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March’s best new fiction in translation: review roundup

Reviews of Forbidden Notebook by Alba De Céspedes; Blue Hunger by Viola Di Grado; The Remains Margo Glantz; The Sojourn Teashop by Jia Pingwa and Suleiman’s Ring by Sherif Meleka

Pushkin Press has been doing valuable work in recent years by uncovering overlooked gems and bringing them to a contemporary readership. First published in Italian in 1952, Forbidden Notebook (Pushkin, £16.99) by Italian-Cuban writer Alba De Céspedes is now being reissued in Ann Goldstein’s engaging new translation.

Valeria Cossetti is a 43-year-old woman lost in the roles of working mother and wife, who buys a private notebook in “an act of childish subterfuge”. At first, she has little to record except her own feelings of guilt, but she soon makes an enraptured confidante of the reader.

She is a woman of intriguing inconsistencies. While resenting playing the mother saint, she is canny enough to use it to her advantage: “servitude has also become my strength, the halo of my martyrdom”. Valeria subjects her inner life to close scrutiny but is unapologetic about the anomalies she discovers: “I wondered if I was a good daughter, and then if I’m a good mother and a good wife, but after a brief examination of my conscience, I had to admit that to all those questions I could answer yes and no with the same sincerity and, I believe, the same validity.”

The writing sparkles with candour and self-awareness as Valeria navigates the tricky transitions of midlife. She can sense the fading relevance of her family roles, but her new self-identity is still a work in progress. The novel is written in this gap, which proves to be a rich seam of stoical insight.


It is testament to the twin talents of writer and translator that, 70 years on, this treasure of a novel speaks so clearly to modern uncertainties.

Blue Hunger is a contemporary Italian novel by Viola Di Grado and translated by Jamie Richards (Scribe, £12.99). The unnamed 25-year-old narrator moves to Shanghai to work as an Italian teacher and come to terms with the recent death of her twin brother. There, she begins a relationship with one of her female students, based around drugs and consensual bodily harm.

Ostensibly, this is a novel in which two mixed-up souls connect and disconnect as they work through their stuff. Emotionally, they open and shut down unpredictably; they are only temporarily themselves when seeking thrills that bring an edge of danger.

For all their neuroses, these are not complex characters. The writing struggles to make them more interesting than they are, and too often falls flat or is just plain puzzling. The narrator envies a prawn she is eating for the unlikely reason that “it didn’t have to decide whether or not to follow the strange and stupendous girl”. Elsewhere, she says: “I have loved alone, all alone, like a dog.”

Grief is often a focus of modern literary fiction, but it can be a risky subject to take on. Writers shouldn’t underestimate the sophistication of the reader’s starting point or presume that making bad things happen to characters guarantees poignancy. In this novel, the observations are too jejune, the characters too incomplete, for a convincing depiction of the grieving state.

The same subject is handled quite differently in The Remains by Mexican writer Margo Glantz (Charco, £11.99). This is a novel-as-monologue, delivered by a middle-aged cellist, Nora Garcia, during the funeral of her estranged ex-husband, a celebrated composer and pianist. As he lies there, barely recognisable and devoid of the charisma that defined him, she distracts herself from the occasion’s banality with encyclopedic internal digressions. This is not death as fiction, but death as a matter of fact. Or more specifically, a matter of facts.

She writes at one point that she is reading Sebald, and there is that Sebaldian flow to the narrative, with extended riffs on Glenn Gould’s recordings of the Goldberg variations; castrato voices; Dostoyevsky; Daniel Barenboim; why Schubert must be played on a Bösendorfer and not a Steinway piano; and much more besides.

This dazzling constellation of thought associations stands in contrast to the ordinariness of the death event itself. The failure of the heart is simply a technical matter, a question of plumbing, “the heart is only a muscle, a pump that irrigates the body, an extraordinary machine”. The great man’s renown is no match for the body’s natural course – his false teeth no longer fitting him as his mouth shrinks. In the novel’s key refrain, life too is described in bodily terms, as “an absurd wound”.

The translation by Ellen Jones is flowing and cleverly sustains the novel’s quirky way of digressing within digressions (by using brackets (quite a lot) like this).

A fine novel, full of engaging curiosities, which shares DNA with another excellent Charco book – A Musical Offering by Luis Sagasti, translated by Fionn Petch.

Jia Pingwa’s writing had typically focused on the countryside of his home province of Shaanxi, but the setting for The Sojourn Teashop (Sinoist, £14.99) is distinctly urban, based in Xijing City, the fictional title he uses for Xi’an.

Central to the story is Hai Ruo, the teashop owner and unofficial matriarch of a sisterhood of 10 women who provide the ensemble cast for this richly conversational novel. The sisterhood is a loose gathering of single Chinese women, each of whom is struggling for independence and success or, as it is otherwise known, survival. Men play only a minor part in the novel, with the exception of Yi Guang, a charismatic writer-calligrapher, and adjunct member of the group.

Jia Pingwa is not a writer to be rushed and he is happy to let the novel ripen slowly. As he explains in his author’s note, the narrative “follows qi lines, and the nodes of the story are formed where the energy collects”. As a result, there are extended periods where characters’ lives simply play out, as they deepen their friendship through many minor and not-so-minor trials. However, patient reading is rewarded.

Similar to Li Peifu’s excellent Graft, here we see China in transition. The older ways have not yet disappeared – an elderly woman treats her arthritis with bee stings; ghosts and Buddhist superstitions abound – but a new China is still taking shape: smog, plastic surgery, status symbols, corruption and boom-bust economics are all at play in a cacophonous culture clash.

Against this wider background, Jia Pingwa is meticulous as a miniaturist. Characters are lovingly flawed and human; they seem swept up in a wider ambivalence about the direction Chinese society is headed.

The translation by Nicky Harman and Jun Liu is lucid and thoughtful. There is an odd conspicuous note of British English (“blimey” and “there’s plenty needs doing”) but overall the translation is textured and sensitively rendered – “the first burst of sunlight gilds the rooftops”.

Alexandria in Egypt is the setting for Suleiman’s Ring by Sherif Meleka (Hoopoe, £10.99). In 1951, Daoud Abdel-Malek is a 50-ish singer and oud player, known as al-Khawaga, or foreigner, because he is Jewish, even though his family has lived in Alexandria for generations.

Daoud marries a beautiful young Coptic Christian women and his closest friend is a Muslim. However, in the wake of the 1952 revolution and the Suez crisis, Daoud’s Jewishness makes him a target for both the authorities and the rival Muslim Brotherhood. His only protection is through his ties to President Nasser, and a mysterious silver and red jasper ring that assumes talismanic importance.

This novel is epic in scope, extending through to the 1980s with an intricate network of characters, and encompassing the key political developments of the time. A recurring theme is the drift towards Islamist fanaticism, with the associated curdling of political idealism.

It’s a quality novel, which put me in mind of aspects of Rohinton Mistry and Naguib Mahfouz in the way it gives us characters to care about, who are then swept away by the chaos of history. The writing is pacy, but it has depth and poetic power – a credit to Raymond Stock’s translation from Arabic.

Sherif Meleka is a natural writer. This is a compellingly readable novel of substance.