The next Elena Ferrante? The best European fiction coming your way
A devastating French debut, a controversial Norwegian saga ... the best new euronovels
People pay their respects in front of dozens of coffins containing remains of more than 600 victims of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. File photograph: Themistocles Hakizimana/Reuters
Between 2001 and 2015, sales of translated fiction grew by 96 per cent. One reason, argues Daniel Hahn, who last year established a prize for first translations, is that publishers seem to be taking more account of what people actually want to read. For a long time, he says, the emphasis was on “quite challenging, highbrow literary fiction,” which led to an unhelpful conflation of “difficult” with “translated”. Then Christopher MacLehose published Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, which promptly sold 12,000 copies, in hardback.
“It seems to me,” says Lisa Appignanesi, chair of this year’s Man Booker international prize, which is announced on Tuesday, “we have become much more interested in literature which is not conventional; there are different traditions on the continent, which are not quite so emphatically led by character and the movement of plot.”
The important thing, then, is to be led by readers. Colm Tóibín, when not writing his own fiction, commissions books for a tiny imprint called Tuskar Rock. Two of their translated books are shortlisted for this year’s Booker international prize – Like a Fading Shadow by Spanish author Antonio Muñoz Molina and The World Goes On, by Hungarian novelist Laszlo Krasznahorkai. Some years ago, Tóibín was asked to introduce Krasznahorkai at a reading in Edinburgh, and “noticed that the venue was full”. At which point he realised that readers in English were no longer getting their information about books from traditional sources, and that it was important to work out how they were doing it and “try to tap into it”.
So, in that spirit, we have looked around Europe – in this year when we are preparing to leave the EU for ever – to find out what Europeans are reading, and what we’ll be reading next. Aida Edemariam
FRANCE: Gaël Faye
The rapper turned writer
Faye was 13 when he wrote his first poem. It was March 1995, and he had already lived through two years of civil war in the tiny east African nation of Burundi – sitting in school while gunshots rang out, navigating neighbourhoods carved up by rival ethnic gangs, seeing the remains of bodies burned alive in the street. “I started writing because I was scared,” Faye says. “We were living in hell. Writing did me a lot of good.”
Days later, Faye’s French father put his children on an emergency repatriation plane to France. When Faye eventually began a new life in a Paris suburb near Versailles, he was weighed down by war and trauma, navigating all the race and identity issues of discrimination in the banlieues.
By his 20s, Faye was a successful hip-hop artist. It was a literary editor in Paris, whose son listened to Faye’s music, who suggested he consider fiction. The result – Petit Pays (Small Country) – his first novel, about a 10-year-old who comes of age during the Burundi civil war, has become a bestseller in France, leading to literary prizes and translation deals across the world. Its page-turning appeal lies in its deceptively gentle style: there is the tinkling of cutlery on plates, the mother silently massaging her temples, while beyond the front door, ethnic violence creeps up like a rising tide. It is a window into the minds of families forced to flee conflict. There are flashes of the young narrator’s adult life in a “dormitory town” outside Paris, where he sits in a bar watching refugees arriving on boats on the TV news, thinking: “What about the country inside them? No one ever mentions that.”
In the livingroom of his neat Paris flat, Faye is on a break from his current hip-hop tour. At 36, he still raps and makes music, although he is now better known for his novel and is working on two new pieces of fiction. Well liked in the music industry for his politeness and calm, Faye dislikes the rapper-turned-novelist label. He prefers to call himself simply a writer who moves between different forms. “There’s so much cliche around rap. I didn’t want people to presume a rapper would write a book in rhyme with style effects, full of alliteration and wordplay. There’s more freedom in writing a novel than the music style I work in, with its strict rhythm-rhyme format. Writing a novel is like being in the middle of an ocean and choosing where you want to float, but a song is like a flowing river: there are river banks and you have to stay inside them.”
In the novel, the father of the young central character, Gabriel, believes children should stay out of politics. “But we couldn’t help it,” the 10-year-old narrator says. “The atmosphere was becoming weirder by the day.” The Hutu-Tutsi ethnic conflict in Burundi and the genocide in neighbouring Rwanda that killed up to a million people, is – from an inquisitive child’s point of view – terrifyingly absurd. Did the Hutus and Tutsis fall out because they didn’t speak the same language? No. Didn’t share the same god? No. Then why, the child wonders. “Because they don’t have the same nose,” he is told.
Like Faye’s own mother, the narrator’s mother is Rwandan, from the Tutsi minority, and had fled to Burundi during the pogroms of the 1960s, then lost family in the 1994 genocide. As an adult, the mixed-race Gabriel is asked by women on dates in Paris to define his identity. “Human being,” he replies. But the novel shows that no matter how hard you try to sidestep it, war tries to designate you an enemy.
Faye wanted to evoke what it’s like to live in wartime, when murder becomes part of everyday life. “When I was small, we went to the cinema and saw American war films – Rambo, Chuck Norris movies. And we always thought war was explosions everywhere and buildings falling down,” he says. “But in fact war can also be a life. You still go to school, you still obey your parents and, at the same time, there are people who are being lynched in the street, you see people burned to death when you’re on your way to collect a letter or buy bread . . . You live on adrenaline, with permanent fear – it’s hard for a child to have the notion they could die at any moment. When I arrived in France, I noticed that compared to my classmates, I didn’t have the naivety of childhood. It had made me serious.”
Faye began writing Petit Pays in 2015. It was the Paris terrorist attacks of that year that gave him the idea of setting his novel in a calm cul-de-sac in a comfortable area of the Burundi capital, Bujumbura, somewhere that seems shut off from the war, but isn’t. “The dead-end street where the children play – a place you feel protected,” Faye says. “But feeling protected is a trap, it stops you seeing the world as it really is.
“The Paris attacks showed that you could go to a concert, you could go for dinner on a restaurant terrace, and suddenly you could die,” he says. “And the next day, some people were back at restaurant terraces, life continued. That’s what war was like for us, it was like that every day for two years in Burundi, and I imagine in some countries – Lebanon, Iraq – people live that for years and years. You have to understand how that wears down your nerves. You grow old much quicker. That fear – week in, week out – ends up changing you profoundly.”
It was hard for Faye to talk about the war in Burundi to his mother, who had escaped violence in Rwanda and lived as a refugee. “She would say: ‘It’s the past, you have to look forward.’” That silence and his inability to speak his mother’s native language pained him, but ultimately led to the novel.
“If I had really been able to talk to my mum, there wouldn’t have been that irresistible desire to write in order to understand.”
He wanted to show how war creeps up. “Before the violence, it’s there in words, gestures, in attitudes, relationships. It’s never a sudden explosion. And if we’re not vigilant, with the words we use, political decisions, war can happen.”
Petit Pays – like much of Faye’s hip-hop – is also about race. Irritated by society’s definition of mixed race as something that is “50-50”, Faye, whose French father is white and Rwandan mother is black, prefers to see mixed race identity as 100 per cent, a whole. He feels African, European, French, Rwandan, Burundian all at the same time. In the novel, the mixed-race child Gabriel moves between settings as an insider-outsider. “It’s as if you belong without really belonging,” says Faye. “It’s almost like a reader, who belongs to the story but doesn’t belong to the story. I found that interesting: to have a character who wasn’t on one side or the other, but on the border.”
Faye briefly lived in London in his 20s, where he worked for an investment fund, and recently relocated for a while to the Rwandan capital, Kigali, to experience a new Rwanda, beyond his family’s story of the genocide. But much of his hip-hop is about French society and its identity problems – a society that has turned in on itself, stigmatising those with immigrant roots.
“I’m ill at ease with the idea of a country that promotes such great values through its literature and ideas and at the same time has seen a growing intolerance. France is at a crossroads. It was built by people from all over the world. To forget that is to forget what it is to be French.”
Faye still hasn’t returned to those first poems he wrote in the days before fleeing Burundi. “They are in a box at my mum’s house. When I was writing ‘Small Country’ I wondered if I should reread them, but I was afraid to. I didn’t want the book to be an autobiography and I wanted people to be able to understand it even if they weren’t from Burundi or Rwanda.” He takes a breath. “Maybe I’ll reread them one day, but not right now.” Angelique Chrisafis
• Petit Pays (Small Country), translated by Sarah Ardizzone, is published by Hogarth on June 7th.
NORWAY: Vigdis Hjorth
The controversial family saga
Hjorth is a highly respected novelist with a 30-year career. Like her fellow Norwegian Karl Ove Knausgaard, whose six-volume work My Struggle became an international phenomenon, Hjorth often uses her own life as inspiration. Arv og miljø (Wills and Testaments), published in Norway in 2016, is a family drama about the settling of a father’s will, told by the family’s eldest daughter, now a middle-aged woman. The settlement is overshadowed by memories of being abused by her father when she was five.
The book was praised when it came out in 2016. “Hjorth parcels out the secrets with a precision worthy of Ibsen,” wrote Ingunn Økland, chief reviewer at Aftenposten. But it was also controversial. Norway is a small country, and people who knew Hjorth’s family thought they recognised many of the events and characters depicted. This was a novel that people could enjoy either as high literature or as a work of down-and-dirty revenge. The tabloids loved it as much as the broadsheets, and it became the bestselling novel of the year.
The narrator’s sisters do not come out of it well. They collude with the father and refuse to believe the narrator’s story of abuse. They are rewarded for their silence; each receives a holiday cabin in the father’s will. The narrator does not. Hjorth’s younger sister Helga was appalled. “I recognised everything the reviews described: the cabins in Toffelsø; the arguments about the will and the valuations . . . [everything] was taken from our life, from my life.”
Helga considered suing for defamation, but although she is a lawyer, it’s very hard to prove libel in a Norwegian court. Instead she took a writing course and wrote her own novel, Fri vilje (Free Will). In Helga Hjorth’s version, the facts remain largely the same, but this time her father is innocent, and her famous sister is a troublemaker. In August 2017, a year after “Wills and Testaments” was published, “Free Will” topped the book charts in Norway. Everyone was talking about it, comparing it with the original. “This is the novel in weaponised form,” said the national broadcaster’s arts correspondent Agnes Moxnes. Vigdis Hjorth is sanguine about her sister’s score-settling. For her it simply confirms the central point of her own novel: that one person’s reality is another person’s lie. Ben McPherson
• Arv og miljø (Wills and Testaments), English translator TBC, will be published by Verso.
SPAIN: Fernando Aramburu
The political blockbuster
Is Aramburu the Tolstoy of the Basque country, author of a Spanish language War and Peace that lays bare the pain of 40 pointless years of separatist terrorism? Or is he a Spanish JM Coetzee, publicly self-flagellating about the hypocrisies of one of the country’s most prosperous but also most intolerant regions? The 58-year-old novelist has been compared to both – thanks to a blockbusting 640-page saga of the Basque conflict, Patria (Homeland), which has sold 700,000 copies, is in development as an HBO series (in Spanish) and has just won the Strega Europeo award in Italy.
When it came to opposing dictator Francisco Franco, the militant Basque separatists of Eta were among the few to pick up weapons. It was they who assassinated Franco’s heir apparent, Admiral Luis Carrero Blanco. Despite an amnesty, however, Eta did not give up violence when democracy arrived in the 1970s. The bloody inertia that provoked more than 800 deaths after that is the subject of Aramburu’s book, set in a small town where Eta and its violent supporters exercise almost totalitarian control.
With this book, which has spent 18 months on Spain’s bestseller lists, Aramburu has become a key player in a battle to control the narrative about recent Basque history. While some still see Eta’s members as valiant militants and martyrs, he sides with the victims – policemen, politicians, judges, journalists and those who fought the asphyxiating conformity imposed on the heartland towns and villages near San Sebastián. The heroes in Patria are those who either resist or wake up to Eta’s moral redundancy. Aramburu himself has talked of seeking Eta’s “literary defeat” (adding to its political defeat, since the group disbanded earlier this month).
Critics accuse him of creating a blunt political instrument whose simplistic moralising relies on stereotypical characters. Others, however, praise his literary skill. Six hundred-page novels are not usually easy to digest, but Patria – divided into more than 100 short chapters – can be binge-read. Perhaps the test will be whether it transcends cultural frontiers. Giles Tremlett
• Patria, English translator TBC, will be published by Picador in spring 2019.
GERMANY: JULI ZEH
The tech dystopia
German literature, once notorious for digging through the past in search of answers to the 20th century’s unanswerables, is becoming increasingly fixated on the future. Juli Zeh’s 2016 novel Unterleuten (Among-people) demonstrated her talent for turning social debates into bestsellers, and she has been described by Deutschlandradio as the rightful heir to Günter Grass and Heinrich Böll. Her latest book is Leere Herzen (Empty Hearts). In the year 2025, Angela Merkel has resigned in the face of the rise of a so-called “Concerned Citizens Movement”. The UN is about to be dissolved, Frexit is in the air and Continuity Occupy and Bavarian separatists are planning terrorist attacks.
But psychotherapist Britta Söldner and her colleague Babak Hamwi find that even suicide bombings can be monetised: their agency The Bridge uses a powerful algorithm to scrape wannabe jihadis from social media networks and match them with fundamentalist organisations. “As the republic’s first and only terror service provider, The Bridge has pacified and stabilised its trade,” Britta reports proudly. “They provide the necessary level of threat that every society needs.”
Leading high-brow weekly Die Zeit has described Leere Herzen as the German equivalent of Michel Houellebecq’s dystopian fantasy Submission. Its success seems to suggest that in the country whose handling of the 2015 refugee crisis divided its population and much of the rest of the world, fears about modern technology loom just as large. Philip Oltermann
• Leere Herzen (Empty Hearts), English translator TBC, will be published by Knopf Doubleday in 2019.
ITALY: Paolo Cognetti
The mountain hermit
Mountain literature hasn’t always been a fashionable genre in Italian publishing. In recent years, though, Italy’s Alpine books have become astonishingly successful. Mauro Corona, who lives in a half-abandoned hamlet in the Dolomites, has become a prolific writer and proselytiser for primitive living. And last year’s Strega prize was won by Le otto montagne (The Eight Mountains), Paolo Cognetti’s enchanting story of a boy who comes of age at altitude. In Italy, (a country with low levels of books sales) it has sold 320,000 copies, and rights have been sold in 38 countries.
Touted by some as the new Elena Ferrante, Cognetti’s life story has added to the appeal of the book. At 30, weary of city life and moved by Into the Wild – the true story of an American hiker who disappeared into the Alaskan wilderness – he left Milan and went to live as a hermit more than 6,000ft above sea level. In the resulting memoir, Il Ragazzo Selvatico (The Wild Child), he meets gruff, timeless characters, and his writing takes on their blunt honesty: “there’s no wilderness in the Alps,” he wrote, “but a long history of human presence”. Cognetti duly became a sort of amateur archaeologist, analysing the traces of that human presence and gently adding to it.
Le otto montagne is set in very similar territory: it’s about an ascent to a space where there are no “lords, armies, priests”. The book’s popularity lies partly in its elemental romanticism: civilisation has been so stripped away that skiers look like “aliens” and the only thing that stops cows being human is their lack of a voice. But it’s also become a bestseller because Italy is undergoing something of an identity crisis. Most people complain that the country is in terminal economic decline and that modernity isn’t all it was cracked up to be. There’s a growing back-to-the-land movement, with endless newspaper articles about, for example, a new generation of shepherds: educated Italians who are leaving conurbations to head to the hills and look after sheep. That, in some ways, is what Cognetti is doing: he toils at altitude, and tries to preserve Italy’s past for its future. Tobias Jones
CROATIA: Daša Drndic
The literary historian
Reading Daša Drndic is not for the faint hearted. Even Seid Serdarevic, Drndic’s publisher at the publishing house Fraktura, describes the experience of reading her books as “being emotionally punched in the stomach all the time”. Nevertheless, the 71-year-old Croatian author is beginning to achieve fame outside her homeland for novels that deal with some of the darker episodes of 20th-century history, and issues of memories and forgetting. Drndic has been writing since the 1980s, but came to prominence with her 2007 novel Trieste. She followed it up with Belladonna in 2012, and both are now available in English.
Perhaps the book’s greatest strength is that it gives a voice to those people who are unable to tell their own stories. Belladonna is ostensibly the story of the ageing Andreas Ban and his battle with cancer. Ban is “a psychologist who does not psychologise any more. A writer who no longer writes . . . a tourist guide who no longer guides anyone anywhere.” The first 40 pages, in which Ban receives his diagnosis, are a relentless portrayal of “repugnant” physical decay. But it is the deterioration of memories that is quickly established as the book’s main theme.
The novel switches between various periods in Ban’s life, and dances from one historical tragedy to another – from the second World War, to communism, to sectarianism in the 1990s Balkan wars. Ban, as Drndic once was, is a Croat living in Belgrade, who, as ethnic tensions mount, finds he is an outsider both in Serbia and Croatia.
Drndic’s novels, with their literary retellings of 20th-century history and fictionalised characters musing over factual events, have drawn comparisons to WG Sebald. Real people, too, make frequent appearances, most notably the list of more than 2,000 children, spanning 15 pages, who were deported from the Netherlands to concentration camps by the Nazis. “It is precisely about things which it is impossible to speak of that one must speak,” believes Ban. Anger radiates from Drndic’s pages, and perhaps the book’s greatest strength is the way in which it gives a voice to those people who are unable to tell their own stories. Shaun Walker
• Belladonna, translated by Celia Hawkesworth is published by MacLehose.
POLAND: Olga Tokarczuk
The Booker nominee
She is by no means an overtly political writer, yet Olga Tokarczuk’s work has come to be seen as an implicit challenge to the incumbent Law and Justice party’s (PiS) steady erosion of human rights. Though it is her novel Bieguni (Flights) that has been shortlisted for next week’s Man Booker International Prize, it is Prowadz swój plug przez kosci umarlych (Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead) that is back in the spotlight, thanks to Pokot (Spoor), a film adaptation by Agnieszka Holland.
The novel, whose title is taken from a line in William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, is narrated by Janina Duszejko, a 60-something former engineer, now an English teacher and caretaker of dilapidated summer homes along the Czech-Polish border. “I love crossing borders,” she declares, about life on the other side, where “the language isn’t suited to quarrelling” – unlike in her own country, “a land of neurotic egotists”.
Indeed, the novel is haunted by an acute awareness of how language is used to manipulate us. Though Duszejko is having none of it. An ostensibly humble vigilante, she has a way with words, writing to the authorities to deplore their lack of action and accountability, and awarding her friends monikers such as “Oddball” and “Good News”. To perceive and cultivate difference, to rename, she believes, are simple means of resistance. Duszejko’s deep concern for the natural environment manifests itself in a fierce anti-hunting stance allied to an increasingly desperate lament for the decimation of her country’s very own “green and pleasant land”. Her conviction clearly speaks to Polish readers: at recent demonstrations against the logging of the Bialowieza forest, one banner read, “Janina Duszejko won’t forgive you!” James Hopkin
• Prowadz swój plug przez kosci umarlych, translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones is due out from Fitzcarraldo Editions in September.
Bieguni (Flights), translated by Jennifer Croft, is due out August 2018.
The winner of the Man Booker International prize will be announced on May 22nd. – Guardian