In Austral (MacLehose Press, 224pp, £18.99) by Carlos Fonseca, translated by Megan McDowell, a man called Julio is summoned to a house recently occupied by Aliza, whom he had known before she became a well-respected writer. Knowing her death was imminent, she had requested that he be the person to edit her incomplete memoir.
Some of Alizia’s writings examined the creation of a “pure Aryan settlement” in Paraguay by, among others, Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche, sister of Friedrich. The work of her anthropologist father helped her to understand the fatal impact this venture had on the native Nataibo people. The layers of research and writing left behind lead Julio to the last surviving member of a people who were destroyed by sickness and exploitation.
Looking over Julio’s shoulder, we examine Aliza’s photographic collages and philosophical inquisitions and join him as he recreates journeys Aliza took through Central America, revealing ever-greater connections between the actions of the past and the sufferings of the present. This is a book that asks the reader to be, like Julio, “a final witness”, finding form in fragments. By doing so we can enjoy an exceptional and intricate novel of depth, insight and understanding, translated with great care by McDowell.
By contrast, First Blood (Europa, 108pp, £14.99) by Amélie Nothomb, translated by Alison Anderson, tells an effortless story, offering much that can be enjoyed but tending to be over-hasty at times. Like 100 Years of Solitude, the novel opens with a man facing a firing squad. We learn how this man, Patrick Nothomb, arrived at that unsettling situation by relocating to the time of his birth, 28 years earlier. Eight months on, his life was forever affected by the death of his father and his mother’s decision to let her parents raise him.
When Patrick’s grandfather suggests that a stay with his father’s family might toughen up the boy, he experiences a way of living which contrasts greatly to the comfortable stuffiness he has thus far experienced. The privations and anarchy of the Nothomb family prove to be, in several senses, a revelation to Patrick and it is in this setting that he locates a sense of himself which will develop into the man who later faces the firing squad. There is much to amuse and surprise in a novel that could have been written at any time in the past 200 years.
A much more difficult and distorted life is revealed in The Jewish Son (Seven Stories Press UK, 112pp, £10.99) by Daniel Guebel, translated by Jessica Sequeira, in which the first-person narrator tells of how, “from a very early age I saw in my parents’ eyes not just premature disenchantment and irritation, but also, or so I believed, a desire to see me vanish by way of some catastrophic miracle”.
It is indicative of the way in which the regular beatings he receives from his father disfigure his thinking that in considering Kafka’s letter to his father – a significant text for the narrator – it is the father with whom he sympathises.
Later in life, the son must attend to his ill father, and experience to the fullest extent the dichotomies that underlie the Hebrew term “pilpul”, which seeks to justify and accept the deepest of contradictions: “the intractable machine of the real that resolves itself in the senselessness of every paradox” and which finds its secular apogee in the writings of Kafka. Guebel’s own writing is always alert and impressive and is strikingly well translated by Jessica Sequeira, who also provides a translator’s note that is a pilpul-embracing short story in itself.
In a spare, impressionistic, multi-voiced and brief novel, May the Tigris Grieve for You (Les Fugitives, 70pp, £10.99) by Emilienne Malfatto, translated by Lorna Scott Fox, the author conveys the fatalistic resignation of eight people whose lives intersect because of the pregnancy of a young, unmarried woman living in rural Iraq.
An objective, extravagantly beautiful, non-human viewpoint is provided by the river Tigris. For each chronicler, the imminence of death – their own, or that which they will bring about – is accepted, fatalistically. Even the river knows: “My waters were poisoned a long time ago... little by little I am dying.” The anguished cadence of the narratives is enhanced by the sorry lyricism of each narrator’s words; melancholy words which cannot reach beyond the fixed bounds of tradition. A short novel it may be but its impact is immense.
There can’t have been many novels before Honeybees and Distant Thunder (Doubleday, 432pp, £14.99) by Riku Onda, translated by Philip Gabriel, which had classical piano competitions as their subject matter. Music is central to everything that happens in the novel. Her characters interact in ways that are accentuated by their own musical performances. In turn, they reveal aspects of the music to each other, reducing the competitiveness in favour of mutual recognition and understanding.
A non-virtuosic, steady pace is held by the author, allowing the main characters to establish their individual traits and for the reader to become so engaged that the approach each of them will take to playing the cadenza of a commissioned composition is of considerable interest. As they progress through the rounds of the competition, we live inside these characters’ performances. The music is described using descriptions linked to emotions and sensations rather than technical terms so that it is a novel for which familiarity with the music is not essential.
There are times when the writing becomes overindulged in the ecstasy of the moment but never enough to unbalance the depth of feeling expressed throughout the novel. In the end, we care about these young pianists and about the decisions of the judges. That alone indicates a fine performance.
In the short stories that make up the collection Barcode (Jantar, 224pp, £12) by Krisztina Tóth, translated by Peter Sherwood, the discovery of the many devious ways in which reality confounds the merest expectation of joy is achieved repeatedly and ingeniously. In The Pencil Case (Guidelines), school choir practice is suspended until someone admits to having taken a magnetic pencil case belonging to the preferentially treated daughter of an influential communist politician. The silent pupils sit in a classroom suffused with “the smell of nylon schoolgowns drenched in sweat, and the hot, chalkdust-filled air, heavy with the breath of eighty schoolchildren”.
In another story, Tepid Milk (Barcode Lines), the narrator awaits the visit of an American girl who, like the barcodes of the book’s title, represents “the world on the other side, where everything was available, where everyone was happy and good-looking”. The sharp suspension of illusions is just one aspect of a story which – typical of all the stories in this book – changes focus and direction in unexpected and expansive ways.
The collection’s outstanding story, Cold Floor (Baseline), is set in Japan and moves from a tourist’s apprehensiveness to experiences of altered consciousness before the central character uses her time in Japan to ritually excise written traces of desire from a now failed relationship. The ease and confidence with which Tóth transforms the basis of her stories mark her as an exceptional writer.