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The best new fiction in translation

Reviews: Twelve Nights, Terminal Boredom, My Brother, A Beast in Paradise and more


The peculiarity of snow – its impact on the landscape and on anybody walking through it – lends immediate atmosphere and crunchy quiet to the opening of Twelve Nights by Urs Faes, translated by Jamie Lee Searle (Harvill Secker, 84pp, £10.99). But snow also hides threats and each step must be a wary one.

So it is with Manfred as he revisits a German town near the farm on which he grew up and where his estranged brother still lives. Like all returning natives, he is keen to see what he remembers and what has changed. Above all, he needs to discover how much, if anything, has altered in his brother’s life and attitude towards him.

In circumstances of deep disappointment about the inheritance of the farm and the love of a woman called Minna, Manfred took appalling revenge. Whether what he did can be forgiven is the question that blankets every moment of this simply told story, while revealing the crushed lives of Manfred’s brother Sebastian and their intriguingly pagan mother.

My Brother, by Karin Smirnoff, translated by Anna Paterson (Pushkin Press, 317pp, £12.99) opens, like Twelve Nights, with a lone figure adrift in a snow-covered landscape, in search of an antagonised brother somewhere nearby. From the start, there is an energy in the writing of this novel that only occasionally lets up.

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The wandering figure is Jana, who grew up on a farm in Sweden with her brother Bror and their parents who, in their very different ways, distorted their lives, implanting a rot that would spread through their adult lives and blight all those with whom they form connections. Unable to find her way in the snow, Jana is found by John, another man who will, before too long, reveal the ways in which he embodies both a barbarous sensuality and a dangerously unpredictable brutality. Indeed, as the novel proceeds it seems as if all the male characters veer between tumescence and turmoil, often incarnating both at the same time.

Occasionally the book is in danger of being overwhelmed with anguish and squalor. But the author – especially impressive for a debut novelist – holds the vitality of the novel together, only faltering a little with a surfeit of exposition as a dead woman called Maria – with connections to almost all of the characters – becomes central to the book, requiring both her birth and death to be clarified, unfolding mysteries within miseries.

All farm settings seem predictive of a raw tendency towards atrocity. We also saw it in Marieke Lucas Rijneveld's The Discomfort of Evening. With its setting among pigs and other animals on a farm in rural France, overseen by a sometimes cruel, elderly woman, A Beast In Paradise, by Cécile Coulon, translated by Tina Kover, (Europa Editions, 189pp, £11.99) unavoidably brings Jean-Baptiste Del Amo's Animalia to mind. Unfortunately, this novel lacks the power of that novel.

Calling the farm Paradise preordains the story towards a paradoxical refutation of that name and the arc is clear from the beginning. Blanche’s parents died when she was aged five. The resulting trauma manifests itself in a strong attachment to the farm, a position challenged when she falls for a boy called Alexandre, whose very different upbringing has left him with no feelings for land, except its monetary worth. He is similarly cavalier with people.

Every moment of Blanche’s conflicted progression is watched closely by the grandmother who raised her and her younger brother Gabriel after the death of their parents, and by the farmworker Louis, who wishes fervently that it was he that she loved. It’s an enjoyable novel but one that never reaches the depths it is always striving for.

Izumi Suzuki's stories inhabit, in every sense, a very different world. Terminal Boredom, translated by Polly Barton, Sam Bett, David Boyd, Daniel Joseph, Aiko Masubuchi and Helen O'Horan (Verso, 218pp, £10.99), explores the altered circumstances of human lives in which, for example, men are confined to enclosed facilities and forbidden direct contact with women, or people are encouraged to enter a state of cryosleep, existing only in the dreams of another person.

In the best story, Night Picnic, a family are constantly anxious about how to behave. It’s a well-structured examination of the socially structured codes of behaviour we all adopt and by the end, we fully appreciate their foreboding.

Too often, however, the stories are just not strange enough and are told in a disappointingly flavourless fashion, not helped by some overly Americanised translations. Still, given that Suzuki died by suicide in 1986, they do have a surprisingly contemporary resonance, with pertinent musings on the mutability of gender and the elusive nature of identity.

The Romanian characters in If You Kept a Record of Sins by Andrea Bajani, translated by Elizabeth Harris (Archipelago Books, 206pp, $18), are are preoccupied with the way they are perceived by outsiders (a concern familiar to Irish people) during the post-Ceaucescu periodod. In a novel that manages to be both subtle and searing, an Italian man called Lorenzo visits the country to attend the funeral of his long-absent mother. Her former partner Anselmi is one of the uber-capitalists of this new era, with all the attendant disregard for others.

Lorenzo’s upbringing is the main focus of the novel, which is addressed throughout directly to his mother. His memories of her are almost always troubling, beginning at a time when he could not comprehend the implications of her actions or the identity of his father, leading inexorably to a moment of full, devastating understanding.

The adept, patient style of the novel leaves lots of room for the reader to make their own appraisal of the choices of his mother and their impact on the life of the child Lorenzo was and the adult he is now.

We meet a very different type of family in The Blacksmith's Daughter by Selim Özdogan, translated by Ayça Türkoglu and Katy Derbyshire (V&Q Books, 287pp, £12.99). After flashing through episodes from her parents and grandparents' lives, the novel slows down considerably so that we can observe at close range and in the most empathetic way the life of Gül, born in a village in Anatolia to a mother who will soon die; the first of many ordinary adversities to push against all of Gül's hopes.

Although her father, the blacksmith, is a kindly presence, the wider societal expectations mean that Gül’s destiny is clearly delineated. Listening to some music, “she can tell that this melancholy, this Anatolian blues, has something to do with death, with suffering, futility and the understanding that we will have to try, despite it all”. These thoughts will remain with Gül as she grows up with younger siblings, some of them born to her stepmother, and then marry at 15 the feckless brother of her stepmother.

Gül is often frustratingly reticent, like a character in a 19th-century novel, unwilling to say the very thing that will save her. But because we readers see her in such detail and are aware of her every thought, we feel everything she feels in this exceptionally fine, beautifully translated novel.