Gains in translations: a round-up of the best new releases

Review of works by Rodaan Al Galidi, Ana María Matute, Adania Shibli, Jorge Franco and Mieko Kawakami

If I were to suggest reading a 400-page novel about life in a Dutch asylum centre, you might think: gulp. But gulp not, because Rodaan Al Galidi's autobiographical novel, Two Blankets, Three Sheets, a Towel, a Pillow and a Pillowcase (to give it its full title), translated by Jonathan Reeder (World Editions, 400pp, £12.99), is an absolute treat.

This is because Al Galidi has an eye for the absurd, whether in his native Iraq – where children were assigned an official year of birth according to their height, so he ended up a year “older” than his elder but smaller brother – or his adopted home of the Netherlands, where he ends up suspected of arson just because a stranger warns him not to start fires.

Al Galidi fled Iraq and, via numerous countries and false passports, ended up in the Netherlands, where he entered the Diet Kafka labyrinth of the asylum system. After some months in a reception centre and a few weeks on a farm, he ended up in an asylum centre for nine years. The title lists the only items he is provided with, which he would be fined for losing.

The book is largely episodic, with a limited amount of narrative drive: but as Al Galidi says, when you’re held in limbo for years, time ceases to have much meaning. There is certainly some sobering stuff, including wrenching tales of people left stateless, and driven to suicide, which are all the more striking because of the lightness of the telling. An earlier novel by Al Galidi won the EU Prize for Literature, and I hope we see more of his work in English soon.

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Ana María Matute

The Island is Spanish novelist Ana María Matute's most successful novel, a multiple prizewinner when published in 1959 and now in a new translation (it was previously School of the Sun in English) by Laura Lonsdale (Penguin Modern Classics, 192pp, £9.99).

On the face of it this is a charming coming-of-age story set on Mallorca, but it’s a feverish, dramatic brew. It tells of a girl, Matia, who is sent to live with her grandmother (who “had white hair rising in a wave over her forehead, which made her look irate”) after being expelled from convent school. Initially her adventures on the island with her cousin Borja and their friend, Lauro, are innocent if kaleidoscopic, the narrative swirling around rather than taking a direct path.

The style is intoxicating with the heightened sensitivity of youth: “Through the bloated, smoke-coloured clouds, swelling like an ulcer and intensifying with every minute, came the deep red globe of the sun.” But it gets darker. Commonplace childhood firsts – seeing a dead body – are complicated by the context of the violence and rivalries of the civil war and an underlying pulse of anti-Semitism.

The welter of names and Matute’s taste for parentheses means the story is sometimes hard to follow, but it offers a unique view of a part of Spain usually overlooked by literature.

Adania Shibli

Adania Shibli's Minor Detail, translated by Elisabeth Jaquette (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 128pp, £10.99), is a novella split in two. The first half gives us an Israeli soldier in 1949 who captures a young Bedouin woman while experiencing increasingly disruptive effects of an animal bite which turns a wound in his thigh into "a small crater of rotting, decaying flesh".

In the depths of his illness and seemingly as a twisted way of assuaging his pain, he rapes the woman, who is later shot by his colleagues. All this is delivered very effectively in a dry, still tone reminiscent of JM Coetzee (little wonder that he offers a quote of praise for the book).

The second half of the story has a Palestinian woman today looking back at the “minor detail” of the rape and murder, obsessively tracking down its location in what is now an Israeli settlement. Her fate – in what Coetzee describes as the book’s “heart-stopping conclusion” – is appropriately dramatic, but her narrative is less forceful than the first, and the two halves might have worked better the other way around.

Jorge Franco

The books above keep their brutality hidden, but in Jorge Franco's Shooting Down Heaven, translated by Andrea Rosenberg (Europa Editions, 352pp, £13.99), it's plainly displayed. The setting is the time after the death of Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar, told mostly by Larry, the son of Libardo, one of Escobar's associates.

The story flits between the time of Escobar’s death in 1993 and Libardo’s kidnapping and death years later. “Where did we get the idea that after Escobar’s death, we’d wake up in a city cradled by birdsong and morning rain?” wonders Larry. Not that the reader has much regret over Libardo’s kidnapping: he’s a brutal man, with one scene involving his children watching as he prepares to rape their mother.

This is a lively – that’s one way of putting it – story of how children are affected by their parents, emphasised by a third narrative strand where Larry and a daughter of Escobar’s strike up a friendship on a plane trip, neither aware of their darker connection.

Mieko Kawakami

Mieko Kawakami's 2008 novel Breasts & Eggs won Japan's prestigious Akutagawa Prize: its English language publication, due this month, has been delayed by the coronavirus outbreak. In the meantime, the newly reissued novella Ms Ice Sandwich, translated by Louise Heal Kawai (Pushkin Press, 96pp, £7.99), is a delightful distraction, and an appetiser for her work.

It’s narrated by a boy who lives with his mother and his comatose grandmother, and who has fallen in love with a woman who works at a local sandwich shop, whose eyes are the colour of blue ice lollies, so he calls her “Ms Ice Sandwich”. When he gazes at her, “things are happening to me, one on top of the other”. When he hears other people disparaging Ms Ice Sandwich’s appearance, it sets off thoughts about what we value and how we express those values.

The book can be read in an hour, but it’s as bright and fresh as, well, a delicious ice lolly – and it sticks longer in the mind too.