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Works in translation: A round-up of the best in fiction and non-fiction

Books from Argentina, Denmark, Norway and Germany, including a wartime classic

English-language debuts don't come much more lacerating than Pola Oloixarac's Mona (Serpent's Tail, £12.99, translated by Adam Morris). The eponymous anti-heroine of her own book, Mona is a rising star of Peruvian literature who ends up on a Californian university campus smoking marijuana and popping prescription pills. Her acerbic, outrageous observations underline her conspicuous status as a woman and a writer of colour, regarded by others on campus as a curio.

Mona’s escape route from this somnolent, sun-drenched existence comes through a nomination for a significant European literary award: €2,000; 13 finalists, one winner. Mona heads off to an isolated spot in Sweden for the Grand Meeting, where she is claustrophobically immured with an international array of hipster competitors.

The hyperactive scenario that develops is very muchs is very much Rachel Cusk’s Kudos spliced with William Golding’s Lord of the Flies and a little bit of Alan Warner’s Morvern Callar thrown into the mix – laced with epithets, drugs and hilarious send-ups of the literary world and writer archetypes. A skewering of the “cultural emphysema” that is the TED talk is particularly pleasing. All is conveyed in lurid, beautiful prose, with a zinging translation by Morris. This is Argentine Oloixarac’s third novel – more of her work in English is a must.

German classic

One of the great fictional accounts to emerge from the second World War, Anna Seghers's Transit, newly reissued (Virago Press, £9.99, translated by Margot Bettauer Dembo, with an introduction by Stuart Evers) is a beautiful, caustically rendered autobiographical novel.

First published in 1944, it is simultaneously a political thriller, a piece of existential art and a recount of the daily minutiae of lives in flight and in exile, capturing not only the adrenaline rush of fear, but also the deadly boredom of bureaucracy and endlessly waiting for a visa with which to travel, the alternative being staying put and certain death.

The plot is simple – refugees attempt to flee across Europe as the German army advances. A young unnamed man, like Seghers a communist and therefore an enemy of the Nazi regime, has managed to escape a concentration camp in Germany, scaling a wall and swimming across the Rhine by night: travelling from Paris to Marseilles, the narrator assumes more than one identity. The extreme southwestern port had become, since the fall of France in June 1940, the final place of departure for those with the elusive transit visa with which so much of the novel is preoccupied.

The narrator, passing through these fractured lives, has, with his adoption of otherness through assumed names, more options than one. His choice to stay and live out another’s identity, another version of life, leaves him in constant apprehension, “a scrap of shadow” in a suffering world in which the “fabled cities of other continents” are simply that – fabular.

Norwegian memoir

Forty year-old Jan Grue, a writer and professor at the university of Oslo, was diagnosed with spinal muscular dystrophy aged three, not long after which he began using a wheelchair. Grue's sparing, poetic memoir, I Live a Life Like Yours (Pushkin Press, £14.99, translated by BL Crook) was first published to huge acclaim in his native Norway in 2018.

The book comprises a revision of the often devastating medical records of his childhood, interspersed with his own reminiscences collected in short, sharp paragraphs: his youth, dealing with stigma, dating, work and what it means to have a long-term relationship and become the parent of an able-bodied child.

In sentences vivid as photographs, Grue comments: “There is no such thing as an unlived life, and even if there is nothing but air bubbles in water, a shadow of something that does not exist, I am nevertheless able to see small flashes of it, it dances around me and every now and then becomes recognizable. I associate it with certain times, certain places.”

Filled with humour, reflection and hope, Grue’s is a landmark work, translated with compassion and delicacy by Crook. As Grue writes : “It’s easy to think of genetics as fate. I don’t want this to be true.”

German novella

Katja Oskamp's warm, poignant novella in stories about a middle-aged chiropodist and her clients in Marzahn, northeast Berlin – one of the former GDR's biggest housing estates, built in 1977, complete with vast towers, walkways and eerie wind tunnels – is a real gem: Marzahn, Mon Amour (Peirene Press, £12, translated by Jo Heinrich).

Giving up on a less-than-successful writing career, a woman retrains as a chiropodist. Her clients are working-class, mostly poor and in varying health; as the woman scrubs and exfoliates their feet she listens to their complaints and anecdotes, their loves and their losses. The seasons pass, from winter and “the dreaded winds coming down from Siberia” to the cherry trees blossoming in April, as a community recounts their lives, with each brief chapter a reminiscence in its own right, full of tough wit and resilience.

Individuals become more than mere biographies, and a fascinating, untold collective history of Germany is revealed, as the woman’s new vocation leads her to rediscover her writing voice.

Danish debut

"Sometimes the biggest mystery is that things are the way they are." The Lobster's Shell (Granta, £12.99, translated by Caroline Wright), the story of a trio of estranged orphaned siblings, is the first novel by the impressively talented Danish author, Caroline Albertine Minor. Unusual, at times idiosyncratic, Minor handles a large and occasionally confusing cast of characters with assurance (it helps that there is a list of dramatis personae at the beginning).

The novel concerns the three Gabel children, now adults: Ea (the eldest), Sidsel and their brother Niels (the youngest), along with other either fully connected or tangentially adjacent figures, including a catalyst clairvoyant, and the siblings’ aunt, merged with the afterlife recollections of “the mother”, Charlotte and “the father”, Troels, who now exist “in another world”.

In this world, Ea has moved to San Francisco and lives with her partner and young stepdaughter to whom she is particularly attached, Sidsel is a single parent and struggles to balance care for her six-year-old child with her career at a Copenhagen museum, and unreliable Neils drifts, with little direction and no permanent home.

Minor’s acute, elliptical observations and silky prose are a delight to read, as the misunderstandings, machinations and mysteries of a family’s past and present knit together, fall apart, and re-establish themselves in an uneven, bright weave in Caroline Wright’s distinctive, unforced translation.

Argentinian non-fiction

Selva Almada's extraordinary work of journalistic non-fiction, Dead Girls, dealing with the murders of three young women in regional Argentina in the 1980s, was a highlight of 2020. Her latest to be published in English, Brickmakers (Charco Press, £9.99, translated by Annie McDermott), is its male equivalent: a long multigenerational vendetta written as revenge tragedy, which opens as it ends, with two young men, fatherless since childhood, dying in the dust, following an altercation in a fairground, shivering their final minutes out in the cold early morning light under a giant Ferris wheel.

The events leading up to this chronicle of deaths foretold is an age-old story of economic limitations and swaggering Wild West machismo, a gangland tale haunted by ghosts and visions, the final fatal knife fight in the eyes of its participants “ ...beautiful to see. Their choreography developed over time, from raw ability to refined skill.” Theatrical, mesmerising, hopeless – Almada is a true documentarian of Argentina’s dispossessed, and McDermott’s fine translation matches her word for word.

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