NEWS AND VIEWS

Per Olov Enquist wins the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize
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Royalphysician
Cavesaramango
The Cave José Saramango
Per Olov Enquist, was born in a small village in northern Sweden and has spent the past forty years establishing a formidable reputation as a leading novelist, playwright and screenwriter. His book, The Visit of the Royal Physician, translated by Tiina Nunnally has won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.

This article is by Amanda Hopkinson, three times member of the jury of the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. The article first appeared in New Welsh Review, Summer 2003, and is reproduced here with their kind permission.

Read a review of The Royal Physician's Visit at Bookreporter.com.

'A dictator, a princess, and an adman star in novels vying for Independent prize.' So blazed The Independent's headline promoting the latest shortlist for the only British book prize that honours the literary translator on a par with the original author. The sum (provided by the Arts Council of England) is relatively modest compared with the Booker or the Whitbread. £5,000 each for the author and translator is, however, just the starting point. Beyond that, no doubt, everyone's intentions are slightly different.

For the publishers, the prize is an effective launch-pad for increased sales and circulation. As the shortlist is announced, publishers need to be braced for a fresh print run of books at least five times larger than the original. Sadly, the runs of translated works in the UK are pathetically small: 2,000, even less, is the norm. And only 2-4% of books sold in England are works in translation. The writers are also intended to benefit from the prize and related publicity, since every literary work grant-aided by the Arts Council - and no doubt some others - provides hard-earned royalties.

The Independent was first associated with the prize back in the early 1990s, when it was run for five years under the aegis of then literary editor Robert Winder. When he left, it lapsed, and was only revived three years ago when I came to work at the Arts Council, and current Independent literary editor (Boyd Tonkin) showed an interest. For the Arts Council of England it is a part of the same process that starts with grants to publishers to facilitate the publishing of literary translations. Without them, the complaint is all too frequently that publishers can't afford to pay for the same book twice: once by paying the author, and then again by paying the translator.

But this is simply part of a broader brief: to raise the profile of literary translations and the status of those who do the work, all too often at appalling rates of pay. And there's little to touch a national prize with an international remit to attract attention in the literary world. The types of books that get translated seem to divide roughly into two camps. There seem to be certain books that simply become part of our global heritage and almost seem to have written themselves. After all, who remembers who translated the King James version of the Bible? (And yes, a vast majority of schoolchildren do assume that it originated in English; and of the minority who recollect that the Evangelists did not speak the language now spoken by one in seven of the world's population, none knew that it wasn't written down in Aramaic either). A similar ignorance reigns regarding La Fontaine's version of Aesop's Fables: the fascinating mystery of whether Aesop was indeed a liberated Spartan slave, and the route by which his tales reached post-Renaissance France is as obscure an issue as whether Homer, or Homer-and-company, actually devised the myths of ancient Greece.

Tales that today compose the contemporary part of this undifferentiated global patrimony tend to be long and historical. It's curious, however, that Umberto Eco, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Max Sebald (last year's winner of The Independent Foreign Fiction Prize) write specifically about their countries of origin, yet it is the lack of nationalism in their writing that gives their work its universal appeal. It was Garcia Marquez who, when he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1983, made a point of briefly relating Europe's history back to the Europeans. As he recounted the escapades of the Popes and the Borgia, of our increasingly inbred and insane royal dynasties, and of Discovery and Empire, the fantastical extravagances of magic realism paled into normality.

Legend and history are indeed the stuff of fiction. In March, and on receiving a similarly prestigious award in his own medium - an Oscar for his documentary Bowling for Colombine - author/director Michael Moore commented on the extent to which we inhabit a 'fictitious world', labouring under the aegis of a hyperpower's 'fictitious president'. We live in fictitious times, when one news station, al-Jazeera, can run an entire feature countering the 'continuous lies' of another, CNN. Truth (and one can argue, language) may be the first casualty of war. But when propaganda supplants reporting, to the degree that the exact opposite of the truth is being broadcast, then we have indeed passed into the realms of invented non-sense.

So it seems entirely appropriate that the winner of this year's Independent Foreign Fiction Prize should be an historical novel that explores the life and times of George III's younger sister, who left England to become Queen of Denmark, married the mad King Christian, fell in love with the Court physician - a progressive German called Dr. Struensee - and successfully anticipated the French Revolution by implementing the aims of the Enlightenment and helping to plot the Danish revolution against her own establishment. It ended badly, almost inevitably so, as the nobility staged their own counter-Revolution against the queen and her favourite, who was sentenced to be hung, drawn and quartered. The style, however is one that pulls the reader into the claustrophobia of an historical period while raising the questions of the time in a way relevant to our own age. What happens when philosophers become politicians and are faced with implementing their own principles? How does power connect with sexuality in the erotic hothouse of an inbred Court where etiquette and behaviour are eternally at variance? The Visit of the Royal Physician is an epic that touches the intellect as much as the emotions.

The original author of the winning book, Per Olov Enquist, was born in a small village in northern Sweden and has spent the past forty years establishing a formidable reputation as a leading novelist, playwright and screenwriter. Interestingly, he is also a journalist, writing both as a theatre and literary critic and also as a political commentator. That he is well known in Scandinavia is scarcely surprising. That he is similarly renowned across continental Europe, where he is translated into various languages across many borders, from Estonia to Romania and Yugoslavia, Germany to Greece, Iceland to Italy (and to Japan and the Faroe Isles beyond) is to the shame and ignorance of the British. Translations of his work into English have appeared only sporadically, usually from small and ephemeral publishers: this one, by Tiina Nunnally, is superbly evocative and as strong on atmosphere as it is on language.

The Visit of the Royal Physician was flanked on the shortlist by other books that represent both the particular and the universal. The former category includes Frederic Beigbeder's £9.99, an immensely inventive translation by Adriana Hunter of a self-consciously clever novel, which transplants the action from Paris to London in order to make its satire of the advertising business all the more biting. When celebrity is all, publicity and promotion reign unchecked, to the ultimate detriment of everyone involved. It is as sickening and angry as the work of Houellebecq, with whom Beigbeder is frequently compared, but far smarter and less self-indulgent. Mario Vargas Llosa's Feast of the Goat was in line to win, but was ultimately ruled out - curiously enough - because of the novelistic aspects of what was otherwise a gripping piece of historical journalism. The jury were finally left unpersuaded by the 'second narrator', now a successful New York lawyer but a former victim of the sexual depravity of General Trujillo (longterm dictator of the Dominican Republic), clashing with the far stronger persona of the author. The story in itself had everything to recommend it without fictitious embellishments.

A book straddling our schematic particular/universal divide is Peter Stephan Jungk's The Snowflake Constant (translated by the unfailingly impressive Michael Hofmann): the title alone is a curious paradox among the many that emerge in the course of an erratic mathematician's investigations. Jose Carlos Somoza's crime thriller, The Athenian Murders, happily plays on the layered manifestations of times and translations, and the distinctions awarded to each. There is something appropriate and satisfying about a translation concerning the travails of a translator, confronted by the problems of unravelling a bloody murder committed in classical Athens. Sonia Soto, the present-day translator, has to struggle with language and scholarship which are both ancient and modern.

We remain in ancient Greece for the final choice, firmly in the mould of a universal parable. Veteran Portuguese author Jose Saramago (a former winner of both the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize and of the Nobel Prize for Literature) returns to the roots of western philosophy with The Cave to create a parable for our times. Never has the concept of living in a world of reflections and shadows been more apt than in a century where virtual realities dominate, and 'consumer culture' is assumed not to be an oxymoron. This mature meditation on value and meaning is translated by Britain's foremost translator of Portuguese literature, Margaret Jull Costa.

There were two books I would have loved to have seen shortlisted, but which didn't make it beyond the longlist. Atiq Rahimi's novella Earth and Ashes (beautifully translated from the Dari by Erdag M. Goknar) is a heartaching tale of a grandfather's journey across rural Afghanistan with his grandson (deafened by a Russian bomb dropped on their village), to find the boy's father, a miner whose own life turns out to be in danger. As stark as the Afghan landscape and as rich as the aeons that went into creating it, this is a book that manages to be both resonant and charming. In an entirely different vein, David Grossman's Be my Knife is a courageous attempt at creating yet another incarnation for the novel in a new century. Its epistolary style serves to strip away the defensive layers of the correspondents' chosen identities to reveal the rawness and terror of the psyche beneath. Necessarily, given Grossman's political engagement, it is also a parable of contemporary Israel, where a century of lies and propaganda permit truth to be found only - if at all - between individuals rather than nations. The greatest hope of the characters is that: 'We could be like two people who inject themselves with truth serum, and at long last have to tell it - the truth'.

This brings us full circle back to the search for truth in the pages of fiction. The judges this year have been Professor Susan Bassnett of the Centre for British and Comparative Cultural Studies at Warwick University; Jack Mapanje, poet and writer-in-residence at the Wordsworth Trust; Dr. Ahdaf Soueif, novelist and translator, and also director of the ngo Al-Furqhan. And, for the third year, representatives of the co-sponsors: Boyd Tonkin, literary editor of The Independent and Amanda Hopkinson, international literature officer of the Arts Council of England, ably assisted by Hilary Davidson, who chaired the meetings. The only sponsor not among the judges is Champagne Taittinger, who provided the essential sustenance for the party to celebrate the winner at the South Bank on 7th April.

Next year's judges will include, along with Boyd Tonkin and Amanda Hopkinson, the poet, author and translator George Szirtes; author Marina Warner; and translator Sian Williams.









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