Britain tends to read far less in translation than the rest of Europe. But good things happen when we read around the world
Among the many curveballs in this year’s Booker longlist is the inclusion of two relatively unknown Commonwealth writers – Malaysian Tan Twan Eng (for The Garden of Evening Mists) and Indian Jeet Thayil (for Narcopolis). It’s a cheering sign that perhaps British literary horizons are being broadened.
And don’t we need it. Our geographical blind-spots are plentiful. White South African novelists – such as the magnificent Andre Brink, who is also on this year’s list – plus Indian and Nigerian authors often feature on British prize lists. But east Asia – along with vast expanses of the rest of the world – rarely gets a look in. Our tastes are far more isolationist than our European counterparts, with only 3% of book sales coming from those in translation, in contrast to France’s 14% and Germany’s 8%.
The map badly needs to be redrawn after so many years of insularity. With the exception, perhaps, of Scandinavian crime fiction, and some 1990s authors from India, not since the 1980s has literature from another continent swept us away. Then we were in thrall to South American magic-realism fever, reading the likes of Gabriel García Márquez and Mario Vargas Llosa.
It’s a shame we can’t be more open to what’s on the edge of the radar. Because – as magic realism showed us – great writing ensues when conventions are overturned.