Subscriber OnlyBooks

Translated fiction round-up: violence of warfare, disquiet in small-town France and more

Reviews: We Trade Our Night for Someone Else’s Day, To the Warm Horizon, The Country Will Bring Us No Peace, A Sunday in Ville-D’Avray, Four Minutes, Andrea Víctrix

The legacies of violent conflict, and the long time span over which resentments and revenge play out, are familiar to us on this island. No surprise then that the recent warfare in what was Yugoslavia continues to impact the daily lives of people there.

The repercussions of that brutality and the way in which the quick recourse to violence lingers are well explored in Ivana Bodrozic's novel, We Trade Our Night for Someone Else's Day, translated by Ellen Elias-Bursać (Seven Stories Press, 223pp, €12.80). When we learn of the murder of a man called Ante by the young lover of his wife Kristina, we learn too of the entanglements of Serbs and Croats and the historic legacies that seem necessary to establish that a murder cannot simply be a murder, "everything was linked to everything else. It always is; nothing ever starts with now".

Nora, a journalist, who we first meet visiting Kristina in prison, has her own reasons to be burdened by the impact of the horrific events of the recent past as well as her knowledge of the central protagonists who are now living lives of power and influence. The fact that even she succumbs to the easy option of violence brings a moment of great disquietude in a novel that, as translated, is plainly written but immensely powerful in its portrayal of a severely damaged society.


Unthinking, brutal violence is also a daily occurrence in To the Warm Horizon by Choi Jin-young, translated by Soje (Honford Star, 172pp, €12.80). Published in South Korea in 2017, the novel tells of the aftermath of a pandemic that has spread to every part of the world. The search for vaccines is mentioned and we're told, "social media overflowed with information". All very familiar, but in this novel the virus has brought about a level of death and devastation that is far more extreme than our experience of Covid. People are forced to leave their homes in search of safety and subsistence.

Novels in which a wrecked world leaves people moving from place to place amid marauding gangs is overly familiar, and it is only the contrasting viewpoints of the central characters that gives the novel some interest. The quickly established love between two women, Jin and Dori, acts as a tentative spark, flickering against the darkness and barbarity of their surroundings. All the more regrettable then that the author lets a sentimental mysticism cloak the final chapters, losing what had been well-established analogies between the forlorn landscapes and the abject lives of those who walked through them, apparently leaving the characters unaffected by their wretched experiences.

From its opening page, The Country Will Bring Us No Peace, by Matthieu Simard, translated by Pablo Strauss (Influx Press, 132pp, €9.30), establishes feelings of absence and disquiet, "like the notes from a cello in the ruins of an old house".

We meet, through alternating perspectives, Marie and Simon, a childless couple who have moved to a small town in the hope that this will be the setting in which they become parents, free of the burdens of the city life they have left behind. But the curious mixture of overfamiliarity and hostility they receive for the locals is troublesome and disheartening. Only one couple in the town has children and the need of that child’s mother for the company and approval of the newcomers is close to desperation.

Above them all is an antenna, the purpose and power of which seems to be linked to the need shared by all the characters for a transformative moment that will counteract the emptiness they all feel. The entire narrative is superbly controlled and imaginatively translated, leading us to an ending which, though signalled early on, is still a shock.

"On Sundays, you think about life", says a character in A Sunday in Ville-D'Avray, by Dominique Barbéris, translated by John Cullen (Daunt Books, 160pp, €11.60), a novel that creates a strong sense of atmosphere with an unfamiliar portrayal of Paris and its suburbs.

Here it is the greyness of things that is constantly remarked upon amid regular, heavy rainfall. The need to shake off the ennui of the well-regulated bourgeois life motivates an impulse that creates the central narrative of the book. Two sisters meet on a Sunday afternoon – having not done so for some time – and one reveals that several years before she had a series of encounters with a man whom she first met at her doctor husband’s practice.

It is a story both simple and familiar but which, in this telling, is beguiling and immensely enjoyable because of the beautifully observed details. The sense of unease and wariness that pervades the area in which the novel is set becomes increasingly specific to the identity of the man who the narrator’s sister has befriended, leading to questions that might be asked of all of us – “Who really knows us? We say so few things, and we lie about almost everything. Who knows the truth?”

The acute sensibility of a woman who spent her first 18 years in an orphanage is the main subject of Four Minutes by Nataliya Deleva, translated by Izidora Angel (Open Letter, 128pp, €11.50). For Leah, the hardships and humiliations she had to endure have left her with a particular understanding of the ways in which suffering can be invisible to the wilfully unconcerned. This awareness is amplified by the author's interlacing of brief accounts of lives that echo the sense of global maltreatment and indifference.

Leah was never chosen to become part of some adoptee’s family and her only experience of love was with a girl called Naya, who was also resident at the orphanage for 18 years, after which time they are both sent into a world about which they know little. The unavoidable memories of what they endured together will eventually rupture their unity.

Leah’s subsequent attempt to adopt a girl comes from a deeply felt need to give her “the childhood I never had” and to extract a modicum of meaning from her own experience. The sentimental imaginings this leads to may be judged as justified in the circumstances of the troubled lives we learn about in this immensely effective novel.

First published in 1974, Andrea Víctrix by Llorenc Villalonga, translated by P Louise Johnson (Fum D'Estampa Press, 296pp, €16.30), posits a version of the world in 2050. Like all such books, it is primarily a commentary on the times in which it was written. So it is that the nuclear threat is the primary cause of anxiety, while concerns about climate change are notably absent.

Current debates around gender are, however, much to the fore in a society in which recognisable distinctions between the sexes have been eliminated and birth has become an industrial process. Those, such as the narrator, who were born to parents are treated with hostility, leading to a resistance that centres on what emerges as quite a conservative pro-family position.

The world we are introduced to is detailed in a thorough fashion, and the novel is often more concerned with dialectics than dialogue as the polity of this time and its sources are explained. It makes for a provocative and surprisingly relevant read.