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Fiction in translation: novels from Bulgaria, Japan, Brazil, Spain and a Franco-Korean author

Rónán Hession reviews a selection that includes an impressive work by International Booker Prize winner Georgi Gospidinov

Having won the International Booker Prize together, Bulgarian writer Georgi Gospidinov and his translator Angela Rodel will meet an expectant readership with The Physics of Sorrow (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £9.99). However, as it was first published in 2012 and translated in 2015, The Physics of Sorrow predates the Booker winning Time Shelter, and so doesn’t bear the suffocating pressure of a follow-up.

Written in time- and subject-hopping fragments, the novel begins with the narrator inhabiting the body/mind/memory of his recently deceased grandfather (and namesake) in 1925, first as a boy with seven sisters and then as a young soldier fighting in Hungary. While injured, he falls in love with a woman who hides him in her cellar. They fall in love but are separated – he guards the seven Hungarian words he learned from her “like silver spoons” until his death, aged 82, following which the narrator makes a poignant visit to the former lover, now an old women.

Within the grandfather’s story are two vignettes that create a plank for one of the main themes explored in the book – that of abandonment. The first is an incident where the grandfather, as a three-year-old boy at the onset of the first World War, is left behind (temporarily) by his family with doubts raised about whether it was intentional. The second is where the grandfather is struck mute after seeing what purports to be a boy minotaur at a fair. The story of the minotaur becomes a key riff. Portrayed in Greek myth as a vicious monster, Gospodinov sides with the creature – a child of infidelity, abandoned, and the true prisoner of the labyrinth to which he is confined for life.

Despite its title, the book is brimming with humour. The narrator maps his childhood against the backdrop of the decline of communism. Brezhnev died after his first kiss, Chernobyl occurs after his first sexual encounter in the park – he begins to wonder at the political implications of puberty.


The is a free-ranging book which slaloms through autobiography, dreams, myth and politics in an erudite but playful, conversational tone, captured with confidence by Angela Rodel’s excellent translation. Highly recommended.

Franco-Korean writer Elisa Shua Dusapin set her previous work in Korea and Japan, and location is again important in Vladivostok Circus (Daunt Books, £9.99), the third of her novels to be translated by the talented Aneesa Abba Higgins.

Nathalie is a 22-year-old French costume designer, who spent time in Vladivostok as part of her peripatetic childhood. Her father remains a shadow presence, with their relationship characterised by physical and emotional distance. She returns to Vladivostok to design costumes for a circus act, in which two strongmen support a female acrobat using a specially designed bar. Their work is a matter of strength, control and precision – the risks of failure are all too apparent as we learn that a previous performer had broken his neck. The three performers form a tight group, but Nathalie’s fellow status as an outsider, and her respect for their work, admits her to their circle.

Just as the momentum appears headed for a climax, things pivot, short story-like, away from the obvious set piece to something more ambiguous. Though the novel doesn’t deliver a big finish, it does speak to the writer’s interest in the periphery, whether in terms of location or those subtle textures on the edges of human relationships.

Cannibals by Shinya Tanaka (Honford Star, £13.99) won the prestigious Akutagawa Prize in Japan, where it became a bestseller. Key to the novella’s tautness is the atmospheric riverside setting and the tight cast of characters. Seventeen-year-old Tama is having his first sexual relationship with Chigusa. He is close to his mother, who runs a fish shop and who wears a prosthetic hand because of a wartime accident. She is separated from Tama’s father, a mean and lascivious man who now lives with a new lover. The story is driven by Tama learning of his father’s arousal through sexual violence. His repulsion towards his father also becomes directed at himself, as he recognises the same dark influence in his own nascent sexuality.

The psychological dilemma within Tama plays out through a series of intense, if uncomfortable, scenes as he indulges his dark side, bringing him closer to the father he despises. The excellent translation by Kalau Almony maintains the tension beautifully as the story whirls in a vortex towards its skilfully rendered conclusion.

An impressive novella that shows Shinya Tanaka to be a quality writer capable of navigating difficult themes with intelligence and nuance.

In The Dark Side of Skin (Charco Press, £11.99), Brazilian writer Jeferson Tenório adroitly explores racism in the southern Brazilian city of Porto Alegre. Written in a claustrophobic second person point of view that ingeniously recreates the atmospheric pressure of living under racial prejudice, the book follows the narrator, Pedro, and the “invented truth” about his parents’ lives. The characters are depicted separately, highlighting their solitary experiences. Interestingly, there is no sense of black identity or community in the book – the characters don’t define themselves by their skin colour but are made so by their treatment in romantic relationships, the workplace and, most sharply, in police attitudes. In time, racism becomes as inescapable as the characters’ own skin. There is a concentrated seriousness about the book, and translator Bruna Dantas Lobato is thoughtful in conveying the particularities of racism in Brazil, as distinct from, say, the US.

There is a calm anger to this book, with the associated risk that the reader might sympathise sensitively but read as if an observer from a distance. It’s to the writer’s great credit then, that he creates such a vividly experiential novel, conveying a memorable story of powerful forlorn melancholy – “it doesn’t take long for your colour to seep through your body and determine the way you exist in the world.”

The Time of Cherries (Daunt Books, £10.99) by Montserrat Roig, is set in Spain in 1974, towards the end of the Franco regime. As a younger woman, Natàlia was active in the student protests with her idealist boyfriend, experiencing the lonely reality of a police cell, abortion, family conflict and estrangement, all of which pushed her away. On her return to Barcelona twelve years later, she finds the complex network of family and neighbourhood relations still intact, though it has evolved without her. Politics continues to provide the backdrop, with the recent state execution of 25-year-old anarchist Puig Antich, by garrotting, a dinner table talking point.

This is a free-flowing novel in which time period, subject matter, point of view, tone, can shift at any time. It is expansive yet intimate; it addresses serious subjects but is never overburdened by its scope; and it is fully flavoured – funny, human and poignant. Montserrat Roig is brilliant at setting a scene, whether in a prison cell, a sauna, at a Tupperware party or in an asylum. The translation by Julia Sanches is vibrant and inventive, and the introductory essay by Wendy Erskine is illuminating. A classic to add to your library.

Rónán Hession

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