Subscriber OnlyBooksReview

Translated fiction roundup: A Shining by Nobel winner Jon Fosse a perfect example of his gift for portraying porous psychological states

Reviews of A Shining by Jon Fosse; The Rainbow by Yasunari Kawabata; The Premonition by Banana Yoshimoto; The Delivery by Margarita García Robayo; The Fate of Yaakov Maggid by Ludovic Bruckstein

Jon Fosse was recently awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, with the announcement specifically referencing Septology, his seven volume, one sentence masterpiece. However, much of his career as a novelist has shown him to be adept at shorter works – books like Boathouse, Aliss at the Fire, Morning and Evening are tight, dense, evocative and highly visual novellas.

At just 40 pages, A Shining (Fitzcarraldo Editions, £9.99) is closer to a long story than a short novel. Though publishers see long stories as something of a misfit in marketing terms, I’m a fan of them – they’re the perfect length for an immersive single-sitting read.

A Shining is set in late autumn and begins with an unnamed character driving to the countryside, out of boredom; turning aimlessly left and right, he gets lost when his car becomes stuck in a forest track. The Jon Fosse universe is technology-free, so the character has no sat nav or mobile phone, leaving him isolated and miles from help. The boredom gives way to a sense of emptiness, anxiety and fear. This is not merely the Hollywood horror movie fear of the dark woods, but the momentum of a fragile, confused mind soliloquising in confused loops: “I walked into the woods because I wanted to freeze to death. But I don’t want to. I don’t want to die. Or is that exactly what I do want.” The translation by Damion Searls perfectly judges the pitch and rhythm of this mental flow, producing a natural reading beat.

Walking into the forest as night falls, the man encounters a presence – a shining whiteness – that seems real and which appears to answer his questions. “I am who I am,” says the presence, a phrase the man recognises, but can’t place (it is how God identifies himself to Moses in the Book of Exodus). The story progresses deeper into the woods, where he meets his parents, barefoot in the snow, as he is drawn closer to his fate.


A Shining is a neat example of Fosse’s gift for portraying porous psychological states, and its publication is perfectly timed for a satisfying Samhain evening read.

Yasunari Kawabata was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1968 and is known for his stylish, restrained prose in chronicling Japan’s emergence from tradition into modernity. The Rainbow (Penguin Classics, £16.99) is a lesser-known work, now translated into English for the first time by Haydn Trowell.

The novel centres on Mizuhara, a middle-aged man with three grown-up daughters by three different mothers, two of whom have died. His eldest daughter is Momoko, a young woman whose candour is harshest on those closest to her. The middle child, Asako is sincere almost to guilelessness, though enjoys favourite status because her mother alone had been married to Mizuhara. A third daughter lives in Kyoto with her mother (“in the courtesan trade”), both strangers to the family. Set in 1950, the story explores these complex family dynamics against the rupturing of tradition that came with Japanese defeat in World War II.

Kawabata is known for writing about Japan in transition and several characters bemoan the boorishness of new western influences; however, the writer provides counterpoint by highlighting the hypocrisy of traditional Japanese gender roles, whereby male promiscuity and its chaotic consequences are legitimised by a society that marginalises sex workers and single mothers.

Beautifully constructed in duet scenes of conversational intimacy, this is an elegant novel about what is lost in the painful acceptance of a future shaped – and compromised – by past mistakes.

The Premonition by Banana Yoshimoto (Faber £12.99), translated by Asa Yoneda, is a contemporary Japanese novel that centres on a young woman, Yayoi, from a loving home, whose memories of childhood are strangely blank. As with many Banana Yoshimoto protagonists, Yayoi is young, a little goofy, heartfelt, with a gentle undercurrent of melancholy in her life. She is close to her brother and has an eccentric aunt who teaches music at a local school – the aunt is unconventionally beautiful, with a strangely charismatic aura.

As the story unfolds, we learn about Yayoi’s gift for premonition – innocent everyday coincidences mostly, but at times spooky, too. Though her relationships with her brother and her aunt take on a new significance as details of the past are revealed, this is not a book about shock revelations and twists: developments are like gentle speed bumps rather than intense climaxes.

Banana Yoshimoto’s novels often explore grief in youth with a note of cheerful melancholy that disguises their depth. The Premonition visits this familiar ground in a familiar way. Its sweet blend of intimacy and loneliness, reality and dreamworld, is an author trademark. Part of me is glad that Banana Yoshimoto continues to occupy her own recognisable creative world, even if there is a nagging sense that the trade-off between comfort and innovation is holding her back.

Colombian writer Margarita García Robayo came to the attention of Anglophone readers through her excellent collection Fish Soup, translated by Charlotte Coombe. She followed this with Holiday Heart and there are traces of that book’s dark humour and hardened worldview in The Delivery (Charco Press, £11.99). In it, an unnamed narrator dispenses her withering judgments on the banalities of life in a cheap apartment block in Buenos Aires. The delivery of the title could refer to the crate of personal nick-nacks sent by her sister, or to the unexpected arrival of the narrator’s mother, with whom the narrator has a mixed history.

The novel is largely plotless and works more as an exercise in character perspective. The narrator’s observations are acerbic, though interior, with her toughness being something of a front: she prefers disengagement to confrontation.

Robayo doesn’t do likeable narrators, but she knows how to vest them with enough self-awareness and vulnerability to prevent them becoming egotistical. This is largely a question of tone – or, if you will, delivery – which is captured deftly by Megan McDowell’s translation. Though I did yearn for a more substantial focus at the heart of the story, it is undoubtedly a sharp and perceptive novel.

As a young man, Ludovic Bruckstein was deported to Auschwitz and other labour camps, where most of his family perished. After the war, his plan to flee Romania with his young wife was cut short by the Iron Curtain. He eventually settled in Tel Aviv and wrote prize-winning plays, novels and short stories until his death in 1988.

The stories that make up The Fate of Yaakov Maggid (Istros Books, £12.99) draw heavily on Bruckstein’s distinguished family lineage of Hassidic rabbis and writers. Mainly set in the nineteenth century among the tiny villages of the Carpathian Mountains, these perfectly constructed rabbinical parables are rich with moral instruction. The wealthy are subjected to virtue tests in humility and generosity. Whereas contemporary short stories often rely on ephemeral insight, the lessons here feel solid, timeworn and tested. The later stories lean more towards the tragic, chronicling the long history of Jewish persecution across Europe over the centuries.

The translation from Romanian by Alistair Ian Blyth captures brilliantly the sage wisdom of the rabbis with all their humour and mischief, while preserving the author’s rich lexicon of Hebrew and Yiddish terms. Recommended with enthusiasm, this is a collection I plan to return to often.

Rónán Hession

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