As if my head weren’t buzzing enough with the enigma of identity, I’ve recently read two translated novels exploring the gap between where the characters come from and where they ended up. In the first, a forty-something German man has given little thought to his origins across the border; in the second, two women, juggle loneliness and language difficulties as they gradually acclimatise to new lives in Australia, far from home.
Excuse me for bridging such different novels, although both are about the challenge of connection, one looking to the future and the other to the past. In the first, translated from the French, a famous artist juggles the contradictions of Christian and Muslim cultures when he’s commissioned to design a bridge between two shores of a capital city. In the second, a teenage boy more comfortable in the virtual world than the human, ends up fighting for his life when he forges stronger connections between the hemispheres of his brain.
Fictional writers can be tricky on the page; sometimes I suspect a character’s assigned the job because the author’s unfamiliar with more run-of-the-mill kinds of work. But, like anything else that’s slightly iffy, if you’re going to go for it, it’s best to go for it big time. That’s what Irish writer John Boyne does with his larger-than-life antihero Maurice Swift and American Andrew Sean Greer with “failed novelist” Arthur Less, both simultaneously managing to address the wider issues of human vanity and what constitutes a well-lived life.
Two novels with an unusual perspectives on mothers and mothering: the first an Indian dystopian novel about a woman’s rapid descent down the social scale after her husband and three-year-old daughter are taken from her; the second an English psychological thriller about a woman who never had, nor wanted, children who receives a Mother’s Day card in the post.
Two tales of boy slaves in the nineteenth century, both of whom gain their freedom and travel overseas. Born into slavery, Washington Black’s story begins on the familiar territory of a Caribbean sugar plantation, but his adventures take him right around the world. Tsito’s enslavement in his native Madagascar is one many English readers will be unaware of; although beginning less brutally, he’s witness to a terrifying purging of Christians and suspected traitors by a vengeful queen. (Follow this link for reviews of two other less well-known slavery stories.)
Earlier this year, I reviewed two novels in which disgraced daughters were banished from home. Although not cut off from family, the daughters in these two new novels have an even harder time in their enforced separation from wider society, with a violent father – or his proxy – governing their every move. While in Ghost Wall, Silvie’s participation in the Iron Age re-enactment is temporary, the three sisters in The Water Cure, are persuaded that without their seclusion they would die.
Two novels about same-sex love and sex in communities which frown upon such couplings: the first between women in 1930s Syria and the second between men in 1950s England. Both novels feature dreams, or dreamlike occurrences: in the first, a bureaucrat stumbles upon an isolated house on a rainy night where he’s mesmerised by an old man’s story; in the second, a scientist undergoing “chemical castration” has some vivid dreams.
I failed last month to meet my modest target of at least 50% of my reviews being of books by women. Speculating on the possible reasons, I noticed a preponderance of male authors among the novels in translation coming my way. If I were better orientated to time, you’d be forgiven for suspecting my lousy support of female authors was no accident, providing the perfect teaser for today’s post for women in translation month, revisiting the qualifying novels I’ve reviewed since August last year.
I sometimes wonder if the link between books is too tenuous to pair the reviews; less often, I worry they might be too alike. These two new novels about curmudgeonly widowers reluctantly rubbing shoulders with other retirees in what feels to them like death’s waiting room seemed to belong to the latter category: second novels about men at odds with their grown-up daughters finding a kind of redemption when an unlikely friend intrudes upon their private space. Both have hints of humour and a quietly political backdrop of past injustice but, despite the surface similarities, once I was lost in the pages I realised that no two novels are ever the same.
I’m linking these novels less for the arboreal coincidence of the titles but because each is about the impact of another culture’s approach to death and/or ageing on a Westerner’s life. For the first, six months as a young man deep in the forest of a remote Micronesian island determine the course of his professional and domestic life; for the second, a glimpse of the culture of the Toraja people in Indonesia in middle age helps him mourn the loss of a close friend.
Three translations came my way recently, each of which considers crime in a moral context. The two novellas are the work of now deceased European authors while the short novel comes from a contemporary writer. While one is a comedy and the others deadly (pun intended) serious, they collectively address the causes and consequences of the ultimate crime. In one, it begins as an accident and becomes an addiction; in another, it’s endemic in the destructive forces released through war; in the third, it’s the end result in a chain of selfish actions. While one ends in pessimism and another brings hope and redemption, in a third, the narrator gets what he wants in an unexpected way. I’m not saying which is which, but listing my reviews in the order I read them. I wonder which you would prefer.
Annecdotal is marking refugee week with two new translations: a novella and novel by authors with direct experience of being a refugee. The first is an innovative collaboration between current residents of the Palestinian camp in Shatila and a London-based publisher; the second is by and about a Bosnian Muslim exiled to Croatia who later arrived in Scandinavia as a refugee.
The central characters of these novels face a trial with the odds stacked against them in the early pages: the first about a twenty-something American woman and the second of a fifty-something Bulgarian man. For Romy, it’s the beginning of a lengthy prison sentence; for Alexander, it might be the end of the road. Both have survived oppressive systems before arriving at this point: Romy grappling the restricted opportunities on the margins of a complacent America; Alexander seemingly finding a place on the winning side of the Stalinist regime. Yet, as The Unbeliever illustrates, winners can be quickly transformed into losers under communism, while the depiction of a women’s prison in The Mars Room suggests there can be no winners there.
Annecdotal is where real life brushes up against the fictional.
Annecdotist is the blogging persona of Anne Goodwin:
slug-slayer, tramper of moors,
author of two novels.
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