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Translated fiction round-up: The inescapable entanglements of recent history

Reviews of The Frightened Ones, No-Signal Area, Grove, The Death of Comrade President and Ankomst

Mention of a novel set in Syria might suggest a story mired in violence and suffering, but in The Frightened Ones by Dima Wannous, translated by Elisabeth Jacquette (Harvill Secker, 242pp, £12.99) the emphasis is on the anguish of Suleima, a woman whose precarious understanding of both herself and those around her is heightened by the layers of division within her country.

Early in the novel, Suleima meets a taciturn man called Naseem who, like her, regularly visits a psychotherapist in Damascus. From hesitant beginnings, they form an indistinct relationship. Suleima learns that Naseem is a doctor, but also a novelist who writes under a pseudonym.

As he begins a new novel, he allows Suleima to read the chapters he has completed. It seems clear to her that he is using her life as source material, and soon both she and the reader begin to conflate the fictional characters’ sense of displacement and ambivalence with what we have been told by Suleima’s not always reliable narration.

This is a fascinating portrayal of damaged people, equivocal in a form which is wholly convincing in its lack of resolution.


War and its effects are also a major element of No-Signal Area by Robert Perišic, translated by Ellen Elias-Bursac (Seven Stories Press, 423pp, £13.99). Perišic is a Croatian novelist who examines – in a way that is both imaginative and compelling – the aftereffects of the end of communism in former Yugoslavia and the vicious war that resulted from the country's break-up.

In the present time of the novel two on-the-make men arrive in a small town, once a centre of turbine production which will – if they can persuade the right people – resume its past trade. Soon the novel begins to encompass a fascinating range of characters, many of whom are given detailed backstories so that the novel begins to hold within it both the struggles and immensity of everyday lives and the inescapable entanglements of recent history.

The lightness of Perišic’s touch in bringing all of this together is remarkable, with writing that is always rich in detail and attentive to the many perspectives of his characters. It makes for an exceptionally engaging novel.

Alain Mabanckou's The Death of Comrade President, translated by Helen Stevenson (Serpents Tail, 239pp, £14.99), is also concerned with a time of great upheaval. In this novel, the coup that removed Marien Ngouabi, president of the Republic of Congo, in 1977, is the central event of an account told by a young boy called Michel, of a life rich with humorous events and characters before the coup brings about dramatic change in his life and circumstances.

It is in many ways a pity that the novel doesn’t stay with the more mundane aspects of the ever-credulous Michel’s daily life because, in order for readers unfamiliar with the history of the Congo to be informed about the context in which the coup takes place, Michel has to be addressed by people relating lengthy details about the country’s perplexing past. Much more enjoyable is the account of the obsequiousness the school pupils are forced to engage in whenever a communist leader visits the country. The song they sing for Nicolae Ceaucescu is especially amusing.

By contrast to all that conflict, a tremendous peace is at the core of Grove by Esther Kinsky, translated by Caroline Schmidt (Fitzcarraldo, 277pp, £12.99). It is always present in the silence of the bereaved observer who has travelled to Italy on her own. For reasons never specified, she lodges in Olevano, a village southeast of Rome, walking through the streets and frequently visiting the cemetery which has a particular fascination for her.

We are aware of the intense loss she is feeling – the novel might be said to be written in B minor – but she chooses, in the main to look outwards, not inwards. As such, she is exceptionally aware of the incidental and “the relationship between seeing and being seen”.

In the second section of the novel, she recalls visits as a child to Italy with her family, dwelling in particular on her often impulsive father with his store of arcane knowledge and air of nonchalance. For the final part of the book, the narrator returns to parts of Italy she associates with those trips of her youth and the areas her father worked in as a tour guide before his death.

Billed as fiction, this book is imbued with the truth of lived experience. I suspect that it is only the recreations of youthful memories that tip it into the territory of the imagination. Categorisation doesn’t greatly matter because, however defined, this is a sublime book, born of profound, empathetic understanding.

Facts are always preferable to feelings for the narrator of Ankomst, by Gøhril Gabrielsen, translated by Deborah Dawkin (Peirene Press, 187pp, £12). The woman is carrying out scientific research in the north of Norway, and the solidity to the daily readings is increasingly at odds with the way she experiences her surroundings, her memories, her desire, her feelings of guilt about the young daughter she has left with the girl's father, and her fear of that man.

The manner in which she imagines the lives of a tragic family who lived in the same area many years previously becomes knitted into her own psychological state as solitude intensifies every perception of her immediate environment. Throughout, the reader also becomes aware of a discrepancy between what we are being presented with as fact and our sense of what is actually occurring.

It’s skilfully done and makes for a compelling read right to the unsettling and unsettled ending.