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Fiction in translation: Jokha Alharthi’s Bitter Orange Tree; a 90-year-old’s debut and ‘slow prose’ from Norway

Bitter Orange Tree; Triumph Street, Bucharest; She and Her Cat; Weasels in the Attic; Aliss at the Fire

Jokha Alharthi is the first Omani woman to have a novel translated into English, Celestial Bodies, which won her and translator, Marilyn Booth, the International Booker Prize in 2019. Bitter Orange Tree (Scribner UK, £14.99) is the second of her novels to be translated, though it was written in 2016 before the pressure of the Booker win.

Narrated by a student, Zuhour, the spine of the story is her reflection on the life of Bint Aamir, her “grandmother” – the woman who nursed and helped raise her father and later, Zuhour and her siblings. Bint Aamir is an enigmatic presence: tall, dignified and taciturn. Her life is told as a series of quiet disappointments, though her character has tree-trunk solidity. Braided with her story are those of Zuhour’s contemporary circle, young women depicted with contrasting delicate femininity: her friend Suroor like a “porcelain figurine, while my grandmother was a mountain”.

The story transitions skilfully between narrative strands and time periods and in Marilyn Booth’s graceful translation is never cluttered or confused.

Like Celestial Bodies, the novel foregrounds female characters and their plight while observing a degree of democratic restraint across the storylines: there are no heroines or divas here; the characters are not competing for the reader’s attention.


This is a beautifully-realised novel about unfulfillment, told with a sober, melancholy intelligence. I admired Celestial Bodies very much but perhaps this is even better.

Triumph Street, Bucharest (Istros Books, £11.99) is the debut by 90-year-old Romanian-born, American writer Dov Hoenig, an Oscar-nominated film editor. In a publishing industry that loves to lather its debuts in frothy hype, this is one of the quiet ones. It is also one of the year’s finest.

It’s about an earnest young boy, Bernard Davidescu, growing up in Bucharest during the second World War in a close-knit Jewish community. Even before Romania had entered the war on the side of the axis powers, anti-Semitism was already rampant, but with the war came an escalation and atrocities such as the Iași pogrom, in which more than 13,000 Jews were killed under Marshal Ion Antonescu.

What makes this such a rich novel is its ability to marry the darkness of world history with the colour of personal history. The book is filled with humour, vibrant characters and growing pains; it is also imbued with the steady stoicism of a community living in dangerous precariousness. Gavin Bowd’s translation (from French) deserves credit for achieving a chatty informality while maintaining the fine tonal balance needed for the heavier moments.

In the final chapters, Bernard decides to leave his family for the nascent state of Israel with an idealistic sense of possibility for his – and Israel’s – future. For him, it is both an ending and a new beginning and hopefully suggests a further volume of this story.

Followers of contemporary Japanese fiction in translation will have noticed a trend in novels featuring outsider female characters (Convenience Store Woman, Woman in the Purple Skirt, No Such Thing as an Easy Job) and cats (Travelling Cat Chronicles, The Guest Cat).

Though by no means new subjects in Japanese writing – Banana Yoshimoto’s novels are full of sensitive young misfits and Natsume Sōseki’s 1905 novel I Am a Cat is a classic – it does make me wonder whether what we are reading in translation is a representative sample of Japanese writing at the moment or a list curated to build on recent commercial successes. She and Her Cat (Doubleday £10) by Makoto Shinkai combines these two prominent themes and is based on the author’s anime film (available on YouTube) and manga.

Written with co-author Naruki Nagakawa, and translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori, it’s a series of linked vignettes in which lonely women navigate the world with gentle melancholy. They are unwittingly connected through their cats who are given an anthropomorphic voice. “People who are too earnest can’t bring themselves to blame others, so they end up blaming themselves and suffering for it,” observes one cat.

There are allusions to deeper philosophical intent here, but generally the prose is unfussy and reads like the text for the anime film. The stories have a relaxed aimlessness to them, with the emphasis on mood rather than propulsive plot – they are sad yet reassuring. Overall though, the characters are a little too unfinished and the stakes a bit too low for the stories to really take off.

Another slim collection of linked stories translated from Japanese is Weasels in the Attic (Granta, £12.99) by Hiroko Oyamada. On the surface, these three stories look at ordinary life adjustments among a loose group of friends in the early stages of settling down. Newly-married, having – or trying to have – babies and moving to the country, their chatter is prosaic, their relationships informal and lacking real intimacy.

There are, however, undertones to suggest something stranger is at play. Overlapping references to human fertility and breeding in aquariums suggest a scepticism towards society’s expectations about what relationships are for. The nod towards our animal nature continues in a story about a weasel infestation which takes on psychological and perhaps even demonic significance. Though not quite reaching for the cartoonish horror of Sayaka Murata’s stories, the reader is nevertheless left on edge and doubting the details.

The writing works by suggestion rather than anything dramatic, and David Boyd’s translation gets the atmospherics just right. It’s a beguiling read, but with just three stories and 70 pages it would have been nice to see it developed into something more expansive.

Norwegian writer Jon Fosse, has long been recognised as one of the greatest living playwrights, but it is his sublime Septology that surely secures his reputation as a novelist for the ages. His work is characterised by what he describes as “slow prose” and has drawn comparisons with Beckett and Ibsen. Though it’s true that his books are thoughtful and spare, they are also hopeful in a deeply spiritual way. Aliss at the Fire (Fitzcarraldo Editions, €12.33) is a short novel in which a woman, alone in her house, imagines the presence of her dead husband who drowned in the nearby fjord, 23 years before. The story casts back several generations to the drowning of one of his ancestors as a boy, after whom he was named. This resonance across details, incidents and names is a favoured technique of Fosse’s – like musical phrases he returns to in a wider improvisation.

As with Fosse’s other novels, there is a thin membrane between the present and the past, what is known and what is imagined. Transitions between these states are less about shifts in the narrative and more to do with his deep psychological insight into a mind – perhaps a failing mind – where observation, self-observation, projection, imagination, fantasy and memory, are all stirred together.

Translator Damion Searls handles the text adroitly. Though the lines run on, they are not over punctuated. Single-sentence prose can sometimes feel demanding, with long daisy chains of ideas that the reader must retain while reading ahead. But here, the prose is clean, the reading rhythm intuitive.

My advice is to read everything by Fosse, but if the larger Septology seems too intimidating to start with, Aliss at the Fire provides, in capsule form, a worthy introduction.

Rónán Hession

Rónán Hession, a contributor to The Irish Times, is the author of Panenka and of Leonard and Hungry Paul