Alison Flood 

Aharon Appelfeld scoops Independent foreign fiction prize

Israeli author's dark tale of a Jewish boy taken in by a prostitute during the second world war 'glows on the page', said judges
  
  

Inspired by his experiences during the Holocaust, a novel by the 80-year-old Israeli author Aharon Appelfeld has won the Independent foreign fiction prize.

Blooms of Darkness is loosely based on his childhood during the second world war. The author was deported to a labour camp at Transnistria at the age of seven, later escaping and ending up in Palestine in 1946, aged 14. Although the author grew up speaking German, he chooses to write instead in the Hebrew he learned from the age of 14, calling German "the language of the murderers".

His prize-winning novel, praised by judges for combining "deep sensuality ... alongside unfathomable brutality", sees a young Jewish boy taken in by a prostitute for protection during the war. "I wanted to explore the darkest places of human behaviour and to show that even there, generosity and love can survive; that humanity and love can overcome cruelty and brutality," said Appelfeld yesterday, on a rare visit to London. "It is a joy to win the Independent foreign fiction prize alongside Jeffrey M Green – he is a highly professional translator and I love his work."

The award, sponsored by the Independent, is presented to the year's best fiction in translation, and gives £5,000 to the winning author and £5,000 to their translator. Past winners include WG Sebald and Milan Kundera, and Appelfeld beat titles by acclaimed Italian author Umberto Eco and Chinese writer Yan Lianke to win this year's prize.

"We had the happy misfortune of a strong shortlist, which made for a lengthy and emotional final judging meeting. But for the majority, this was the first choice and the very best book among some outstanding competition," said judge and writer Hepzibah Anderson. "What's so extraordinary about it is the way it continues to unfold and grow in the imagination long after you put it down. It's so sparely told, but Appelfeld somehow manages to fold entire stories into the silences between each chapter – each paragraph, even. It deserves to become a classic."

The story might be dark, she said, but "on the page, it glows. As well as love and yearning and small acts of human kindness, Appelfeld infuses his story with something transcendent, and he does so without in any way lessening that immense surrounding darkness. Ultimately, it's redemptive."

Describing Green's translation as "incantatory", Anderson said Blooms of Darkness would appeal even to those readers who tend to steer clear of translated fiction. "Jeffrey M Green has made such a marvellous job of the translation, I'm hopeful that a few pages will be enough to draw in readers wary of fiction in translation. It's occasionally spoken of as if it were a genre in itself – an esoteric, unrewarding genre typified by some of the more obscure Nobel laureates, say. Our shortlist showed just how wrong that is, and what a varied and first-rate selection of foreign fiction there is out there."

Blooms of Darkness is published by tiny UK press Alma Books – one of five titles on the six-strong shortlist to be released by an independent publisher. Arts Council England literature director Antonia Byatt said the lineup "demonstrated the health and vibrancy of independent publishers who are discovering international titles and producing translated editions of the highest quality".

"In general, I don't think the big guys are oblivious to these gems-in-translation, it's more that they're becoming by necessity so risk-averse, they don't think they can afford to take a chance," said Anderson. "Paradoxically, the indies can, and anyone who cares about the overall richness of literature should be thankful to them."