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Fiction in translation: Insights into Ukraine, Putin, chaos, code and nuance

Excellent works published in English by Artem Chapeye, Giuliano da Empoli, Stefan Zweig, Agustín Fernández Mallo and Stéphane Carlier

One of the many casualties of war is nuance. In times of conflict, a natural tendency is to demonise the aggressor and idealise the victim. Artem Chapeye, by contrast, in his remarkable collection of stories, The Ukraine (Seven Stories Press, 240pp, €15), translated by Zenia Tompkins, offers a refreshingly frank portrait of his native country.

Combining travel account, reportage and memoir, the collection wrestles with the multiple complexities, contradictions and tensions of a country that, like any other, has to reckon with the likes of poverty, discrimination and the insidious reach of clientelism. The stories are set in the period before Russia’s February 2022 invasion, and they take the reader into the lives of ordinary men and women in the cities, towns and villages of Ukraine.

As Chapeye travels eastwards, his forensic ear picks up on the stealth warfare of misinformation, how a routine suspicion of western urban elites is manipulated by more sinister external forces to create a murderous separation between “us” and “them”. Chapeye’s particular skill is with the story form itself, avoiding facile resolutions like the pat ending or the line or paragraph that reveals everything and sets all to right. More often than not, he will break off mid-scene, leaving readers speculating as to what happens next.

Chapeye’s faith in the reader’s intelligence is matched by his deep empathy for his fellow citizens as they struggle with the unheroic task of making ends meet. It is precisely the ordinariness of the lives described in these pages that makes the fact of Russian state violence all the more shocking. Witnessing the joys and sorrows of women and men going about their daily business, we can feel overwhelmed by the tragic knowledge of what is to come. The Ukrainians, however, have not been overwhelmed; they have resisted. And, arguably, what they continue to give their lives for is the right to nuance – the desire to live in a society where a writer can freely detail its imperfections without disappearing into the black hole of totalitarian oblivion.


Giuliano da Empoli’s The Wizard of Kremlin (Pushkin Press, 285pp, £16.99), translated by Willard Wood, is a thinly disguised account of the rise of one of the architects of such oblivion: Vladimir Putin. The novel is told from the standpoint of the fictional Vadim Baranov – the “wizard” of the title, who is presented as one of Putin’s most senior advisers – and offers a compelling narrative of how power flips into absolutism.

At one point, when addressing a young man who shares his interest in the Russian science fiction novelist Yevgeny Zamyatin, the elder Baranov claims: “Russia is the West’s nightmare machine. At the end of the 19th century, your intellectuals dreamed of revolution. We had one. You never did more than talk about communism. We experienced it for 70 years.’

When capitalism reached Russia, the country experienced it in its most brutal and aggressive form. What the prolonged humiliation and impoverishment of the Yeltsin years produced was a longing for order and a craving for respect. Da Empoli, a one-time adviser to the former Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi, offers a fascinating insight into the political logic that led to the emergence of Putin’s strongman regime.

In many respects, The Wizard of the Kremlin reads like a remake of Machiavelli’s The Prince: a detached, unsentimental look at how power is retained and lost. Baranov, the offspring of a cultured and bookish caste of Soviet public servants, is the ideal guide to the circumstances of Putin’s rise. Lucid and ironic, conversant with the authoritarian strains in Russian history and the country’s passion for extremes, Baranov is equally critical of the West’s indifference to the unchecked power of its own oligarchs (Murdoch, Zuckerberg, Bezos) and the metastatic spread of techno-surveillance in liberal democracies.

Addressing Russian mercenary leaders in Ukraine, he tells them that the aim of war is not conquest but chaos. This important novel shows us how we might counter that chaos and, equally, what conditions will surely bring it about.

Stefan Zweig, the renowned Austrian novelist, short story writer and biographer who took his own life in Brazil in 1942, was only too familiar with chaos. His work, being that of a Jew, would fall foul of the Nazis, and the spectacular disintegration of his world is described in haunting detail in his last book, The World of Yesterday (2013). The stories contained in Six Stories (Penguin, 298pp, €11.60), translated by Jonathan Katz, showcase Zweig’s ability with the shorter form, even though the latter two stories (The Buried Candelabrum and The Burning Secret) are more akin to novellas.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given his Viennese background, Zweig was especially interested in the inner psychological lives of his characters, the deeper motivations which led them to act in particular ways and often remain opaque to the characters themselves. In The Burning Secret, a young boy with a limited grasp of the operations of human sexual attraction, sabotages the attempted seduction of his mother by an aristocratic ne’er-do-well.

Zweig beautifully captures the boy’s perplexity at adult intimacy and the stories he dreams up to make sense of it all. Deception in its many forms preoccupied Zweig, and this theme is very much to the fore in Leporella, where a maid’s trust is cruelly abused by her employer, the Baron, and painful consequences ensue. In The Invisible Collection, a blind owner of a priceless collection of prints does not realise his family has gradually sold them off to cover their own debts. Intimately acquainted with the works, the owner describes them in loving detail to a visiting buyer who sees them for what they are – blank sheets of paper.

Here, the consequences of being misled are shown to be political as well as psychological. In Episode on Lake Geneva, a Russian soldier fleeing the carnage of war in France naively assumes that he can simply walk back to his native homeland. In the end, the brutal reality of borders turns out to be his pitiable undoing. What to do with borders is a recurrent theme in the longest piece in the collection, The Buried Candelabrum, which was first published in German in 1936. The story starts with the Vandals’ sack of Rome in the fifth century and the fate that befalls the Menorah, the sacred candelabrum which once stood on the table of the temple in Jerusalem and is among the most sacred objects in Judaism.

For Zweig, tracing the fortunes of the Menorah becomes a way of reflecting on the long history of persecuting the Jewish people, who were constantly forced to flee across borders, and a way of asking whether the promised land (whatever form it takes) will bring lasting peace. As these stories show, Zweig’s mind – restless, alert and probing – has lost nothing of its contemporaneity.

The contemporary moment and its possibilities are never far from the mind of the writer and physicist, Agustín Fernández Mallo, one of Spain’s foremost experimental novelists. The works comprising the Nocilla Trilogy (2022) attracted much attention for their innovative engagement with writing forms and their breathless disregard for subject boundaries. In his latest work to appear in English, The Book of All Loves (Fitzcarraldo, 182pp, £10.99), translated by Thomas Bunstead, Mallo imagines what remains of love in a post-apocalyptic world. Two lovers, survivors of the “Great Blackout”, parse the various conditions of love: “parcel love”; “cut and run love”; “virus love”; “decibel love”.

Mallo typically uses a fact or an observation – children no longer believing that Father Christmas exists – as the basis for claiming that all mysteries are the result of coded language (it is words that make Santa Claus believable). This then leads him to assert that the language of the beloved is the only code that can never be cracked, hence, for example, the term “code love”. The arguments are often ingenious, although the conclusions can at times feel forced.

The short snippets of lovers’ dialogue dispersed throughout the text do not always escape the pull of the banal (”If you don’t die, neither will I. – she says”) or the portentous (”Our mission is to ascertain the epochs of terrestrial love – he says”). Far more successful is a pre-apocalyptic storyline, set in Venice, where a writer and a retired Latin professor go to live and work. Here, a sense of menace and a kind of melancholy tension are beautifully realised in Mallo’s brooding prose.

The promise of prose, or at least a particular version of it, is what re-energises a young hairdresser in Stéphane Carlier’s Clara Reads Proust (Gallic Books, 176pp, €11.60), translated by Polly Mackintosh. One day, a customer leaves behind his copy of Swann’s Way, and Clara, initially indifferent, is gradually snagged by Proust’s labyrinthine exploration of his characters’ lives and loves. The more Clara reads, the more she realises the shortcomings of her own life, the slow whittling away of expectation and possibility. Carlier, in this elegant and quietly lyrical charting of a life changed by books, captures the quirks and intimacies of life in provincial France, without giving in to easy sentimentality or heavy-handed satire. Thanks to Proust, Clara brings nuance to her life and, in this way, finds her own path to freedom.

Michael Cronin

Prof Michael Cronin, a contributor to The Irish Times, is director of Trinity College Dublin's centre for literary and cultural translation