April 17, 2012 by markstani
On an Independent Foreign Fiction Prize longlist which included three titles that swelled, respectively, to over six hundred pages, the inclusion of a contender from the London-based Peirene Press was quite a godsend.
Peirene have carved a reputation as masters of the novella form: they proudly boast on their website that they ‘only publish books of less than 200 pages that can be read in the same time it takes to watch a DVD.’
Matthias Politycki’s Next World Novella is, then, exactly what Peirene’s loyal subscribers have come to expect: a shining example in the art of producing short, sharp, clever, thought-provoking fiction.
Too bad this year’s IFFP judges did not see fit to include it on their final shortlist, especially given the nature of the final six. It did, however, make the shortlist for our ‘Shadow’ Prize, and quite right too.
‘Next World Novella’, translated from German by Anthea Bell, is a tale about the unravelling of a relationship. Hinrich is a professor of ancient Chinese literature who takes his role, and his life as a whole, rather for granted. He is at a loss one morning when he finds his wife, Moro, slumped dead at her desk from a stroke. Hinrich discovers Moro had excavated one of his long forgotten, swiftly abandoned attempts at a novel from among his papers, and had been ruthlessly editing it at the time of her death. Hinrich’s novel is almost embarrassingly unremarkable, but Moro has also found in it a damning autobiography: a few name changes, and she has exposed secrets which Hinrich had always assumed he had kept hidden. In exposing Hinrich, however, Moro in turn also lays bare some secrets she herself has harboured, shredding their assumed relationship still further. In the saddest part, Moro, who is obsessed with death, reveals she will not keep their long-held pact to sail into the afterlife together, and would rather go alone.
This is a delicate, perfectly pitched, always engaging book which ends as intelligently as it started, with a lovely twist which will linger almost as long as the book took to read. At just 138 pages long, it sends a timely message to some of its fellow longlistees: when it comes to beautiful, translated fiction, size doesn’t really matter.