Subscriber OnlyBooks

Works in translation: Alternative worlds and recreated memories

Nona Fernández, Georgi Gospodinov, Eoghan Ó Tuairisc, Beatriz Bracher, Amalie Smith and Daniela Hodrová in translation

The titles of Nona Fernández’s twin novels, The Twilight Zone (Daunt Books, 272pp, £9.99) and Space Invaders (Daunt Books, 96pp, £9.99), both translated by Natasha Wimmer, might suggest lighthearted nostalgia but it soon becomes clear that her subject is to serve the memories of those who were tortured and murdered in Chile when Pinochet was president.

The Twilight Zone is her name for the nowhere that all of those who disappeared inhabit. An alternative world that will never be located. As is the case with several other novels from Latin America, these two books fasten on to verifiable facts which are presented unadorned but with fictional elements added. Of greatest importance for the framing of these novels is the testimony of Andrés Antonio Valenzuela Morales, usually referred to as “the man who tortured people”, whose daily “work” instils brutality with banality. The novels thread through one another like mirrors, allowing differing perspectives on many of the same events. My suggestion would be to read the longer book first.

True nostalgia becomes a central element of Time Shelter by Georgi Gospodinov, translated by Angela Rodel (Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 307pp, £14.99) when, in the culmination of a novel that meditates on the nature of memory and time, the countries of the EU (and Switzerland, always ready for another referendum) vote on which country or decade they would like to accurately recreate and live through again.

To start with, the narrator’s enigmatic friend Gaustine constructs minutely detailed versions of average living rooms as they would have been in particular years, the hope being that it will help trigger recollections in people who have suffered severe memory loss. This method of aiding those with dementia and other degenerative conditions leads to considerations of the ways in which entire populations might benefit from living in the time their country experienced its period of greatest hope. But, fascinating as all of that is, it is often the asides and musings of Gospodinov that are the most appealing and amusing aspect of an immensely enjoyable book which achieves depth with an affable narrative voice.

READ MORE

The monumental contributions of Irish writers to international modernism can appear to have quickly given way to a preference for the realist novel. But there have always been Irish writers who have accepted the narrative challenges set by the notable greats. Among them was Eoghan Ó Tuairisc whose novel i am lewy has been translated from Irish for the first time by Micheál Ó hAodha (Bullaun Press, 106pp, €12.95) in a playful and resourceful recreation of the original novel which moves into and outside the viewpoint of six-year-old Loodeen (Lewy) in a free indirect style.

Through him we both understand and misunderstand the turmoil of the War of Independence, the significance of religion along with the swirling confusion of a circus, his grandfather’s funeral and the terror induced by nuns. Lewy’s bewilderment is perfectly matched by the way in which we, as readers, must ourselves discover the circumstances of scenes into which we are placed in media res. The language matches this instability of certitude, recreating both Irish and English and often rendering it as Lewy might phonetically construe it. Bullaun Press – based on the Aran Islands – has stated that its mission is to make translated literature “its sole focus”. Their debut publication – a novel of great wit and inventiveness – is a very welcome addition to the literature of the world.

Near the beginning of Antonio by Beatriz Bracher, translated by Adam Morris (Pushkin Press, 187pp, £9.99), the character to whom everything in the novel is addressed is told by his grandmother that "the story of our lives still isn't finished, and it never will be".

That thought is pivotal to a novel in which we are given three perspectives on lives and events which have had an immense impact on the life of Benjamin, the character to whom the other character’s recollections are told. Benjamin acts like a black hole. We never get his perspective and are only aware of him because of the way he impacts those around him. The three people who speak to him, separately answering questions we can intuit about his father, Teo, a catastrophically unstable presence – and then absence – in his life, are his grandmother, Isabel, a man who was a friend of Isabel’s husband and a man who was a friend of Teo’s.

Apart from the fascination of the stories they tell, much of the intrigue of this very fine and subtle novel arises from what we intuit as each character sets forth tales that are self-revealing in ways they don’t intend. As with lies that must be covered with more lies, our self-serving interpretations of the past will always be contradicted by the judgement of the present.

The first of many striking aspects of Thread Ripper by Amalie Smith, translated by Jennifer Russell ( Lolli Editions, 216pp, £12.99) is the immediate appeal of this book as a physical object. The text is laid out in short paragraphs arranged almost like poems with different and unique fonts on the verso and recto pages. That distinction between left and right is embodied in the text, with different strands of thought on each side. This is never jarring or dissonant because, in any particular instance, both sides are engaged with the same subject matter.

The points of convergence are often related to the long prehistory of computers, starting with the automation of the loom and the impressive mathematical discoveries of Ada Lovelace. We pursue instances of transformation and apparent progress as Smith weaves free-floating thoughts about episodes from her contemporary life: a visit to Japan, her passionate but wavering feelings about a man called William and her close affiliation with nature; always allowing that we are only a stage in the evolution of all nature. Through Smith’s luminous writing we are presented with wholly original, reflective and resonant observations.

In A Treatise of Human Nature, David Hume wrote that the self is "nothing but a bundle of different perceptions which succeed each other with an inconceivable rapidity". Such a definition could well be applied to the selfhood of the central presence in The City of Torment by Daniela Hodrová, translated by Veronique Fikusny and Elena Sokol (Jantar, 588pp, £25). That mutable, multiplied woman is in search of whatever traces of her childhood, her father, the streets of Prague and the inhabitants of that city remain in the collective illusion of memory. This is realised in an expansively effective way, complex in structure, but a joy to read in a terrifically resourceful translation.

Through the author’s imaginative leaps we experience the attempts of a number of characters to match their subjective visions with the limitations of human capabilities. Thus, the dead ought not to be able to interact with the living. But in the realm of this novel, they do. Originally three separate books, the trilogy moves from third to first person narration as the central presence descends “towards herself, into childhood and into her own non-being” and emerges from the darkened, menaced labyrinths of precursors like Franz Kafka and Bruno Schulz to achieve a novel of exceptional brilliance.