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July’s best fiction in translation, chosen by Rónán Hession

Reviews: What You Are Looking for Is in the Library; The Love of Singular Men; Hostages of Memory; You, Bleeding Childhood; A Little Luck; and Mild Vertigo

There have been several recent Japanese novels with uplifting stories about people suffering from workplace or relationship alienation. Such books tend to be characterised by gentleness and an absence of cynicism, with a side order of life advice. Recent examples include There’s No Such Thing as an Easy Job, Before the Coffee Gets Cold and She and Her Cat – contemplative reading experiences intended to warm the heart.

What You Are Looking for Is in the Library by Michiko Aoyama (Doubleday, £12.99) sits comfortably in this category. It features five characters, all of whom are adrift in some way. They each happen across the library in the local community centre, where two enigmatic librarians make unexpected reading suggestions that help to unlock Life’s problems. “It’s how you read a book that is most valuable, rather than any power it might have itself,” says Ms Komachi, the imposing but benevolent librarian.

The melancholy transitions of adulthood depicted here are not epic, but they are relatable – a young woman finding her feet in her first job, a recently retired man feeling unanchored in his new routine. The tone is cheerful though not inauthentically so, and the translation by Alison Watts keeps thing chatty but sincere. Though the stories could benefit from a little spikiness, this is nevertheless an endearing novel and a tribute to the transformative power of books and libraries.

Brazilian writer Victor Heringer died in 2018 aged 29, but we should be glad to have The Love of Singular Men (Peirene Press, £12.99) to remember him by. It begins in 1970s Rio de Janeiro with 13-year-old Camilo, a white middle-class child who suffers from monoparesis, leaving him on crutches. His disability and superior class place him on the margins of the neighbourhood’s tough street kids. Things change with the arrival of Cosme, a boy with an unclear connection to Camilo’s father. The mutual suspicion between Camilo and Cosme is the grit that forms into a pearl of friendship and then love: “After I walloped him with my staff, my hate no longer took Cosme’s name or shape. And so, with a single blow, I began to love him.”


Their relationship suffers tragedy and the narrative takes us forward to Camilo in his 50s, alone and living a life of quiet longing. The writing aches beautifully while still leaving space for profound healing and humanity. Translator James Young, from Northern Ireland, worked on the novel having won the Peirene Stevns Prize, and has produced a translation of real sensitivity and elegance.

Hostages of Memory (Dar Arab, £10) is the accomplished debut novel by Syrian writer Haitham Hussein. Set along the Turkish-Syrian border, it is an intergenerational story that begins with Grandma Khatoune as she crosses into Turkey with her two sons, Ali and Alo. Their lives are lived “on the thin line between death from starvation and famished survival”. There is certainly lots of hardship in the book, but the translation by Jona Fras brings out the humour and stoicism that is so important to the book’s personality.

Alo marries the daughter of a merchant, an upgrade in social standing only made possible by the young woman’s deafness, which was caused by her father’s violence. The father agrees to the match if only to assuage gossip about his guilt, but “vicious tongues are not a belt one can tighten or loosen whenever one wants”.

The two brothers rent a small shop, but their relationship crumbles after a failed scheme to get rich by hoarding onions, after which they become branded as “Onion Lords”. Their subsequent estrangement bifurcates the narrative, which explores separation, longing and displacement.

Hostages of Memory is a novel that does so much so well – a compelling narrative, characters to care about, a sense of time and place – all told with pathos and personality.

In the vibrant stories of You, Bleeding Childhood by Italian writer Michele Mari (And Other Stories, £11.99), we are reminded of a pre-internet era when childhood was filled with stuff: treasured comics, favourite writers, lost footballs, 10,000-piece jigsaws. This is a book that evokes brilliantly the lived (and not unhappy) confusion of a boy spending his days immersed in his passions, with the membranes of time, reality and imagination ever permeable. “As a little boy I thought that dried apricots were ears”, the writer recalls at one point, while in reading Jules Verne he caught “an inkling of a little too much science, like a vague hint of school”.

The translation by Brian Robert Moore is a gem, revelling in what the writer terms his “literary vampirism” of mimicking writing styles of an older time and then contrasting this with well-timed gross-out humour: “No storm could ever wash away the frothy dribble that one day, before your very eyes, a kid spat into his hand before streaking it along the highest part of the slide in order to procure a faster and more lubricious descent.”

A delightful collection that pops with idiosyncrasy.

A different sort of childhood experience is central to A Little Luck (Charco Press, £11.99) by Argentinian writer Claudia Piñeiro, author of the superb Booker-shortlisted Elena Knows. Marilé is a middle-aged woman returning from the United States to her hometown in Argentina, having fled 20 years before when she left her husband and her six-year-old son behind. The book hinges around a central tragedy, with key information released in teasing doses. Here, Piñeiro, primarily known as a crime writer, shows her mastery of tension and atmospherics.

The middle third of this short book explores the immediate impact of the central event – the ripples are both dramatic and reflective: “Motherhood is full of little failures that pass unnoticed ... Some mothers have all the luck; life never puts them to any kind of test. I only have a little luck.” The translation by Frances Riddle weighs these melancholy insights perfectly. The final section of the novel shows what became of Marilé; its conclusion achieving a delicate balance between the story’s darkness and light.

In Mild Vertigo by Mieko Kanai (Fitzcarraldo Editions, £12.99), we see motherhood without the apple pie. This is the attentive observational immersion of a housewife named Natsume, living a life of numb detachment. Told through a series of themed chapters, these vignettes take us into Natsume’s life, though she herself remains almost a bystander. Her children fight, her neighbours gossip, her mother needles her, her husband is just another NPC in her life – their lovemaking routine timed around the day of the week before she changes the sheets.

But in all this there is a richness of observation that reminded me of Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport. This is not a narrative of passive surrender, but a chronicling of a routine lived beat-by-beat among life’s daily provocations. Outwardly, there is the impression of erasure (people talk at Natsume), but between narrator and reader there is a conspiratorial candour and deadpan humour, which is captured deftly in Polly Barton’s translation – for example, when Natsume uses an age range to describe a woman because that’s “what they do when describing unidentified corpses”.

Mild Vertigo is an astute and layered novel. It captures the attrition of selfhood that is caused by surrendering to the incessant demands of everyday life, a recurring theme of several great Japanese writers including Sawako Ariyoshi, Harumi Setouchi and Yūko Tsushima.

Rónán Hession

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