From a Japanese masterpiece to a gothic horror set in Baghdad … which novels to read following the Man Booker International prize.
Translations make up only a tiny proportion of the literary fiction published in the UK, but as a survey revealed in 2016, they punch well above their weight in sales. The boom driven by writers such as Elena Ferrante and Haruki Murakami continues as pub-lishers and readers embrace foreign literature.
If the Man Booker International – awarded this week to Omani author Jokha Alharthi and her translator Marilyn Booth for Celestial Bodies – has inspired you to broaden your horizons, there are plenty of recent gems to be discovered. You could start with Leïla Slimani’s Prix Goncourt-winning Lullaby, a chilling thriller that dissects class and motherhood in France, translated by Sam Taylor. Or Sayaka Murata’s Convenience Store Woman, translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori – an odd story about a woman who works in a 24-hour shop.
In Family Lexicon, Ginzburg is homesick and conjuring up memories of her family – their quirks and maddening fixations
In the first English translation of Yūko Tshushima’s 1979 novel, Territory of Light, published in paperback last year, Geraldine Harcourt found a language that is poetic and dreamlike. Set in the 1970s, the book portrays a year in the life of a single mother who lives in Tokyo with her two‑year-old daughter. Tsushima took inspiration from the traditional oral epic form yukar, and wrote autofiction before that became a buzzword. Her novel is considered a masterpiece in Japan.
Another writer overlooked in the English-speaking world until recently is the Italian author Natalia Ginzburg. I was immediately won over by the power of the Italian author’s lucid, unpretentious, straight-to-the-truth prose. In Jenny McPhee’s translation of her novel-cum-memoir Family Lexicon, first published in 1963, Ginzburg is homesick in London and conjuring up memories of her family – their quirks, codes, maddening fixations – but also the bleakness of life under Benito Mussolini. It’s an utterly charming and at times hilarious observation of the ecosystem of an Italian family.
Disoriental, by Iranian author Négar Djavadi and translated by Tina Kover, is an award-winning multigenerational novel that winds together the history of Iran with questions of identity and belonging as the protagonist builds a life in modern Paris. Djavadi skilfully tells the story through vignettes which, like memories, come in nonlinear waves. As she proceeds to “disorientalise” and detach herself from family tradition, she feels her sense of otherness in the west.
Memories can be troublesome when they linger, especially haunting memories of horror that have long been suppressed. This year, Alia Trabucco Zerán’s International Man Booker-shortlisted The Remainder, translated by Sophie Hughes, inspired me to delve into the work of other Chilean writers who grew up during Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship. The so-called “literature of the kids” deals with memory and fiction in fascinatingly original ways. Take Alejandro Zambra’s playful novel Multiple Choice, translated by Megan McDowell, which makes the reader choose the outcome of the narrative through standardised tests that echo how the country’s education system perpetuated repression.
Another original approach comes from the Iraqi author Ahmed Saadawi’s Frankenstein in Baghdad, translated by Jonathan Wright. Set in the city in the aftermath of the US invasion, this darkly funny dissection of violence examines the cyclical nature of war. A junk dealer, Hadi, finds a nose in the street and sews it on to a disfigured body, hoping it will receive a dignified burial. The plot turns surreal when the corpse goes missing, veering into gothic horror territory.
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