This year, the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize celebrates its twenty-fifth anniversary (technically, there have been nineteen previous winners since it took five years off in the mid-ninties) and to celebrate this milestone we thought we’d take a look back at a few of our favorites. You probably don’t have the time to read every single past winner, but we highly recommend that you at least add the five titles below to your never ending TBR pile.
1. The White Castle by Orhan Pamuk / Translated from Turkish by Victoria Holbrook (1990)
The very first book to take home the award, 2006 Nobel Prize for Literature winner author Orhan Pamuk’s The White Castle (his third novel) takes place in 17th century Istanbul and tells the tale of an Italian scholar who is captured by the Ottoman Empire during a sailing trip and subsequently becomes the slave of a man who is eerily similar in appearance.
The slave-master dynamic, religion, identity, and the power of knowledge are themes that are continually explored throughout the work with the nameless narrator refusing to convert to Islam in exchange for his freedom, and his brutal master Hoja crushing his self worth by slowly stealing his memories, mannerisms, and traits.
Fun fact: Some claim that portions of Pamuk’s The White Castle are plagiarized and that it contains word for word paragraphs lifted from Fuad Carim’s novel Kanuni Devrinde İstanbul.
2. The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis by José Saramago / Translated from Portuguese by Giovanni Pontiero (1993)
Speaking of the Nobel Prize for Literature, a novel by the 1998 winner, José Saramago, took home the 1993 IFFP.
In his typical way, with little time for things such as punctuation or paragraph breaks, Saramago presents a highly meta-fictional tale about the final year of one Ricardo Reis. This character was originally created by Portuguese author Fernando Pessoa, and in fact it’s Pessoa’s death within Saramago’s novel that introduces the story that is to unfold, one which involves Pessoa living in a hotel and aimlessly walking the streets of Lisbon.
Fun fact: Reis also spends a fair amount of time reading a fictional novel titled The God of the Labyrinth. This novel is first mentioned in Jorge Luis Borges’s 1941 short story A Survey of the Works of Herbert Quain.
3. Austerlitz by W G Sebald / Translated from the German by Anthea Bell (2003)
Jacques Austerlitz, a man who collects photographs, carries with him a secret…if only he could remember what it was. A chance encounter with a nameless German man (our tale’s narrator) leads to a lifetime of friendship, and as more and more details about Austerlitz’s childhood are revealed, the devastating truth about his true history finally comes to light. To say even a single word more would spoil this amazing final novel from Sebald, an author whose magnificent talents were stolen from us in a motor accident at the far too young age of 57.
Fun fact: The novel was the inspiration behind the newly launched “Hello Lamp Post” project in Austin, Texas.
4. Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson / Translated from the Norwegian by Anne Born (2006)
The novel itself appears to be penned by Arvid Jansen, Petterson’s part fictional / part autobiographical alter-ego who is a recurring character at the center of many of his tales. It features an elderly protagonist named Trond who is reflecting back on the events of his life and often jumps in time between the present day of the late 1990s and his childhood of the 1940s and 1950s to weave together a painful and poweful narrative about memory, loss, and regret.
Fun fact: Per Petterson trained as a librarian.
5. The Detour by Gerbrand Bakker / Translated from Dutch by David Colmer (2013)
The novel tells the tale of an adulterous Emily Dickinson scholar who flees life with her husband in Amsterdam for the peace and solitude of a simpler existence in the countryside of Wales. It’s here, on a farm, that she discovers ten white geese, but strangely, one by one, they begin disappearing. Her husband hires a private investigator to track her whereabouts, and while she seeks quiet, what she gets is anything but, as strange man after strange man interrupts her plans to be left utterly alone.
The Detour is a quiet, but highly impactful book, one that delicately explores themes of pain, grief and regret.
Fun fact: Gerbrand Bakker is a professionally licensed gardener.
Picking only five was a difficult task. You can view a complete list of previous winners on the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize website. Which previous winners rank amongst your favorites?