Umberto Eco's fifth novel, The Prague Cemetery is the headline choice for this year's Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, the winner of which is due to be announced on May 14. Eco's sprawling tale of gluttony and global conspiracy heads an eclectic and surprising six-strong shortlist, which also includes stories rooted in 17th-century Iceland, wartime Ukraine and Finland, and modern-day Germany and rural China. Yan Lianke's pitch-dark Dream Of Ding Village makes another appearance having also been shortlisted for this year's MAN Asian Literary Prize. Uniquely among literary prizes, the £10,000 fund is split equally between the winning author and translator. Alice by Judith Hermann (from German; trans. Margot Bettauer Dembo) The clarity of Judith Hermann's prose won her a place on the shortlist for Alice, a collection of five inter-linking short stories based around a single central protagonist and the death of a different friend or acquaintance. Technically it's hard to fault, but the repetitive nature of the stories sometimes drags. The problem is not in the book's observational qualities, but in its fundamental lack of insight. People die and she moves on, illuminating little about the process of grief, and prompting the reader to question precisely what Hermann had in mind when it came to creating this slim volume. She's a novelist of considerable repute in Germany, so she's probably way better placed to answer the question. Until she does, in the context of a major literary shortlist, Alice will remain entirely, perplexingly unremarkable. Blooms of Darkness by Aharon Appelfeld (from Hebrew; trans. Jeffrey M. Green) Appelfeld is a prominent Israeli novelist who has written over 40 works of fiction, most concerning the Holocaust. Blooms Of Darkness tells the story of Hugo, an 11-year-old Jewish boy, who escapes the Nazis in an unnamed town in Ukraine by hiding out in a cupboard in a local brothel. Hugo befriends a prostitute, Mariana, and as the novel develops so does their relationship: some might say, given Hugo's age, in a somewhat unlikely and/or disturbing fashion. Appelfeld's story is based on truth: he escaped a Nazi concentration camp in 1941 and hid out in a forest with, as he puts it, “underworld figures.” Appelfeld would be the first to admit Blooms Of Darkness is nothing particularly new, but it is nevertheless a worthy addition to the literature of the Holocaust. Its most significant triumph is its understated prose -- so heartfelt it could almost have been written in a whisper. Dream of Ding Village by Yan Lianke (from Chinese; trans. Cindy Carter) Lianke's grim tale of a Chinese blood-selling scandal which sweeps an HIV epidemic through countless small communities was also shortlisted for the MAN Asian Literary Prize. Unsurprisingly banned in his homeland, Dream Of Ding Village serves as a damning indictment of China's irresistible push towards a form of controlled capitalism. It serves as a vicious allegory of the whole bust-up Chinese communist machine. With the villagers dying in scores, the rabidly profiteering blood-sellers must seek out ever more inventive ways to maintain their cash flow. Blackmail and corruption are rife: this is a society rendered hopelessly naïve by long years of bludgeoning single-party rule. Lianke is merciless in heaping misery upon his subjects, which makes this a terribly bleak book. But it is also highly readable, and undeniably important. From The Mouth of the Whale by Sjon (from Icelandic; trans. Victoria Cribb) From the Oscar-nominated composer Sjon comes his second novel, From The Mouth Of The Whale, which is every bit as baffling and brilliant as his first, The Blue Fox, which was previously longlisted for the prize. Set in volcanic 17th-century Iceland, where snow burns and whales grow to the size of mountains, Sjon conjures a fantastical tale of the purging of pagan rituals and the banishment of a scientist and doctor, Jonas Palmason The Learned, to a remote island as punishment for his alleged heresy. There are exorcisms, infant deaths, an uproarious sketch involving unicorn horns and, in the book's most unforgettable scene, the brutal slaughter of a band of visiting Basque whalers. Sjon's rich, almost mythical prose never falters for a moment, and the extraordinary success of Victoria Cribb in losing none of its potency in her translation from its original Icelandic deserves to be celebrated. This is a wild, tumultuous, utterly unique novel. New Finnish Grammar by Diego Marani (from Finnish; trans. Judith Landry) New Finnish Grammar is a wholly admirable book, telling the story of a sailor found grievously wounded on the quayside in Trieste towards the end of the Second World War. He has lost both his memory and his language, and carries no identifying documents. Taken in by a passing Finnish doctor, Petri Friari, the pair struggle to rebuild his identity: Friari convinces himself the man is also Finnish, on account of a nametag found in his jumper, and sends him to Helsinki in the hope of reigniting some dormant memories. There, he (re-) introduces his subject to the notoriously complicated Finnish language, evoking myths and legends of his country's past as the mystery of the man's identity slowly begins to unfurl. Marani highlights important issues surrounding language and identity, and if it is a little dry at times, valuing intelligence over intimacy, he has written a technically excellent and thought-provoking book. The Prague Cemetery by Umberto Eco (from Italian; trans. Richard Dixon) The extrovert, octogenarian Italian is back with a book many are calling his best yet. Fans of Eco will recognize his style from the start: grueling, disconcerting and often frustrating, it often feels that Eco is deliberately taking liberties with his reader, and yet The Prague Cemetery is astonishingly vivid, and never less than engaging. Eco weaves fact and fiction to devastating effect to unveil the mystery of a real-life document entitled The Protocols Of The Elders Of Zion, which was contrived to unite nations against the (supposed) Jewish plot for world domination, and would later by cited by Hitler in Mein Kampf. A master forger, Simone Simoncini, who has tricked and murdered his way through Turin and Paris, is tasked with creating the document. It is its inherent truth which gives The Prague Cemetery an extra dimension. It serves as devastating proof of how falsehoods can shape history, and misery can be heaped upon whole peoples by the stroke of a pen.
Another packed line-up: New this week is Stephen King's 11/22/63, Umberto Eco's The Prague Cemetary, Ingo Schulze's, and Adam and Evelyn (all three of which were previewed by us). We also have new biographies of Kurt Vonnegut and Catherine the Great. And new in paperback, sometime Millions contributor Matthew Gallaway's The Metropolis Case.
Alexandre Dumas is once again -- still, always, forever -- with us. There he is in Umberto Eco's new novel, The Prague Cemetery, aiding Giuseppe Garibaldi and his redshirts during the fight for Italian unification. And there he is up on the silver screen, for at least the 200th time, with a splashy new 3-D version of one of his most durable tales, The Three Musketeers, a voracious movie franchise that has drawn on talents ranging from Douglas Fairbanks to Christopher Walken and Charlie Sheen. Dumas has been dead for more than 140 years, but he refuses to go gentle into that good night. What's his secret? How does he manage to continue to engage readers and moviegoers year after year after year? The answer, I believe, is that Dumas had the good sense (and the good fortune) to do the following seven things: 1. He Came From Humble Origins Perhaps the central fact of Dumas's life was that he was of mixed race, a “quadroon.” His paternal grandparents were a French nobleman stationed in Haiti and a Creole woman of mixed French and African descent. Their son became a general in Napoleon's army, but he fell out of favor and his own son, Alexandre, was born into poverty in 1802. 2. He Worked Like a Galley Slave No writer ever succeeded without hard work, and Dumas often put in 14-hour days producing more than 200 books, plus plays, stories, and a small mountain of journalism. Soon after arriving in Paris from his native Villers-Cotterêts, he was writing hit plays, followed by hit novels. After turning one of his plays into a serial novel, he opened a production studio with a team of writers who cranked out hundreds of stories. Dumas used many collaborators during his career, most notably Auguste Maquet, who helped him write dozens of plays and novels, including Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo. Maquet would later take Dumas to court seeking joint rights to their collaborations, but the court awarded him financial damages while Dumas retained the rights to the works. It was a case of the whole being greater than the sum of the parts. After the court case, neither man, working alone, produced any memorable work. 3. He Lived Large Dumas was as colorful as any of the characters who populated his fiction. As his biographer André Maurois would later put it, "Dumas was a hero out of Dumas." He amassed and spent several fortunes, ate and drank like a king, kept mistresses, fathered illegitimate children, ran a theater, built a mansion, and showed resourcefulness when it came to dodging creditors. He traveled to Belgium and later to Russia before arriving in Italy during the Risorgimento in 1860. Simone Simonini, Umberto Eco's supremely unreliable narrator in The Prague Cemetery, winds up aboard the ship that is carrying Dumas to Sicily. "Dumas welcomed me with much cordiality," the fictional Simonini reports: He was wearing a pale brown lightweight coat and looked unmistakably like the half-caste he was -- olive skin, protruding, fleshy, sensual lips and a head of frizzy hair like an African savage. Otherwise he had a lively, wry expression, a pleasant smile and the rotund figure of a bon vivant... I remembered one of the many stories about him: some impudent young Parisian had made a malicious reference in his presence to the latest theories suggesting a link between primitive man and lower species. Dumas replied: 'Yes sir, I do indeed come from the monkey. But you, sir, are returning to one!' 4. He Was a Peerless Storyteller and Unapologetic Entertainer Simonini disparages a couple of redshirts because they are "storytellers like Dumas, embellishing their recollections so that all their geese are swans." Guilty as charged. Dumas did his historical research, but he had the good sense not to let facts get in the way of a good story. Unlike his contemporaries Balzac and Dickens, he shunned realism in favor of escapist entertainment, and so instead of taking his readers into the salons and slums of Paris, he took them back to the 17th century (The Three Musketeers and its sequels), back to the French Revolution, back to the aftermath of Napoleon's downfall earlier in the 19th century (The Count of Monte Cristo), always back. Many critics dismissed him as a lightweight, but readers couldn't get enough. Like Dickens, Dumas sold many of his novels as serials, which called for brisk action, constantly rising and falling fortunes, and titillating cliff-hangers. And, as with Dickens, you sometimes get the sense that Dumas had one eye on the meter -- that is, that he was a little too well aware that he was getting paid by the word. But readers didn't complain. They were too busy devouring Dumas's tales of unjust imprisonment, stock market swindles, buried treasure, blackmail, back-stabbing, suicide, poisoning, kidnapping, forgiveness, revenge, and countless other human virtues. 5. He Would Have Hated – and Loved – the New Three Musketeers Movie Though Dumas surely would have recognized the new Musketeers movie for the dog it is, he just as surely would have appreciated it for keeping the franchise alive until the next adaptation comes along. The cast of this new 3-D version looks like it was culled from an L train full of hipsters headed for Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The shining exception is Christoph Waltz, who plays duplicitous Cardinal Richelieu. Waltz is such an interesting actor that I would pay money to watch him paint a door, but here he is given some wooden lines -- "Evil is just a point of view" and "I am France" -- that would have dismayed Dumas, a master at writing dialog. 6. He Died Broke and Happy If every smart person's goal in life is to die broke, then Dumas was an unqualified success. But while a lesser man would have bemoaned the cruelties of fate that left him penniless on his deathbed, Dumas had this to say about death as it approached him in 1870: "I shall tell her a story, and she will be kind to me." 7. He Figured Out How to Stay in the News Dumas was still making news more than a century after his death. He was buried in the town of his birth and remained there until Nov. 30, 2002, when French President Jacques Chirac ordered the body transported in solemn procession to its rightful resting place in the Panthéon in Paris, where Voltaire, Rousseau, Émile Zola, Victor Hugo, and other French immortals are entombed. Dumas would have loved the spectacle. During a televised ceremony, the coffin was flanked by four Republican Guards dressed as the Musketeers Athos, Porthos, Aramis, and their sidekick D'Artagnan. Chirac said France was "repaying an injustice which marked Dumas from childhood, just as it marked the skin of his slave ancestors." Two centuries after his birth, Dumas had finally overcome his humble origins. The critic Jules Machelet has called him "an inextinguishable volcano." Don't expect the lava to stop flowing anytime soon. Image Credit: Bill Morris/[email protected]