chickadee, which debut author Franz Friedrich transfers to a Finnish island (a place I don't think exists in our world). The Uusimaa chickadees no longer sing, you see. And the authorities are concerned this means something has gone wrong, so they evacuate the island and turn it over to ornithologists. At which point a German filmmaker goes to visit in 1997 and makes a nature documentary. We also see a bumbling younger German man, a film student who accidentally destroys the last copy of that film and then leaves a future “Core Europe” in 2017 to travel to Uusimaa himself, and an American academic escaped to Berlin from the hell that is a bankrupt USA. In 2007.

The action skips to and fro like the documentary itself, which is screened, if you like, in the first chapter. Chronological order is for dullards. But we gradually get a patchy impression of what happens in the three characters’ lives and in the world around them. There’s a sense of threat that perhaps looms larger because we don’t quite know how to understand Franz Friedrich’s fictional world; a heavy police presence, accidents, freak weather conditions, strikes and riots, things going missing from archives, people who don’t quite get along. And there’s a lot of exquisite description. At times that slows the novel’s momentum, but I assume that’s deliberate. Taken together, all this does mean you have to concentrate quite hard.

Perhaps because I read it during the Scottish independence referendum campaign, one of the aspects that stood out most to me was the way Friedrich plays with politics and nationality. In the novel’s world, Berlin is expelling foreigners from poorer nations in 2007. That’s nothing new, but the scene in which a bureaucrat tells the American Monika that she’s going to be deported is all the more chilling because we don’t expect the USA to be one of those undesirable countries of origin:
The situation in your country’s bad, I know that, I can even understand you. Do you think I’d want to live in any other country than this one? But the boss is on my back, there are statistics. If I don’t tot up a certain number of returns I’ll lose my job. I have a son, my husband’s severely disabled due to an accident, and I’m supposed to put my existence on the line because your homeland lived above its means for decades?

Later in the book’s chronology, the Germans are the ones in a bad place by dint of their passports, because “Core Europe” has introduced something akin to a basic subsistence payment for all its citizens, who are then free to work voluntarily rather than for wages. And there are other utopias: a summer spent in a hut in a forest, an island that rises from the ocean, stories from the early days of the Soviet Union. But all of them are tainted in some way. Either they’re unsustainable over the winter or they require evacuating or heavy policing; “Core Europe” works because it keeps others out, as far as I understand.

Obliquely, then, Franz Friedrich tells tales that do come together at the last moment. We know from an early point that those birds will start singing again, and he leaves us with at least a moment of hope. I’m very impressed by this novel, which is experimental in all the ways I consider right, but also eminently readable and thought-provoking. And the judges at the Jürgen Ponto Foundation were also impressed, awarding him their €15,000 prize for debut novels.

Sunday, 21 September 2014

On Visibility

Something has been niggling away at me from Friday's symposium. One of the panels was on "Translators' Status and Visibility", and was composed of a newspaper book critic, a publishing house editor and a literary translator. And of course the whole room was full of disgruntled translators, who seemed to feel that critics and editors are to blame for translators' lack of status and visibility in Germany. So that made for a rather difficult discussion, I thought. Because yes, as the critic pointed out, there is less and less space for reviews because, as the editor pointed out, fewer and fewer people are reading literature.

So there were a couple of things that irritated me. The first was the assumption in the room that print critics and editors are the only people with any influence over the public's awareness of translators. As I tried to point out but maybe didn't quite manage, there are other people out there, especially on the internet, who are aware of translators' existence and our work. I'm very grateful to the bloggers and online magazine people and tweeters and all those other people on the (Anglophone) internet who help spread the word about our work. There are too many to mention, and I hope the same thing is or will soon be happening in German. And part b of this section of my complaint is that we translators can also do things ourselves to make ourselves more visible, like the Love Your Translator people and Authors and Translators and all the blogging, tweeting, tumblring individual translators out there. Not just that – we can write translator's notes and articles and essays and we can help publicize our books, we can accompany our writers when they read in our countries, and so on. And these things are happening, much more now than ever before, and we are becoming more visible, in Germany and elsewhere, because we're putting ourselves out there, like with the Weltlesebühne and with translation slams and the Bridge Series and other events revolving around just us.

Having said that, I would like to pick holes in a couple of things the panellists said too, seeing as they can't defend themselves. Except maybe in the comments section.

So the critic said, newspapers don't commission reviews of translated books from non-critics, for example Sinologists for Chinese books, because they want critics to be generalists who can build a bridge to the reader. And that means that most reviewers don't feel qualified to comment on translation quality. And I was just sitting there and thinking, well – as the translator on the panel pointed out – online publications don't have spatial limitations, so if I was running a newspaper (let's call it the Utopian Times) I would commission several reviews of the same book (with my unlimited budget): one by a generalist critic, and others by people who know something specific so they can talk about non-general aspects such as translation, plausibility, etc. The same way they get other authors to write fiction reviews, or cardiologists to review non-fiction books about the heart. I might even commission translators to critique translations, if they were very brave. And in fact I don't see any reason why newspaper editors couldn't do exactly the same thing right now, other than "we don't do it that way". Because there are books that get huge long critiques, those event-type books, and why can't you split that half-page review up into two quarter-pages?

But what really got me worked up was what the publishing house editor said about why they don't put translators' names on book covers very often. The reason, she said, was that readers of genre fiction don't care who translated their book. She justified this statement with the example of a German crime writer with a fake French name and biography but obviously no translator's name in the front of the book, because there wasn't a translator. And she said that nobody noticed, ergo: readers don't care. Now first of all, that's a rather speculative assumption, and there was a suggestion from the critic that devoted readers of crime and fantasy actually are interested in their books' translators. But more importantly: even if readers don't care, why should it bother them if you print the translator's name more prominently? You'd make the translators happier, you might even make us take more pride in our work, and you wouldn't bother the readers because they don't care either way, allegedly.

Anyway, that's been preying on my mind for a couple of days and I haven't had any adult company to unload it on since, so here it is. Things are getting better, most publishers and some reviewers are helping translators to become more visible, which can only improve our status, and most importantly we're becoming more confident in ourselves. Hooray for us.

Update: I ought to point out, this fine Monday morning, that the symposium was very good, and in itself evidence that our status as literary translators is on the up. Firstly because the European Commission asked us to hold a whole symposium at their expense, and secondly because it was very well organized and very interesting.

Thursday, 18 September 2014

Stefanie de Velasco: Tiger Milk

A teenage narrator shares her recipe for a good time:

One best friend
One carton milk from the school canteen
One bottle cheap brandy
One carton maracuja juice
One widemouthed container of Müller chocolate milk (empty)
Two pairs stripy stockings
One strawberry-flavoured condom.
Mix with a long finger and consume in Berlin's red-light district. 

Nini and Jameela call it tiger milk and they drink it like it's going out of fashion, while picking up punters on Kurfürstenstraße and fleecing them for less than they're worth, usually. They're fourteen and practicing for when they lose their virginity. It's enough to make a mother's heart stand still, but our heroines' mothers have other worries – something that might be agoraphobia or just plain depression, and in Jameela's case expulsion to Iraq. The girls have been friends and neighbours somewhere in West Berlin since they were kids and now they ponder on whether they're grown up; narrator Nini opens the novel with her first "childhood memory", a gritty moment involving a Barbie doll, a spat-out chewing gum and an unwanted sibling. And if she has a childhood memory, she reasons, she can't be a child any more.

She still is, I would say, although Stefanie de Velasco puts her through all sorts of perilous adventures in her debut Tiger Milk. There's a murder and a magic spell and a love story and a party, and that fun hobby on Kurfürstenstraße turns out to have its down sides, one of the most chilling scenes I've read recently. In essence, though, de Velasco gives us the story of a summer spent at the outdoor pool and the local playground, on the U-Bahn and on the streets of Berlin. There's a defunct phone box that serves as a message board because all the kids carry sharpies, and graffiti is a means of emotional communication. If you liked the film Prinzessinenbad (and who didn't?), you need to read this.

It's a book that inspires adoration, maybe because of Nini's fantastic voice. We read the prizewinning opening chapter when I ran a course on contemporary German writing, and one of the participants was inspired to mix us up a round of tiger milk. It's not bad at all. And one translator friend of mine fell for the novel pretty hard too, but in the end the job of putting it into English went to Tim Mohr. Tim has ended up kind of specialized in books with teenage narrators, after Wetlands, Broken Glass Park and Why We Took the Car, so you can see why that happened. And again, he's done an astounding job. I love the almost unpunctuated rhythm he's got going, and of course the wordplay and just the generally believable tone of a bunch of fourteen-year-old kids. I don't think I could ever aspire to do it. Sometimes it sounds very American for a British publishing house but that seems to me to be absolutely appropriate. But he never irons out the fact that it's all happening in Berlin. I am a fan.

The best thing about Tiger Milk? It's just plain funny. Although these kids are going through fourteen kinds of torture, Stefanie de Velasco never makes victims out of them. It doesn't feel like sociology, the way some German books look down on the poor proletariat; it never gets patronizing. I found myself laughing through my shock all the way through, right to the bitter end. Of all the possible reasons to read it – realistic portrayal of teenage terror, Berlin from below, exhilarating language – that humour would be my killer argument. And yes, someone's writing a screenplay.

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

International Translators Day Extravaganzas

There are many, many things going on to mark International Translation Day this year, or Hieronymustag as the less heathen Germans like to call it.

Start the fun in Berlin this Friday, 19 September with an all-day symposium (you can still register until tomorrow). "The translation of literary works is the most complex form of translation. In three panel discussions," (one of them featuring yours truly) "we want to examine various aspects of the profession: How can I become a literary translator? Do I need formal training, how about further education? Is it worth translating literature? What's the situation with recognition for literary translators? What could and ought to change? Are there objective and content-related boundaries to literary translation? How do literary translators deal with apparently untranslatable cultural divergences?"

Then take the plane to London for another all-day fun-fest on Friday, 26 September, this time at the British Library - don't worry, this one also features your favourite blogger on adoring Teutonic literature. "Now in its fifth year, the International Translation Day symposium is an annual event for the translation community. It is an opportunity for translators, students, publishers, booksellers, librarians, bloggers and reviewers to gather and debate significant issues and developments within the sector, to discuss challenges and to celebrate success."

The actual St. Jerome's Day is Tuesday, 30 September. And if you're in one of 17 cities around the world and would like to see a real-live translator actually translating out of German, you're in luck. Because on that day there's a whole programme of translators actually leaving the house and interacting with other human beings:

Ard Posthuma translating Ulrike Draesner and Jean Pierre Rawie

Bratislava, 6 p.m., Goethe-Institut library, Panenská 33
Zuzana Demjánová translating Katja Petrowskaja into Slovakian

Buenos Aires
Nicolás Gelormini translating Katja Petrowskaja into Spanish

Dilman Muradoğlu translating into Turkish

Cairo, 4 p.m., Goethe-Institut library
Dr. Ola Adel Abdel Gawad translating Jonas Lüscher into Arabic

Kiev (28 September!! 2:30 p.m., Goethe-Institut Ukraine, library, Wul. Woloska 12/4, 04655 Kiev
Nelia Vakhovska translating Robert Walser into Ukrainian

Jamie Bulloch translating Nora Bossong into English

Mexico City
Claudia Cabrera translating Arnold Zweig into Spanish

Iryna Herasimovich translating into Belorussian

New Delhi
Namita Khare translating Jenny Erpenbeck into Hindi

Beijing (29 September!!)
Huang Liaoyu translating Martin Walser into Chinese

Rio de Janeiro
Marcelo Backes translating Saša Stanišić into Portuguese

Sao Paulo
Petê Rissatti translating Thomas Brussig into Portuguese

Aimée Delblanc translating Katja Petrowskaja into Swedish

Tel Aviv
Daphna Amit translating Jennifer Teege into Hebrew

Anna Kordsaia-Samadaschwili translating into Georgian

Wellington, 4. p.m., National Library of New Zealand
Maike Wetzel translated into English by John Jamieson and then by Ian Cormack into Te Reo Maori

You may not make it to all the events. But make sure you wear a donkey's ear in your buttonhole to remember St. Jerome, who chopped off his donkey's ear to make a bookmark-slash-ink blotter for his bible translation. Hence the German word Eselsohr for when you turn down the corner of a page to keep your place in a book. Jerome knew God would forgive him, and help the donkey to hear with her other ear, because he was doing a very important job that made him immune to purgatorial punishment for cruelty to animals. In days gone by, translators around the world pinned real donkey's ears to their clothing on 30 September but now most of us prefer to use a vegan version.

Sunday, 14 September 2014

Ten Books I Would Like to Translate

I got tagged, and seeing as I've been obsessively reading and then totally judging everyone by their lists of ten books that changed their lives or whatever it is – jeez, did you stop reading at fifteen; if I hate that book must I now hate you; would you please stop posturing and admit to reading trash now and then; OMG, Jeffrey Archer changed your life, really? – I thought I just wouldn't expose myself to the imagined ridicule of it all. But then I felt bad, so here is my personal cop-out: ten books I would like to translate. Some of them are books that lots of other people would like to translate as well, but I figured this is like fantasy football league, right, so you can just go for ridiculously unlikely things. I know that me translating many of these books, in real life, would piss off other translators, but this isn't real life. Most of the links are to my own reviews.

1. Clemens Meyer: Im Stein
It's just not going away. There's a reason it's at the top of the list.

2. Dorothee Elmiger: Schlafgänger
Actually, if all goes well I will be translating this one.

3. Annett Gröschner: Walpurgistag
Hundreds of voices on one day in Berlin.

4. David Wagner: Leben
Neither fish nor flesh, gorgeously written.

5. Lutz Seiler: Kruso
Except it would be really, really hard.

6. Teresa Präauer: Für den Herrscher aus Übersee
This one has a lot of admirers though, like the Seiler book.

7. Daniela Dröscher: Pola
I'd dress up in evening gowns every day.

8. Anna Seghers: Der Ausflug der toten Mädchen
Surprise! A dead white woman.

9. Selim Özdogan: Die Tochter des Schmieds
An old favourite.

10. Sven Regener: Magical Mystery
Because I translated a sample earlier this year and it was great fun and a real challenge to get the tone right. I saved it up to translate on my birthday. I don't think that's sad, or no sadder than a lot of other things.

If you'd like to join in the melancholy fun, you too could make a list of ten books you'd like to translate. You could put it online and post a link in the comments section. It might go viral and everyone who speaks two or more languages would be doing it.

Thursday, 11 September 2014

Lutz Seiler: Kruso

The critics and I and most of my friends who care about these things agree that Kruso is the novel most likely to win this year's German Book Prize. Apparently, unlike Peter Stamm – who I learned recently has actually won something now – Lutz Seiler is a big winner of prizes. I'd be happy if he scooped this one too.

His young hero Edgar Bendler is a student of German literature in East Germany. His girlfriend has died in an accident and he runs away to the Baltic island of Hiddensee, hoping to find a job and a place to live to escape his obsessions. He does, as a dishwasher at the Klausner hotel (meaning: hermit). The work is backbreaking but the crew form a close team, a family. Their unofficial leader is the Kruso of the title, a young Russian by the name of Alexander Krusowitsch. Ed and Kruso become close, two loners who share a love of poetry. The new arrival gradually finds out his charismatic friend is running a strange system to provide shelter for the many people who head to the island in the hope of escaping via the sea to the West. Kruso’s sister Sonja disappeared into the water when he was a boy and was never seen again, and now he hopes to protect anyone from making often fatal escape attempts.

These “shipwrecked” individuals are given places to sleep for a few nights and experience the island’s unique freedom, take part in bizarre rituals and social gatherings. Ed has an exhausting and almost unwanted sexual awakening, taking young women into his bed and listening to their stories. Over the long summer, the island fills up with more and more visitors, official and unofficial. Yet as the radio in the kitchen gradually reveals, there are now other ways to leave the country; it is 1989 and the East German state is leeching around the edges. 

The island setting makes for great reading, aside from its structural role as a microcosm of society (with the church, the bars, the army, the Stasi, etc.). There’s the tangible temporary utopia of summer holidays, followed by the forlorn atmosphere of an empty seaside resort in autumn. Seiler also gives us a lot of loving detail about how the Klausner is run, even down to the finer points of the washing up process. He describes all the people who work there minutely – the crew of the ship, as he often puts it – detailing their strange tics and their roles in the team, their favourite drinks, in some cases the way they smell. We feel Ed's and Kruso's, while all this close description makes the atmosphere overwhelmingly powerful and moving, and can make the reading quite gruelling at times. 

Things come to an initial climax on the “Day of the Island”, when all the seasonal staff have a day off at the same time and stage a football tournament and a beach party. The border guards mount a show of strength, Kruso is arrested, and Ed is beaten to a pulp by a despised colleague. After that, nothing is the same. The seasonal staff who gave the island its sense of freedom begin to disappear, many of them travelling to Hungary and from there to the West. No more shipwrecked runaways turn up to the rituals and the Klausener empties of both staff and visitors as autumn draws in.

Eventually, only Ed and Kruso are left, bound to each other by their friendship and trying to keep the restaurant running on a shoestring. Drinking more than ever, they both lose their grip on reality and when Kruso too disappears, Ed is desperate. Things come to a head and then to a sudden and nightmarish ending.

In an epilogue, Seiler switches to a first-person narrator (Edgar Bendler), who tells the story of how he tries to find Sonja after learning in 1993 that Kruso had died. We find out that there are an estimated fifteen unidentified corpses that washed up on the Danish coast between 1961 and 1989, presumed to be East German refugees who drowned trying to swim across the Baltic. Twenty years on, the narrator finally tracks down the records.

Kruso is a highly literary novel, and yet very moving as well. It contains a great many literary references, above all to Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. Ed is perfectly aware that he’s Kruso’s Friday, his loyal assistant, and their relationship is one of the key aspects of the book – a close and at times latently homoerotic friendship between two men, one of whom is very much the leader and the other the follower. The novel also contains a lot of poetry, especially by the expressionist Georg Trakl, perhaps because of his presumed incestuous love for his sister. Seiler is extremely well respected as a poet, and his precision makes his descriptions shine. He writes about nature on the island, but also about stomach-churning details such as the mass of grease and hair that gathers below the plugs in the kitchen sinks, which Kruso buries beneath his herb garden in one of his obscure rituals – one of several key scenes in which the two main characters bond, naked.

This loaded style makes the book a slow read but a rewarding one. Seiler builds tension incredibly well as his characters drift further and further away from sanity, tying in with the political developments. The novel is too complex to be taken as a straightforward allegory for the breakdown of the GDR. But it does capture the mood in East Germany’s young dropout subcultures, namedropping the drinks and the music and the fashions of the time in among its many layers of detail. At the same time, much of the action is dreamlike, with Ed sharing his thoughts with a decaying fox cadaver or recalling snatches of drunken evenings.

Seiler himself worked at the Klausner on Hiddensee, a real establishment that was a haven for a number of East German intellectual dropouts, including other poets. I think his book is a great way to mark twenty-five years since the fall of the Wall, a literary tribute to a lost micro-culture that was perhaps only so free because it was surrounded by constraints. It raises ideas of what people miss about the GDR – and there are plenty of things they do miss – and why that might be. Kruso really is an outstanding book. English rights haven't yet sold, so now would be the time to snap it up. Publisher Suhrkamp has a long sample translation on its website, by Bradley Schmidt and Alexander Booth. 

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

2014's German Book Prize Shortlist Announced

They've announced the shortlist of six titles in the running for the big German book prize:

Thomas Hettche: Pfaueninsel
Angelika Klüssendorf: April
Gertrud Leutenegger: Panischer Frühling
Thomas Melle: 3000 Euro
Lutz Seiler: Kruso
Heinrich Steinfest: Der Allesforscher 

That's most of my favourites out of the running, then. Just last night I had a drunken conversation with fab German writer Christiane Neudecker about who might win. We're going to make a bet. I say Seiler, she says Klüssendorf. Tilman Rammstedt said Nawrat but he wasn't going to join in our bet anyway. I think the winner gets a cake baked for her by the loser - of the bet, not the book prize.

Monday, 8 September 2014

Things To Do in Berlin This Week

You're in Berlin and you're stuck for something to do? What a good job you came here, then.

Tomorrow you can come along to my event at the ACUD Club featuring Brittani Sonnenberg and Christiane Neudecker, co-hosted with Slow Travel Berlin. Here's what they say about it. It's up to you whether to believe the hype.

On Wednesday you could go out to the LCB at Wannsee for the launch of Jochen Schmidt and David Wagner's new book about growing up in East Berlin and Bonn. What fun.

On Thursday you could learn about how beautiful books are made, in India and Germany, as part of the International Literature Festival at the Haus der Berliner Festspiele. And you should because the panel is made up of Seagull Books' publisher and designer Naveen Kishore and Sunandini Banerjee (who designed the festival posters but the website is such a traincrash I can't find a link to them), plus Matthes & Seitz publisher and designer Andreas Rötzer and Judith Schalansky. Afterwards you might like to pop back East to the Ocelot bookshop for a mysterious thing called a Bookup – perhaps even just to find out what on earth it is.

On Friday I don't have a literary event for you, but if you like dancing to old-fashioned music you might like to try Das Hotel. I personally will be staying in.

On Saturday you can see Eliot Weinberger, Maren Kames, David Wagner and me reading from stuff in the basement of a hostel. If you're very nice I might take you out dancing afterwards.

You might like a bit of a break after all that, but you could start all over again on Tuesday the 16th, with New German Voices Karen Köhler and Marianna Salzmann at the book festival.

Saturday, 6 September 2014

My Take on the 2014 Longlist

So here comes the 2014 love german books take on the German Book Prize longlist. It’s based mainly on the reader containing short samples from all the listed titles, plus the publishers’ information and various other snippets of gossip, etc. As ever, there are a few things the novels have in common, or perhaps categories that reflect the judges’ taste. There’s a lot of crime and film and German history, plus a sprinkling of big cities and nature writing. Plus I’ve given you a tiny sample translation from each one.

Lukas Bärfuss: Koala
A very personal novel exploring the narrator’s reactions to his brother’s suicide. The dead brother’s nickname was Koala, so the narrator (a writer) also looks into marsupials and how humans treat them. The sample is quite sharp, peppered with humorous self-hate, and I assume the pretentious-seeming opening will give way to something more searing, as we say, later on.
Sample sentences: “In any case, Daisy hung on my every word and was amused by my interest in masturbating mothers, and by the time I was standing in the empty road at four in the morning, I mourned less the speaker’s fee splashed in the space of a few hours than the loss of Daisy, who had bid a speedy farewell as soon as last orders were called and left me behind with my literary explanations and the unpaid bill.”
Themes: family, first-person, life and death, nature

I’ve read all of this one and it’s very impressive indeed. Six perspectives on migration, flight and relocation (plus one from an ape on the book’s website), looking at how enforced relocation ripples through generations, particularly in Germany and Poland. Distinctive voices raising all sorts of issues, life stories, love stories, stories of quick escapes and slow arrivals. A tricky read in often beautiful prose that adds up to an excellent book.
Sample sentences: “When other people heard “got rid of” they thought of their teenage years, abortion discussions, protests. I always envisaged my grandparents’ ground-floor flat, armchairs and settee upholstered with flowered cord, that too grey and brown.”
Themes: German history, family, first-person, multiple narrators, nature

Antonio Fian: Das Polykrates-Syndrom
A married man’s unexciting life is turned on its head by a girl called Alice. What starts out extremely funny apparently turns dark and gruesome. The sample made me write exclamation marks in the margins – genuinely very funny stuff.
Sample sentences: “‘We’ll light a big candle for my father,’ I said as I held the door open for my mother. ‘He was a nice Nazi.’”
Themes: Vienna, family, first-person, crime, humour

Now this one is utterly intriguing. I have the whole book here on my desk because I can tell nothing at all from the sample except that I want to read more. A description of a documentary about birds; it seems rather meta. After Fian’s light-hearted thrills this is quite hard to read, but I suspect it contains all sorts of exciting ideas that will pay the reader back for their effort.
Sample sentences: “Dust on the instruments, the smell of dried-out beer, a focused light that warmed his hand, when he raised it against the beam, like a fire. He had no idea of what he was doing here, and yet he sensed this excitement as though he were someone from the nineteenth century watching a film for the first time.”
Themes: film, nature, who knows?

Thomas Hettche: Pfaueninsel
One of the more conventional novels of the list, this one is set on Peacock Island outside Berlin and features early-19th-century dwarves, for want of a better word, and landscape gardeners. It’s not to my taste, not only because I’m not interested in royal menageries, but also because I find the writing deliberately twee. I hope it gets less saccharine as the book goes on but I doubt I will ever find out.
Sample sentences: “When the boy noticed how very much the answer he had tried to give to his queen in a friendly and benevolent manner shocked the latter, and how disgustedly her eyes felt him up and down, he emitted a terrible wail, turned around and disappeared into the undergrowth.”
Themes: nature, German history

Esther Kinsky: Am Fluss
I spent actual money on this book because I love the idea and the style of it so much. Beautiful writing about the outskirts of London and the River Lea, presumably concealing a story that will worm its way out slowly as we go along. It might be about loneliness or a failed relationship, or it might not. I don’t really care because Kinsky’s prose is so focused and impressive. The book has occasional photos in it but no one’s mentioned Sebald so far.
Sample sentences: “The king wore a magnificent headdress made of stiff brocade with a feather-adorned clasp that held the fabric together. Both the golden threads in the brocade material and the clasp were still shining in the decreasing light.”
Themes: nature, London, first-person, loneliness

Angelika Klüssendorf: April
Part two of a series based around the writer’s own younger days in East Germany, this is more sobering stuff. Klüssendorf’s style is stripped bare, which makes her protagonist’s life seem all the more stark. Having got free from her awful mother, the nameless girl of the first book calls herself April and starts her adult life. I find the content hard to deal with because I find myself constantly pitying the protagonist and wanting to congratulate the writer on dragging herself out of her pit. Is that a good thing? I don’t know. I do notice, however, that it’s hard to write about the book without dredging up clichés.
Sample sentences: “They go into the kitchen with the old woman. She’s never seen such a dark kitchen; even the man looks astounded. The floor is tiled pitch black, the walls are covered in dark, shiny emulsion, the kitchen cupboard and even the sink lined with black linoleum.”
Themes: implicit first-person, family, loneliness, German history

Michael Köhlmeier: Zwei Herren am Strand
The two gentlemen in question are Winston Churchill and Charlie Chaplin, great buddies in 1931. I am reminded of an exercise in a creative writing workshop for translators, in which we had write down two characters and were then told to think up a story about them falling in love. I picked Homer Simpson and Charlie Chaplin and then cursed my choice. My story was funnier but would not have filled 256 pages. The sample from Köhlmeier’s story reads like well researched but rather dry non-fiction with a tiny dash of meta-narrative.
Sample sentences: “It was only when Chaplin, his hands forming a cone around his mouth, called as loudly as he could – he couldn’t speak loudly – through the gap in the door into which he had jammed his knee, ‘Winston, Winston, it’s me, Charlie. I’m here, Winston. I’ve come!’ and Churchill, whose room was fortunately on the ground floor, called back for his own part, as loudly as he could – he couldn’t speak loudly either in those days – ‘Glad tidings you bring!’ that they let him enter.”
Themes: British history, New York, film

Martin Lechner: Kleine Kassa
This would appear to be a fast-paced adventure novel with a crime-induced plot. I quite enjoyed the prose in the sample, which seems to revel in detail, and there’s humour here too.
Sample sentence: “He rushed on, clambered over moss-coated giants felled by lightning, grabbed accidentally at blue-pimpled mushrooms, shook the mush off his hand so hard that it splashed, kicked out at ivy fronds wrapped around his ankles as though they wanted to tear his legs from his rump, sunk into the ground again, an unappetizingly slurping bog, shouted in rage over the second dung-brown trouser leg, polished it wildly across his shoe and stamped on through the gradually smothering light.”
Themes: humour, crime, nature

Gertrud Leutenegger: Panischer Frühling
I’m puzzled by this one. The sample feels rather similar to Esther Kinsky’s book, except relating to the Thames rather than the Lea. Again there’s a shadowy first-person narrator looking for something or other in London, finding traces of her own stories around the city. The publishers insist there is a plot, though, involving a missing person. I think it’s unfortunate that it’s going head to head with Kinsky because if I had to choose which has the more exciting style, it would not be Leutenegger. I suppose that’s the tragic and ridiculous thing about book prizes.
Sample sentences: “It was no longer the oak islands circling on the river but that lime green room with its forest, and with it the whole parsonage, the red reception room, the blue cabinet, the bower, July’s heat and bright nights.”
Themes: London, first-person, nature

Charles Lewinsky: Kastelau
Well, the sample surprised me and made me laugh. It’s another film story, with another meta-narrative, about people making a movie in the Alps in 1944, except they’re not really. I enjoyed the pretend archive material and am rather interested to know how the author takes us from present-day Hollywood to Nazi-era Bavaria. Oddly compelling, I wrote in my notes.
Sample sentence: “I hate him. I hate him. I hate him. He’s even taking the mickey out of me from his grave, grinning at my disappointment and then turning away with a shrug, just like he turns away in Real Men after he’s shot the cattle thief. Turns his back on the loser and never looks back.”
Themes: film, German history

Thomas Melle: 3000 Euro
A love story between two apparent losers in life: a single mum waiting to get paid the titular 3000 euros for making a porn film, and a broke and homeless ex-law student. The sample did awaken my interest but I can’t say what makes it special – maybe the subject matter: people at the bottom of the pyramid, the kind of characters middle-class writers often neglect, as critics keep pointing out. There certainly seems to be plenty of real-life grit and misery here.
Sample sentence: “Anton is dreaming a thin dream in which there are no arseholes any more. Jana enters his room, or is it an industrial grotto; Anton has to operate a machine that punches something out, banknotes out of metal, perhaps.”
Themes: hard times, love, film

Matthias Nawrat: Unternehmer
Ah, I remember really admiring the part of this novel that Nawrat read for the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize last year. It’s a dystopian story where children forage for recyclable material with their father. I love the confusion and the slightly skewed language, that sense of a family gone wrong that could in fact just be a society gone wrong. Reading the sample made me want to translate it, and that’s always an exciting impulse.
Sample sentence: “In the evening we sit in the cellar with Father and do the extra-hot wash, top secret. It’s not easy to free the hearts from the casings. In the sulphuric acid, the copper coils and circuit boards sweat bubble-armour.”
Themes: hard times, family

Christoph Poschenrieder: Das Sandkorn
Set in 1914, the novel tells the story of a man afraid of being exposed as a homosexual. It opens with him sprinkling Italian sand around Berlin and getting picked up by the police. Love, taboos and detectives. It’s not to my taste but I can imagine readers who like straight-forward historical fiction and romance would really go for it.
Sample sentence: “‘Art historian. What does an art historian actually do then?’ Well, what, thinks Tolmeyn. He tries to understand people through the beautiful things they created, and to understand beauty through what the people thought, did and wrote.”
Themes: German history, love, crime, multiple narrators

Lutz Seiler: Kruso
Really, this is the one that blows my mind the most on the list. I read it ages ago but I still have some of the astounding images and writing in my head. A community of dropouts and poets on an island in the Baltic experiences the end of the GDR, while a remarkable friendship develops. Extremely intricate prose from one of Germany’s most respected poets, containing allusions to Robinson Crusoe but not slavishly loyal. Almost intimidatingly good.
Sample sentences: “The light of the setting sun projected shapes into the woods, wishful images and voices. Ed tried to concentrate on his trousers: trousers, belt, shirt. An all-inundating joy had begun to pulse inside him and made his hands tremble. There was nothing he could do about it.”
Themes: German history, love, life and death

Saša Stanišić: Vor dem Fest
Now, I wasn’t going to say anything but actually it seems a tiny bit silly to put this book on the list, seeing as it won the big Spring book prize in Leipzig. But OK, it is indeed a very fine book. What feels like a hundred people tell the stories of one village in East Germany, and the readers get to revel in Saša Stanišić’s love of words.
Sample sentences: “Silent Suzi cast the line out again. He’d taken a short break due to Lada’s accident. Suzi loves angling more than anything. If you’re born dumb you’re kind of predestined for angling. Mind you, dumb’s not the right word. The politically correct version would be: voice box kaput.”
Themes: hard times, multiple narrators, family, German history

Heinrich Steinfest: Der Allesforscher
This is a fun, plot-led novel with more film description in the sample. A man’s life goes off the rails when he gets hit by part of an exploding whale. And why not? I think it might have a crime element to it but it’s hard to tell.
Sample sentences: “There are two films and their musical scores that have influenced modern man’s relationship to water: Jaws and Psycho. One the sea, one the shower.”
Themes: family, humour, film

Marlene Streeruwitz: Nachkommen.
I like this. I like the author’s short sentences. I like the anger in the sample. It’s a bit of a provocation to write a novel about a young woman nominated for the German Book Prize but why the hell not. I think it’s more about the difficulties of family life but I shall be reading more of it and can’t wait to find out. Streeruwitz has been kicking up a stink over inherent sexism behind the book prize – not calling for quotas, as far as I remember, but calling out the organizers on non-representative language. The whole thing has made the conversation more interesting.
Sample sentences: “She looked into the coffin. Looked down at the face. At the head. She looked into the face. Leaned over the face and kissed the face on the forehead. The forehead. Waxily sweaty. The refrigerated corpse doused in condensation.”
Themes: Vienna, family

Feridun Zaimoglu: Isabel
A too-old actress leaves her partner and then meets a veteran from the war in Kosovo. Traumas ensue. Again, I can’t tell from the sample what’s so special about the novel and the writing itself is unexciting. The publishers imply it may be gritty realism.
Sample sentences: “Outside: dripping moon. She let Ruby off the leash, whistled her back – her barking scared the women. Dog and mistress walked to the club in the subway. The doorman waved her through, he knew her ex, he knew about their separation, he didn’t care.”
Themes: Berlin, hard times, love

Michael Ziegelwagner: Der aufblasbare Kaiser
Funny! A young woman with a messy life happens upon a society of monarchists in Vienna. I enjoyed reading the sample and also the author’s tongue-in-cheek contribution to the “book prizes are unfair” discussion. Stuff like this makes literary life more interesting.
Sample sentences: “You’re sitting in a Scottish strip club where you don’t feel comfortable, there to accompany a girlfriend of whom you’re no longer sure why you like her; taking part in a rally against the Viennese parking-space policy as a covert monarchist agitator, or feeling strangely satisfied at having slipped in the bathtub. ‘It turned out that way’ – but how?”
Themes: Vienna, humour

It’s tricky to pick favourites but my personal shortlist might be Seiler, Nawrat, Draesner, Kinsky, Streeruwitz, and… oh, either Lewinsky or Melle or Ziegelwagner. The actual shortlist is announced on Wednesday, 10 September.

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Don't Forget the Kicks

I seem to be insanely busy, but there's just time to remind you to come to this next Tuesday:

See you there!

Monday, 1 September 2014

Hotlist Shortlist Announced for 2014

OK, they may have the world's dumbest ever name for an award, but the German indie publishers' Hotlist does everything else right. Today they announced their, erm, shortlist of ten, which is what they call the Hotlist. I love the way the headline proclaims confidently: Here are the ten best books of 2014!

They're books brought out by independent publishers, which means they are much more niche than the German Book Prize titles, as a rule. And the website features simple links to sample chapters from each book so that you can dip in. Here's the list with a tiny bit of extra information from me. This time I've included a line about the publishers because I think that's kind of interesting. The winning publisher (not the winning book) gets €5000 and there's also a second prize, a €4000 printing voucher. And hey, kids – the announcement happens at a party at the Frankfurt Book Fair on the 10th of October, and anyone can go along, and I am definitely going to. I really loved the last one I got to go to, in 2012.

Arco Verlag: James Hanley: Fearon
An English novel scandalized on original publication (as Boy, 1931) for its depictions of homosexuality. Translated by the writer and award-winning translator Joachim Kalka. The publishing house is based in Vienna, named after a Prague literary café, and has a focus on exiled writers and writers from Central Europe.
AvivA Verlag: Lili Grün: Mädchenhimmel!
Poems and short stories by a lesser-known woman writer in 1930s Berlin, whose work has been compared to Irmgard Keun and Kurt Tucholsky. The Berlin publisher specializes in rediscovering women writers.  
binooki: Emrah Serbes: junge verlierer
Contemporary short stories about boys translated from Turkish by my friend Oliver Kontny, theatre person and translator. binooki is a fairly new house set up by two sisters to publish translations of Turkish literature beyond the usual stereotypes.  
Droschl: Lydia Davis: Kanns nicht und wills nicht
Davis's Can't and Won't, short stories translated by the Austrian writer and translator Klaus Hoffer. Fun fact: my friend Isabel Cole is translating Klaus Hoffer's Bei den Bieresch for Seagull Books. The publisher is very literary indeed, based in Graz, Austria, and has a lot of highbrow gems and translations on its lists.
Eichenspinner Verlag: Günter Saalmann: Fiedlerin auf dem Dach
A novel by an award-winning YA author (and trombonist) about a Kazakh family with a violinist daughter who move to Germany. I find this interesting because YA authors often feel more comfortable assuming "ethnic drag" than other writers – perhaps because they're used to speaking in children's voices already? A teeny-tiny Chemnitz publishing house bringing out poetry, prose and rock music by four German writers and a two-man band.

Krug & Schadenberg: Emma Donoghue: Zarte Landung
Irishwoman-in-Canada Donoghue's novel Landing, translated by Adele Marx. The Berlin-based publisher does fiction, non-fiction and comics about all aspects of lesbian life.     
Lars Müller Publishers: Andri Pol: Menschen am CERN
Possibly the most unexpected book to find on a list like this, ever, this is a collection of photos of people who work in Switzerland's European Organization for Nuclear Research, accompanied by an essay by Swiss writer Peter Stamm. It can't possibly win though because Peter Stamm never wins anything, ever. The Zurich publishing house does beautiful books exclusively for the eyes.  
Reprodukt: Mawil: Kinderland
A graphic novel about a schoolboy in East Berlin, October 1989. I like the pictures a lot. Reprodukt publish graphic novels and comics for all ages out of Berlin-Wedding (including Tove Jansson), and may well be the coolest people in the world.  
Verbrecher Verlag: Sarah Schmidt: Eine Tonne für Frau Scholz
One of those novels I keep meaning to read because all the cool kids love it so, an amusing-yet-earnest family story set in the last unposh house in the hood. The Verbrecher Verlag are just all-round lovely and have the world's best logo, some top-class fiction authors including David Wagner and Nino Haratischwili, and a lot of interesting political and pop-cultural stuff too.  
Weidle Verlag: Carl Nixon: Settlers Creek 
Nixon's 2010 novel about the financial crisis and a family crisis in New Zealand, translated by the publisher Stefan Weidle. Who also named his publishing house after himself, it would appear. Originally concentrating on 1920s and 1930s writing, they now also do translations of contemporary fiction from far-flung places – and won last year's Hotlist prize for a rediscovered Russian book.