In March I only read fiction in translation. I’d noticed my in-translation reading had dipped a little and wanted to get back into the swing of it, so thought the best way would be to only let myself read in translation for a month. I don’t really like restricting what I’m reading (as it just makes me want to read the Forbidden), but I’m glad I did it and will do it again if I notice I’m neglecting other languages again. Unfortunately I wasn’t well this month, so didn’t read as much as I was hoping (most of these are quite short), but I think having books I wanted to read but couldn’t should give me some momentum to keep up my in-translation reading. Onto the books…
Nagasaki by Eric Faye (Novel – French in translation)
Translator: Emily Boyce. This is a great little novella about a man who thinks someone else might be coming into his house. Faye has an excellent lightness of touch in his story-telling and is nice and ambiguous. Full review here.
Beside the Sea by Veronique Olmi (Novel – French in translation)
Translator: Adriana Hunter. This novella about a woman struggling with mental health problems and looking after her two young boys hurts. The mother decides that everyone should see the sea at least once in their lives, so takes her boys out of school and on a trip to the seaside. She tries, but everything goes wrong – the hotel is crappy, she doesn’t have quite enough money, they get wet and cold at the funfair – and a sense of darkness builds throughout. I’d accidentally seen a spoilery review, so knew what was coming, but the final paragraph was still painful. A little book that packs a powerful punch.
HHhH by Laurent Binet (Novel – French in translation)
Translator: Sam Taylor. This is a kind of ‘meta-novel’, about both the assassination attempt on Heydrich (a prominent Nazi), and the process of writing a fictional novel based on real events. The story about Heydrich’s assassination is really good, and I thought the ‘meta’ parts were an interesting conversation about historical fiction generally. But, at times, Binet’s comments are narcissistic and get in the way. There are also no page numbers for no reason I can fathom other than annoying post-modern ‘cleverness’. Full review here.
The True Deceiver by Tove Jansson (Novel – Swedish in translation)
Translator: Thomas Teal. You may know Jansson’s children’s writing best, as she created the Moomins. However, I hadn’t realised that she spent the last 30 years of her life writing books for adults, of which this is one. I really enjoyed this, about a woman who is an outsider in her Finnish village and decides to stage a break-in at an elderly artist’s house in order to secure a financial future for her brother. It did feel like a children’s story for grown-ups, with its imagery of people and houses as wolves and rabbits, circling each other. Really great sparse but beautiful language. I wanted the ending to have a little more bite (if you’ll excuse the pun!), but I’ll definitely be picking up more of her work for adults.
Down the Rabbit Hole by Juan Pablo Villalobos (Novel – Spanish in translation)
Translator: Rosalind Harvey. This is told from the perspective of a precocious seven-year-old boy, Tochtli, who has a ‘devastating’ memory and lives in the secure compound of his Mexican drug baron father. Tochtli is kind of telling the story of wanting a Liberian pygmy hippopotamus, but we, as adult readers, also see the story of drug dealing, corruption and prostitution. An excellent short novella with some great imagery at the end.
Sworn Virgin by Elvira Dones (Novel – Italian in translation)
Translator: Clarissa Botsford. ‘Sworn virgins’ are women in Albania who switch their gender to male and take a vow of celibacy in order to gain the same rights as a man, usually when there are no male heirs. This is a fascinating book about culture, gender and family. Well worth a read when it comes out in May. Full review here.
Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi (Graphic novel, non-fiction – French in translation)
Translator: Anjali Singh (I there are also others but he’s the only named one). Persepolis is the story of Satrapi’s child-/teenage-/young adult-hood in Tehran, Iran during the overthrow of the Shah’s regime, revolution, and war with Iraq. It’s just brilliant. There’s humour, horror, politics and a lack of sentimentality. Satrapi isn’t always likeable in this, and I really like that – it makes it feel like an honest portrayal. The art is simplistic black and white, and the way she draws herself evolves as she ages. Great graphic novel.
Peter Schlemihl by Adelbert von Chamisso (Novel – French in translation)
Translator: Leopold von Loewenstein-Wertheim. This was written as a cautionary tale for children in the early 1800s. Basically, Peter makes a deal with a strange man and exchanges his shadow for a purse with everlasting gold. Alas, Peter finds he is hated and ridiculed for not having a shadow, and cannot live the life he wants. So the man returns, offering him a new deal… I did enjoy this, particularly the charismatic ‘devil’ character. I found people’s reactions to his lack of shadow a little odd/forced in the beginning. It also dipped a little in the middle (Peter spends a lot of time lamenting his lot in life), but picked up again towards the end. Nice fairy tale, though not my favourite.