Eileen Battersby’s books of the year: Fiction
Our Literary Correspondent reveals her 30 highlights in fiction for 2015
The End of Days By Jenny Erpenbeck, translated by Susan Bernofsky (Portobello)
What if a life unlived was lived, differently, several times? Erpenbeck’s metaphysical fictions are strange and beautiful, stern and compelling. This devastating work is as light as a dream and as unrelenting as real life. Sustained by a chilling grace, it recasts the agonies of 20th-century history. No reader can feel untouched by Erpenbeck’s inspired, and inspiring, vision.
All for Nothing By Walter Kempowski, translated by Anthea Bell (Granta)
Behind the walls of an East Prussian manor house, the no longer wealthy if still privileged von Globig carry on much as before, while everywhere else thousands of Germans flee the advancing Russians. Kempowski, who was also an historian, spent his life in the shadow of Günter Grass. All For Nothing has pathos, irony, moments of genius and unforgettable characters including Peter, a young boy and a detached witness to much horror. Bell captures the tone of laconic despair in a marvellous translation.
The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horse By Ivan Repila, translated by Sophie Hughes (Pushkin)
Brothers Big and Small are trapped in a well in Repila’s breathtaking metaphysical fable about power, survival and hope. The brothers experience the seven circles of hell in an allegory of profound artistry which explores the reality of being human while also celebrating the dark potential of the traditional European fairy tale.
Seiobo There Below By Laszlo Krasznahorkai, translated by Ottilie Mulzet (Tuskar Rock)
Hungarian master and author of Satantango thrills with an exciting collage of story, observation, anecdote and set pieces, which draws on his erudition, humanity, wit and artistry. It shimmers with originality and imagination.
The Red Collar By Jean-Christophe Rufin, translated by Adrianna Hunter (Europa)
Double Prix Goncourt winner Rufin focuses on a battered old dog waiting outside a prison cell where a disgruntled guard watches a war hero awaiting interrogation. The truth gradually emerges, and with it, a war story with a difference.
June By Gerbrand Bakker, translated by David Colmer (Harvill Secker)
Hours after Queen Juliana visits a small town a little girl is killed in an accident which casts a long shadow. Bakker’s extraordinary novel, which surpasses even his IMPAC-winning The Twin, is about memory at its most random and impressionistic. Its genius lies in his feel for ordinary detail.
None So Blind By JÁ González Sainz, translated by Harold Augenbraum and Cecilia Ross (Hispa)
Quiet, dignified and apolitical, Felipe Diaz Carrion tries to do his best: settle in his hometown, marry his girlfriend and raise a family. Then he loses his modest job at the local factory and in search of work ventures into the Basque country. It may sound pompous but this is indeed a landmark Spanish novel. One of the most dramatic scenes takes place in a bar. It is in northern Spain but it could as easily be in Northern Ireland at the height of the Troubles. Felipe, as weary father, son and husband, is Everyman.
The Vegetarian By Han Kang, translated by Deborah Smith (Portobello)
A cautionary tale in three acts, this charts one woman’s journey into apathy. It also reveals the plight of women in male-dominated Korean society. Han examines suffering, grief and the death of hope. It is a remarkably philosophical work considering its physicality and awareness of brutal power shifts.
My Father’s Dreams By Evald Flisar, translated by Evald Flisar (Istros) Maverick Slovenian man of letters Flisar shocks and impresses with this precise tale about a son’s relationship with his cold, domineering father. Of his 14-year- old self, the narrator recalls the school essay he wrote about a dream he had in which he and his father plotted to derail a train in which the boy’s mother was travelling. The mother died and the concerned teacher protested – much to the damaged narrator’s surprise
Satin Island By Tom McCarthy (Cape)
U, the cool self-possessed narrator of this playful mediation, is an anthropologist whose task is to observe our deranged society. Part Ballard, part De Lillo, it is about everything and nothing and is brilliant. It should have won this year’s Man Booker but didn’t – so much for stupid prizes.
Western By Christine Montalbetti, translated by Betsy Wing (Dalkey Archive)
Montabetti visited Dublin in July and introduced a different kind of cowboy story. With echoes of Ed Dorn’s post-modernist epic Gunslinger (1968 - 1972), her hero is caught up in a daringly metaphysical force field of meta-description in which even the ants are examined as he struggles with his memories, the narrator procrastinates and yes sir, the good guy does gallop up into the sunset. Sort of.
Birth of a Bridge By Maylis de Kerangal, translated by Jessica Moore (Maclehose) Nothing is as straightforward or as complicated as constructing a bridge, always a symbolic gesture. De Kerangal is at her most intriguing in this intelligent, layered narrative which insists one should expect the unexpected.
A Whole Life By Robert Seethaler, translated by Charlotte Collins (Picador)
One man endures a harsh childhood and eventually finds love only to lose it in a disaster. Set in a mountain village, this gentle, understated novel by Austrian-born German actor and writer Seethaler evokes John Williams’s Stoner – as does González Sainz in None So Blind.
The Death of Napoleon By Simon Leys, translated Patricia Clancy and Simon Leys (NYRB)
In this novel, which is among the year’s outstanding reissues, Belgian original Leys imagines Napoleon fleeing St Helena in disguise only to begin a series of adventures which reveal the futility of his mad ambitions. Includes a telling visit to an asylum housing a range of demented Napoleons.
Reunion By Fred Uhlman (Vintage)
Written in English by the Stuttgart-born Uhlman, a true German Romantic and anti-Nazi lawyer, who was forced to leave his beloved Württemberg in 1933, this intense, eloquent novella about a friendship between an aristocrat and the son of a middle-class Jewish doctor, says more than many books five times its length.
These Are the Names By Tommy Wieringa, translated by Sam Garrett (Scribe) Likeable, world-weary police commissioner Pontus Beg has sufficient problems of his own and is finally embracing religion when a band of disturbed refugees approach his border town on the steppe bringing evidence of wrongdoing with them. Dutch writer Wieringa’s finest work to date is witty, profound and topical.
Uppsala Woods By Alvaro Colomer, translated by Jonathan Dunne (Hispa)
Julio the narrator is an entomologist. His wife is suicidal and he’s not doing too well either. The tone of bewildered clarity suggests real tragedy yet it is also very funny. Dunne’s measured translation conveys every nuance of Julio’s growing panic in a masterful Spanish novel about modern life that resonates with universal truths.
The Key By Mártín Ó Cadhain, translated by Louis de Paor & Lochlainn Ó Tuairisg (Dalkey Archive) More than 60 years after it was written, this insightful satire has been translated into English and feels dauntingly relevant. J, a beleaguered civil servant, breaks an office key and petty officialdom has its revenge.
Yugoslavia, My Fatherland By Goran Vojnovic, translated by Noah Charney (Istros)
The son of a Serb father and a Slovenian mother, Vladan Borojevic spends years grieving for his soldier father only to discover that he is alive and in hiding as a war criminal. Film maker Vojnovic takes on the legacy of the 1990s Balkan war in this candid, conversational picaresque which offers a sharp insight into the Balkan tragedy without faltering into polemic.
The Hotel Life By Javier Montes, translated by Ollie Brock with Lorna Scott Fox (Hispa)
The wised-up narrator, a hotel reviewer, is getting through the days – and his life. Fate intervenes and he is given the wrong hotel room key. A porn movie is being filmed. He vacates, only to be later visited by the film- maker, a woman. Curiosity becomes obsession; there is a car chase and a memorable walk through a hotel kitchen. Off beat and so very cool.
The Folly By Ivan Vladislavic (&Other Stories)
This 1993 debut from the gifted South African of Croatian descent is more Pinter than Kafka and a zany variation on Coetzee’s Age of Iron (1990). It features the arrival of a stranger intent on building a house. & Other Stories have been publishing Vladislavic’s subsequent works, yet this is the one to read; outrageously deadpan funny, stylish and prophetic. Even wittier than Patrick deWitt’s entertaining Peake-like riff, Under Major Domo Minor (Granta); read together they form an inspired offbeat comic pairing.
The Story of Mr Sommer By Patrick Süskind, translated by Michael Hoffman (Fox, Finch & Tepper)
An unlikely if beautiful account of a German rural boyhood in which the narrator comes to realise the significance of the tormented neighbour whose endless walking was about so much more than exercise.
The Meursault Investigation By Kamel Daoud, translated by John Cullen (One World)
Algerian journalist Daoud takes on Camus’s classic L’Étranger (1942) in a novel which shouldn’t work yet does. Harun is the younger brother of the man killed randomly on the beach by Camus’s anti-hero, Meursault, who is referred to merely as the Arab. Daoud gives him a name, Musa, and shows the brother and their mother enduring the aftermath in a volatile Algeria.
Farewell, Cowboy By Olja Savicevic, translated by Celia Hawkesworth (Istros) A beautifully subversive quest narrative in which the narrator, Dada, one of the post-1990s Balkan war’s lost generation, returns to her home town on Croatia’s Adriatic coast to investigate the death of her charmed brother.
August, October By Andrés Barba, translated by Lisa Dillman (Hispa)
Written before his outstanding quartet of novellas, Rain Over Madrid, this is an unusual coming -of-age story describing the annual family vacation to the familiar seaside resort. Only this time, an aunt, a lonely widow, dies unexpectedly. The young protagonist, Tomas, is wilful, restless and looking for a fight. He warily joins a gang, and bravado sees him participate in an ugly incident. On his return to Madrid he becomes ill and then realises a need to seek forgiveness. Intelligent and candid, it comes far closer to the secret world of the teenager than many hyped young adult novels. A very different Spain is reflected in Josep Maria de Sagarra’s delightfully excessive social comedy, Private Life, translated by Mary Ann Newman (Archipelago). Catalan De Sagarra exposes Barcelona society with merciless glee. Initially published in 1932, it was to outrage – and preoccupy – Franco’s censors. This is the first English translation. Why read Jonathan Franzen?
Mona Lisa By Alexander Lernet-Holenia, translated by Ignat Avsey (Pushkin)
Black-listed by the Nazis, Lernet-Holenia decided to explore the power and danger of art by having a young romantic fall in love with the portrait of a dead girl painted by da Vinci. The suitor demands confirmation of her death and disturbs her grave with unfortunate results.
Please Talk to Me By Liliana Heker, translated by Alberto Manguel and Miranda France (Yale)
Outstanding collection from an Argentinean writer whose art is traditional, devoid of tricks and utterly convincing. You don’t merely read the stories, you live them.
A Manual for Cleaning Women By Lucia Berlin (Picador)
Let Me Tell You By Shirley Jackson (Penguin) Time to celebrate two fine American writers: firstly, Lucia Berlin whose stories in A Manual for Cleaning Women are more kindly than Lorrie Moore’s and funnier. Previously unpublished work by Shirley Jackson is included in a generous volume, Let Me Tell You . A heroine from my youth, the inimitable Jackson, author of Hangsaman (1951) was versatile and unflinching. Both she and Berlin grasped the black humour of life and articulated it.
Our Twisted Hero By Yi Munyol, translated by Kevin O’Rourke (Hyperion East)
The Private Life of Plants, by Lee Seung-U, translated by Inrae You Vinciguerra and Louis Vinciguerra (Dalkey Archive) Power shifts in a Korean classroom reflect the wider politics in Our Twisted Hero, while The Private Life of Plants looks at emotional estrangement in a family beset by secrets and tragedy. Lee’s slow moving approach to narrative is well countered by the convincingly bewildered narrator whose voice seldom wavers.
A Strangeness in My Mind By Orhan Pamuk, translated by Ekin Oklap (Faber)
The Stein Report By José Carlos Llop, translated by Howard Curtis (Hispa) Nobel Prize winner Pamuk is at his most Dickensian in a likeable and meandering yarn that is presented as the story of Mevlut, street seller and witness to four decades of change in Turkey. It is instead yet another fond tribute to Pamuk’s beloved Istanbul and easy reading.
But almost five times shorter and far more likely to remain in the memory is The Stein Report. The narrator looks back over 40 years to his boyhood and the day a mysterious, slightly menacing new boy arrived at his school. Think of Alain-Fournier’s evocative classic Le Grand Meaulnes and read on. Llop is an artist of subtle power and one of several fine writers from Spain now reaching a wider audience through Hispa Books in Madrid, the literary discovery of 2015.
Eileen Battersby is Literary Correspondent of The Irish Times