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Translated fiction round-up: Perspectives from the Egyptian revolution, a Murakami collection and more

Reviews: Distant Sunflower Fields, The Story of a Goat, The Fool and Other Moral Tales, The Republic of False Truths, First Person Singular, Heaven

Distant Sunflower Fields (Sinoist Books, £10.99) by Li Juan, translated by Christopher Payne, is set in Xinjiang in rural China and describes the frontier life of the author's family, living in a yurt and cultivating sunflowers on the fringes of the Gobi desert.

The land is “like old, dead skin laid out over the body of the earth” and survival depends on “what the land provides or swallows and what the sky gives or takes”. But from within this barren setting we get stories teeming with life, humour and ingenuity, central to which is the eccentric resourcefulness of the writer’s mother, who works naked in the fields under the hot sun and makes underpants for the dog as a form of contraception.

Li Juan’s writing style has a casual, thinking-aloud feel to it, so when her gaze turns inwards, the reader becomes privy to moments of real tenderness and self-honesty. The loneliness is difficult and the existential uncertainties of life are amplified by the landscape’s vastness. The result is a memorable book that you will live through as much as read. Li Juan is a writer who deserves to be widely translated and read.

In 2015, Indian writer Perumal Murugan announced his retirement from writing after becoming the target of harassment in response to his fifth novel, One Part Woman. In the afterword to this edition of his comeback, The Story of a Goat (Pushkin Press £9.99), he explains that he is left fearful of writing about humans and Gods, so his options are limited to goats and sheep.

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The novel charts the life of a small foundling kid goat in rural India who is doted on by an older couple. Her life – and it is a significant choice that she is female – is marked by hardship, loss and longing. The human world is little better, as poor farmers eke out a subsistence lifestyle, fearful of the arrogant local authorities.

The translation from Tamil by N Kalyan Raman handles brilliantly the technical challenge of transitioning between the perspectives of animals and humans. Novels about animals are risky but when handled by a writer like Murugan, we get an affecting story told with sensitivity towards the plight of the individual and calm fury at society's brutality.

The three unique stories in The Fool & Other Moral Tales (Les Fugitives, £12) by Anne Serre, translated by Mark Hutchinson, have a folk tale sense of the familiar and the perverse. They invite us into something playful, but it is the reader who gets toyed with.

The titular story provides a sort of literary tarot reading – we are dealt the fool, a mysterious protean presence in literature, life and love. Is the fool a character? A state of mind? A part of ourselves? Each clue seems like a further puzzle. The narrator is similarly strange, using the idea of a narrator as a real-life presence mixing with characters and arousing their suspicion as they begin to rebel against how they are being represented. It is a curious inversion of the usual power dynamic, the narrator anything but godlike.

The Wishing Table is a graphic story about parents who engage in explicit incestuous orgies with their children. It is recalled – surprisingly amorally – by one of the now grown-up children as a period of simplicity and makes for uncomfortable reading. However, the subtlety of the story hinges on how it conveys the undetonated emotional effect of that experience.

While described as moral tales, these stories do not give straightforward choices about good and evil. Instead, we must scale their ambiguities and allusions with only the slightest of finger holds.

In The Republic of False Truths (Faber & Faber, £16.99) by Egyptian writer Alaa Al Aswany, translated by SR Fellowes, I am reminded of the remark by Alan Bennett that the most overlooked period in history is the recent past. Too long ago to be news, too recent to be history, the Arab Spring sits there somewhere in the pre-Trump chronicles of the social media era, another of those momentous events that western online discourse never quite gets around to revisiting.

A decade on from the Egyptian revolution of 2011, this panoramic novel recounts those events through multiple points of view in an effervescent narrative. This is a country choosing between different forms of chaos: between the brutal, pious hypocrites of the regime and the hopelessly naive revolutionaries.

At its best, the book is exhilarating in its storytelling and devastating in its societal critique. But the novel, like the society it depicts, is undecided on what it wants to be: it makes too many arguments to be just a story; it is too emotionally involved for reportage. It is, however, an evocative and informed account of an important moment in Egyptian society.

First Person Singular (Harvill Secker, £16.99) is a new collection of eight Haruki Murakami stories, though perhaps encounters would be a better word, in that they involve an unstructured retelling of curious incidents, whether it's sitting in a hot tub with a talking monkey (Confessions of a Shinagawa Monkey), faint memories of young love (On a Stone Pillow) or an uncomfortable confrontation at a bar in the title story. These are not life-defining moments, but nuggets of puzzlement, with several hints that a search for hidden meanings may well prove fruitless.

The narrators are mostly immature, inarticulate men, self-doubting and easily bewildered. Translator Philip Gabriel pitches a chatty likability in their narrative voices, and the tales are seasoned with touches of humour – one girl looks at a boy "as if she were judging whether some dried fish at the back of the fridge was still edible or not".

While each of the stories has a sprinkling of magic, there is also an abiding sense of missing information; incompleteness. But then, that’s the thing about the first person singular perspective: it trades omniscience for directness, leaving us with close but cropped portraits; a truth but not the whole truth.

Heaven (Picador, £14.99), by Mieko Kawakami, is about a teenage boy and girl who are victims of merciless bullying and who form an outsider friendship – or pact – of survival. The worst scenes of humiliation are hard to stomach, reminiscent of French writer Edouard Louis in the way they provoke a visceral disgust.

It is difficult to write young voices well: easy to forget how smart teenagers are, or to portray them in terms of what adults might wish for them. Mieko Kawakami, however, is adept at understanding their perspective and capturing the despair and intractability of those difficult years. Whereas Murakami’s young voices have an innocence to them, these 14 year olds are more self-aware – they grasp the perversity and contradictions of the world they live in.

Kawakami gets their powerlessness; she understands their disconnect from the well-meaning strategies of adults; and, most of all, she appreciates their style of communication, rendered here with skilful authenticity by translators Sam Bett and David Boyd.

As with Kawakami’s previously translated work, Breasts and Eggs, this is an adroit novel of real feeling and insight from a writer who wants her readers to think for themselves.