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Translated fiction: A round-up of the best new books

Maryse Condé, Andri Snaer Magnason, Samar Yasbek, Willem Frederik Hermans and Domenico Starnone appear in English

Domenico Starnone, author of Trust

Black lives have always mattered to Maryse Condé, one of the Caribbean’s foremost writers and frequently mentioned as a likely Nobel laureate. Condé has spent her life chronicling the fortunes of the descendants of slaves in Guadeloupe and elsewhere who made their way in a world still scarred by the fault lines of race and exclusion.

In Waiting for the Waters to Rise (World Editions, 288pp, £12.99), her latest novel to be published in English by Richard Philcox, Condé traces the journey of Babakar Traoré, a young obstetrician, from his native Mali to Haiti. Working his way from west Africa to the Caribbean (his mother is Guadeloupean), Babakar's odyssey is firmly situated in the global south, and Condé excels in adding depth and texture to lives that are often relegated to the cutting room of disaster footage and humanitarian appeals.

Maryse Condé, author of In Waiting for the Waters to Rise. Photograph: Philippe Matsas

As a young boy, Babakar had wanted to become a midwife like his grandmother, one of the first midwives in black Africa. She mocks him, saying that midwifery is not a man’s job. This perplexes Babakar: “Why? he wondered, mortified. Why can men only be harbingers of death: soldiers, suicide bombers and serial killers? Can’t they be deliverers of life as well?”

He sets out delivering that life, from a loosely disguised Burkina Faso in the grip of civil war to a Haiti beset by a series of violent regime changes. Searching for the Haitian family of his adopted daughter Anaïs, he encounters an island that is abundantly alive but racked by disabling poverty and political opportunism.


Babakar, the life-giver, is constantly badgered by death-dealing terror wielded in the name of religion, race and racketeering, but he does not give up bearing witness. Nor does Condé in a work that has recently been longlisted for the US National Book Awards for Translated Literature.

Hugo Moreno, another character in Condé’s novel, a meteorologist and colleague of Babakar, worries about the day when the “Caribbean will be nothing but a memory” as sea waters rise to engulf the islands.

Andri Snaer Magnason, author of On Time and Water

On Time and Water

A fellow islander farther north, Andri Snaer Magnason is similarly preoccupied. Snaer Magnason, the writer, activist, documentary film-maker and unsuccessful candidate in the 2016 Icelandic presidential elections, has produced in On Time and Water (Serpent's Tail, 255pp, £9.99), translated by Lytton Smith, a compelling overview of what climate change means for a small island nation in the Atlantic and beyond.

Part family history, part travelogue, part discursive essay, the work looks to the waters surrounding the author’s native Iceland and the glaciers gracing its highlands as a way into the rapidly escalating catastrophe of global warming. If the focus of much current climate debate is on what gets released into the air, Snaer Magnason’s concern is with what gets dumped into the water.

What brings vividness to his threading through of the familiar beads of climate collapse is his ability to situate events in recognisable human time. As he points out, a child born today who survives to the age of Snaer Magnason’s grandmother (95 years) will live to see all the world’s glaciers melt away and the oceans acidify to a degree not seen in 50 million years.

Some of his observations are startling: “The oceans absorb about 90 per cent of the heat that accompanies global warming; scientific research shows that the warming of the oceans is on a scale equivalent to the detonation of four Hiroshima bombs per second.”

If the pandemic has seen humans make great sacrifices to save the lives of their parents, siblings and grandparents, the question Snaer Magnason repeatedly asks is: are they prepared to do the same for their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren?

Samar Yasbek, author of Planet of Clay

Planet of Clay

The plight of children and young people caught up in a conflict not of their making is the recurrent concern of Samar Yasbek's remarkable new novel on the Syrian conflict, Planet of Clay (Serpent's Tail, 320pp, £12.99), translated by Leri Price. Yasbek first came to international attention for her accounts of the Syrian conflict, A Woman in the Crossfire: Diaries of the Syrian Revolution (2012) and The Crossing: My Journey to the Shattered Heart of Syria (2015).

In her latest fictional work, Rima, who cannot speak, is left orphaned after her mother is shot at a checkpoint. Her brother eventually comes to find her and she goes with him to Ghouta in the Damascus suburbs, where they will find themselves targeted by a chemical attack launched by Syrian forces.

Early on in the novel, Rima admonishes her imaginary reader: “Don’t think that what you are reading is a novel. What I’m writing is the truth, and I am doing it to try and understand what happened.”

Drawing on the magical surrealism of Alice in Wonderland and The Little Prince as well as the work of the Russian painter Chagall, Rima tries to find a language for the horrors the war visits on the young children, women and teenage boys who crowd into the ravaged cellars of the broken city.Her alphabets keep turning into picture books as she tries to understand not only what is happening in the world outside but also what is happening in her inner world, as she develops a deep affection for the young resistance fighter Hassan.

Price’s wonderfully deft translation from Arabic has earned Planet of Clay a deserved place as another title on the US National Book Awards for Translated Literature.

Willem Frederik Hermans 1986, author of A Guardian Angels Recalls

A Guardian Angels Recalls

War, and what it reveals about humans’ baser motives, is also a frequent theme in the novels of Willem Frederik Hermans, one of the Netherlands’ most acclaimed postwar novelists. Pushkin Press has been to the fore in bringing the work of Hermans, who died in 1995, to the attention of the English-reading public.

A Guardian Angels Recalls (Pushkin Press, 397pp, £9.99), translated by David Colmer, follows on from Hermans's Untouched House (2018) and Beyond Sleep and The Darkroom of Damocles (both 2020). Bert Alberegt, the protagonist, is a public prosecutor who arranges for the escape of his Jewish lover to England on the eve of the German invasion of the Netherlands. On his return to his place of work, he is involved in a hit and run accident that leads to the death of a child, a crime to which he never owns up.

Alberegt’s unwillingness to publicly acknowledge his guilt takes place against the general moral collapse of Dutch society, where, in Hermans’s account, large sections of society are more than willing to accommodate the new Nazi masters. Reminiscent at times of Hans Fallada’s Alone in Berlin, this accomplished metaphysical thriller culminates in an extraordinary book-burning scene where the “comforting lies and half-truths” of ideological compromise become all too apparent.

Hermans’s conceit of good and bad angels wrestling for the upper hand in Alberegt’s conscience (hence the title’s “guardian angel”) does not wear well in our more sceptical age. Nevertheless, the narrative is almost flawless in its unpicking of the decay of empathy and the incremental nature of moral defeat.


Success, not defeat, is the major revelation for Pietro Vella, the main character in Domenico Starnone's Trust (Europa, 176pp, £12.35), translated by Jhumpa Lahiri.

After Vella’s relatively undistinguished early career as a secondary school teacher in Rome, an opinion piece about the state of Italian public education, which later turns into a bestselling book, brings him unexpected fame. The success is, predictably, not an unmixed blessing and generates tensions in his relationship with his wife, Nadia, whose mathematical career is cut short by the brutal misogyny of academic gatekeepers.

The Trust of the title refers to a pact Vella established with his former lover Teresa: “Teresa cautiously put forward a plan. She said: let’s say I tell you a secret, something so awful that I’ve never even told it to myself, but then you have to confide something just as horrible to me, something that would destroy your life if anyone came to know it.” The confiding of these secrets gives each a lifelong power over the other.

This Faustian pact of co-dependence allows Starnone to pursue his abiding interest in the way language and the withholding of language can have such a decisive impact on the way his characters conduct their lives. He is particularly adept not only at tracking the multiple pressure points in relationships but also at demonstrating what happens when words become the empty playthings of shallow self-promotion.

After Ties (2017) and Trick (2018), Trust is Starnone’s third novel  to be translated by Lahiri, a noted author herself. In her thoughtful Afterword, she writes that “to write, first and foremost, is to choose the words to tell a story, whereas to translate is to evaluate, acutely, each word an author chooses”. Lahiri, Philcox, Price, Colmer and Smith have all shown that stories from other languages matter because they matter in their details, first and foremost, to their translators.

Michael Cronin is director of the Trinity Centre for Literary and Cultural Translation