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Translations: The Disappearance of Josef Mengele; Cocoon; The Night Will Have Its Say; Bonsai; The Leash and the Ball

Michael Cronin recommends five new works in translation

Josef Mengele is the Prince of European Darkness. He is also the arrogant doctor who tortured, dissected and burned children, and the cossetted son of a wealthy family who sent 400,000 wholly innocent human beings to death by asphyxiation. In The Disappearance of Josef Mengele (Verso, 217pp, £11.99), translated by Georgia de Chamberet, Olivier Guez describes how such a man escaped justice for decades thanks to the active complicity of the German police, the German intelligence services, and a succession of US-supported Latin American dictatorships.

Based on meticulous research, Guez makes remarkable use of a kind of docufiction, imagining the postwar life of the notorious Nazi war criminal. In detailing the life and behaviour of Mengele, the French writer is careful to avoid extended passages of introspection, which often discredit imaginary remakes. Any thoughts of Mengele are closely linked to recorded statements. Guez deftly sets the scene for Perónist Argentina, which became a sanctuary for the murderous throng of the European far right, the Argentinian leader dreaming of his own new, delusional world order.

For Mengele, who was fleeing a defeated Germany, Argentina was an obvious haven until political events eventually caused him to move to Brazil where he drowned in 1979 while out swimming. The pacing of Guez’s narrative is exemplary as the reader follows the twists and turns of failed attempts to bring Mengele to justice. The Mengele family were one of the most important manufacturers of farm machinery in postwar Europe (their machines are still available for purchase on Irish websites), and year after year family members corresponded with and sent money to Josef, the unrepentant mass murderer. When the truth finally emerged, no member of the family was ever charged or prosecuted. The Disappearance of Josef Mengele is a compelling example of how fiction can serve so effectively to bring history back from erasure.

Erasure, and its aftermath, are tellingly present in Zhang Yueran’s Cocoon (World Editions, 323pp., £13.99), translated by Jeremy Tiang. Li Jiaqi and Cheng Gong are childhood friends growing up in the same city in provincial China. Both of their families are darkly dysfunctional, and the friends find a degree of solace in each other’s company as they battle the mixture of abandonment and lovelessness which is their lot.


Meeting up after a long period of separation, they begin to tease out the origins of the traumatic event in 1967 that has left Li Jiaqi’s grandfather in a vegetative state for years. Gradually, the horrific violence that accompanied Mao’s Cultural Revolution begins to emerge, and an abandoned water tower becomes the epicentre of local horror. As the stories of terror and atrocity unfold, it becomes clear that a society cannot survive such experiences unscathed. The parents and relatives of Li Jiaqi and Cheng Gong are manifestly damaged by the scale of the brutality that convulsed Chinese society in the late 1960s.

The “cocoon” of the title partly refers to the new-found affluence of China which sees the peers of the Chinese novelist delighting in the material benefits of the market economy, cushioned from past horrors by the blandishment of brands. Li Jiaqi’s boyfriend, Tang Hui, “wasn’t able to wander too far into memory” but found brightness “in a baroque crystal chandelier, warmth in a fireplace bought at Sotheby’s auction, Lady Luck’s kiss amidst 180-thread-count Egyptian cotton sheets and down comforters”.

Zhang Yueran, one of the generation of Chinese novelists born after 1980, is unsparing in her description of the unresolved legacies of China’s recent past. She not only traces the dark shadow of revolutionary violence inflicted on the society but also questions the nature and degree of wellbeing promised by the endless curation of material self-interest.

It is the spiritual rather than the material that preys on the lives of characters in Ibrahim al-Koni’s The Night Will Have Its Say (Hoopoe, 269pp, £11.99), translated by Nancy Roberts. Or more precisely, the rhetoric of the spirit is often used to disguise more base ambitions. Set in seventh-century north Africa, the novel recounts the Muslim wars of conquest, seen through the eyes of the Berber peoples. Their leader, al-Kahina, successfully resists initial Arab incursions on her territory, but the future looks increasingly compromised as she grapples with the challenges of statecraft and an enemy that brooks no compromise.

Al-Koni, a previous International Booker Prize finalist, writes of al-Kahina’s dreams and prophecies, her defence of a matrilineal culture, and her vision of religious harmony and intercultural understanding, as the forces of her and her people’s destruction mass in readiness for assault. The Libyan novelist employs a distinctively poetic diction to capture worldviews that see metaphor as a key resource to understanding and the proverbial as the custodian of hard-won truths: “The scout is as indispensable to an army as the herald is to the walled-in life of the city. The former reveals what has been concealed beyond the walls, while the latter gives voice to the ever-changing realities within them. These two figures are abiding phantoms, ever faithful to their roles as they answer the ever-repeating summons of the night in its eternal bargain with the day.”

In also giving voice to the doubts of the invading Umayyad Arab general Hassan ibn Nu’man, al-Koni suggests parallels with contemporary conflicts, where the generous spirit of sacred scripture can too often be held hostage to the brutal letter of dogma. The translator, Nancy Roberts, is to be particularly commended for her own subtle rendering of both the spirit and the letter of this rich and resonant narrative.

Julio and Emilia, two young Chilean students, in Alejandro Zambra’s Bonsai (Fitzcarraldo, 74pp, £9.99), translated by Megan McDowell, bond over their own love for narrative. In the bookish complicity of their all-consuming relationship, they use works by Yukio Mishima, Ted Hughes and Gustave Flaubert as prompts for their erotic probing. An unread page of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time is the unmistakable sign that the relationship is at an end as Emilia moves from Chile to Spain, disappearing into the black hole of addiction.

Zambra, who penned the compellingly inventive Chilean Poet (published in English earlier this year), delights in a tongue-in-cheek play with the possibilities of fiction. In this novella, Julio is tasked with transcribing Bonsai, the latest novel of a writer named Gazmuri. However, the older writer ultimately opts for another, less expensive transcriber, and to save face with his new partner, Julio pretends he got the job and writes his own novel with the same title.

Metafictional games carry their own risks and can soon degenerate into a showy knowingness. However, Zambra is constantly alert to the dangers of po-faced posturing and uses a relentlessly irreverent humour to undercut the more exalted ramblings of his characters. There is a great sensitivity, too, in the exploration of the relationship between Julio and Emilia and between Emilia and her long-time friend, Anita. As the Chilean author observes at one point, “Emilia and Julio’s was a relationship riddled with truths, with personal disclosures that quickly built up a complicity they strove to see as unassailable. This is, then, a light tale that becomes heavy.” One of the most singular voices in contemporary Chilean literature, Zambra continues to impress with tales that match a seriousness of purpose with a distinctive lightness of touch.

On the same day in 2011 that Rodaan Al Galidi was informed he had won the European Union Prize for Literature for his first novel in Dutch, he also learned that he had failed his Dutch citizenship test. Al Galidi, who was born and educated in Iraq, came to prominence in the English-speaking world with the publication of the translation of his Two Blankets, Three Sheets in 2020. That work described the often harrowingly difficult conditions faced by asylum seekers before and during periods spent in state asylum centres, recounted in the dry, pithy, at times bleakly comic style that marks out Al Galidi’s prose.

In The Leash and the Ball (World Editions, 267pp, £13.99), translated by Jonathan Reeder, Samir, the central character, has finally obtained permission to stay in the Netherlands. What follows is his account of his attempts to fit into Dutch society, constantly negotiating the gulf between the harshness of his experience of war, conflict and exile, on the one hand, and the well-mannered complacency of his Dutch hosts, on the other. In picking his way through the intercultural minefields of the every day, Samir learns about what to do in someone’s house (go on the tour), what to do at the table (don’t talk and eat at the same time), and when to speak (not too much). He falls in love with Leda, the daughter of the first of his hosts, and puzzles over her deep unhappiness amid material plenty.

The Leash and the Ball is forthright in its critique of the Iraqi world that Samir has left behind, but the book is equally clear-eyed about the casual assumptions and lazy stereotypes that constantly obscure the full human complexity of refugees and asylum seekers. Al Galidi’s precise, ironic and tender voice is a gift to literature and a powerful antidote to the hate speech of the exterminating angels of our own age.

  • Michael Cronin is chair of French at Trinity College Dublin

Michael Cronin

Prof Michael Cronin, a contributor to The Irish Times, is director of Trinity College Dublin's centre for literary and cultural translation