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Guiding us through a literary labyrinth of writers, artists and misfits

Masterful translations of works by Ana Schnabl, Norman Erikson Pasaribu and Jon Fosse

French writer Angélique Villeneuve is the author of several books, but Winter Flowers (Peirene Press, £12) is the first to be translated into English. It's set in Paris during the first World War where Jeanne, a flower maker, scrapes a meagre living while awaiting news of her husband, Toussaint, who was enlisted as part of a mass mobilisation in August 1914. After months of silence, he finally returns with a disfiguring facial injury. He is a changed man – silent and withdrawn, his scars are covered with a mask.

The civilian perspective on war is central to the book. In place of battle scenes and military drama are the everyday, but no less deadly, risks posed by TB, Spanish flu and poverty. This is war and its aftermath as experienced in the home.

The novel could easily have become overwhelmed by despair but it is instead lifted by touching moments of hope and solidarity, with the beautifully judged translation by Adriana Hunter bringing cinematic chemistry to key scenes. It is an altogether human depiction of some of society’s most inhuman excesses.

The Masterpiece (Istros Books, £9.99) by Ana Schnabl, and translated from the Slovene by David Limon, is set in mid-1980s Yugoslavia and centres on the affair between a beautiful young editor, Ana Miler, and an older writer, Adam Bevk, whose comeback novel (Masterpiece) Ana is editing. It is not a straightforward situation: Ana is an informant who is supposed to be spying on Adam, which makes her both an instrument of the regime and its potential victim.

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The novel’s emphasis is on the psychological rather than the political, its chapters packed with dense passages of interiority. While the prose style is overly elaborate at times – “He could not foresee how and with what he could replace what he might lose on this day” – elsewhere flashes of insight break through: “Many, including Adam, would rather murder the world than change”.

The book is set at a fascinating moment in time – post-Tito, the momentum for reform gathering, Chernobyl ominously in the background – and it would have been interesting to see the writer make more of that in an otherwise intriguing novel.

The excellent 2019 poetry collection Sergius Seeks Bacchus introduced the rare talents of Indonesian poet Norman Erikson Pasaribu to a wider western readership and served to underline how close collaboration between writer and translator can help to bring out the spirit behind the work. The translator of that collection was Tiffany Tsao, herself a talented novelist (check out The Majesties), and she returns to translate this new collection of short stories by Pasaribu, Happy Stories, Mostly (Tilted Axis, £9.99).

These stories span or disregard genre boundaries; but, for all this variety, the true strength of the collection is the thematic continuity running through it. The recurring motif is that of outsiders – namely gay men living in a Christian heteronormative environment – denied acceptance by an obdurate society unwilling to make the minor accommodations necessary to transform their chances of happiness. The “mostly” of the title qualifies the collection to heartbreaking effect – there is a tragedy in being almost happy that is so much more complex than straightforward unhappiness.

In stories like Ad maiorem dei gloriam and Our Descendants Will Be as Numerous as the Clouds in the Sky we see lives bent to the point of warping in order to accommodate the insensitivity of society’s expectations. In So What’s Your Name, Sandra? we see a grieving mother’s clumsy pilgrimage to somehow come to terms with the death of the gay son she shunned and lost.

If Bacchus was the reference point for Pasaribu’s earlier poetry collection, here it is Tantalus – the stories ache for a happiness that is tantalisingly possible, if only people could be accepted as they are. The palpability of this for the reader is a credit to the tonal sensitivity of its translator, Tsao.

The Night (Seven Stories Press UK, £12.99) by Venezuelan author Rodrigo Blanco Calderón includes a character who is writing a book (also called The Night) described as "a crime novel that would restore the genre to its Gothic origins". It is one of the many ways in which the novel toys with the reader's expectations about what type of book this is going to be. The main characters featured are a psychiatrist, his writer friend and a young copywriter whose experimental story has won a prestigious prize as a prank – though his selection as the winner may itself have been a counter-prank.

What follows is a labyrinthine sequence of stories within stories, and an ever-expending cast of characters including writers, their lovers, violent criminals and their unfortunate victims. Many of the characters are real people, including palindrome-loving Venezuelan author Darío Lancini, whose life story takes up the middle third of the book in a charming Moveable Feast-style interlude about expat Latin American writers in Europe.

This novel is messy, exhilarating and hugely enjoyable. It is to the credit of translators Noel Hernandéz González and Daniel Hahn that they engage so exuberantly with the technical and creative challenge of conveying such a linguistically imaginative novel into English.

A New Name (Fitzcarraldo Editions, £12.99), is the third and final book of the Septology series from Norwegian master Jon Fosse. The books are written in what is referred to as Fosse's "slow prose" and in the form of a single, long run-on sentence taking us into the mind of Asle, a reflective, ageing artist and widower who lives in a remote part of rural Norway. His social contacts are limited to a small number of neighbours, the gallery owner who sells his paintings and, curiously, another Asle – a scruffier, heavy drinking artist from the town who serves as either a doppelganger or counterfactual self to the protagonist (we are never quite sure).

As with the previous volumes, the narrative alternates gently between memory and the present day, with an almost imperceptible rebalancing between the two in this volume, as the past sharpens in definition whereas the present becomes fuzzy and less graspable. There is the sense of a terminal moraine here: the slow, final depositing of a lifetime’s experience.

Of the three volumes, this is perhaps the most romantic and the most spiritual. Asle’s reminiscences about the early years of his relationship with his deceased wife (Ales – the closeness in names seems deliberate) has a tender lightness to it. It is deeply moving. So too are his reflections on death and his faith. Fosse himself converted to Catholicism some years ago, and the book is imbued with a profound sense of spiritual intimacy that is simply sublime.

The translation by Damion Searls is deserving of special recognition. His rendering of this remarkable single run-on sentence over three volumes is flawless. The rhythms, the shifts in pace, the nuances in tone are all conveyed with masterful understatement.

The Septology series is among the highlights of my reading life. These books are profound in their serenity. I am sure I will return to them again and again at important times in my life. Jon Fosse is a truly great writer and the Septology deserves to be remembered as one of the supreme literary achievements of our time.