I’ve always loved a big fat page-turning novel and it came as quite a shock to me as a teenager to discover that many of my favourite reads were actually in translation - surely Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary were written in English? My excitement at uncovering the truth – that there is a vast treasure trove of translated fiction out there for me to plunder – pushed me in the direction of university studies in literature and modern languages, then later into a career as foreign affairs and arts journalist with the BBC. And every time I travel abroad for work I set myself a task - to read a contemporary novel from that country. It can tell me more about its current affairs than any travel guide.
When I was a student, the choice was mainly ‘the classics of foreign fiction’ but today, thanks to a series of happy events – including the opening up of post-Berlin Wall East European publishing and the work of small publishers in the UK - we can read the best of modern foreign fiction hot off the press, not decades after it was written. Here are my 5 favourite ‘foreigners’.
The Mussel Feast by Birgit Vanderbeke (Peirene Press; German; translation Jamie Bulloch)
German is one of ‘my’ languages and even before this novella appeared in English in 2013 I knew it was already famous in Germany. It’s an East German family saga, written and set in Berlin round the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall (25 years ago this November). Funny and fluid, short and bittersweet, a dream translation. So what happens? A mother and her two teenage children sit waiting. On the dinner table is a large pot of cooked mussels which she has carefully prepared, meant as a celebration of the father’s probable promotion. But the hours pass and he does not return. Through the daughter’s stream-of-consciousness-narration, we realise this is a very unhappy family.
New Finnish Grammar by Diego Marani (Dedalus; Italian; translation Judith Landry)
Marani is another major, award-laden European novelist finally breaking through in English. The story is simple, the repercussions complicated. 1943; Trieste; Italy has just turned against its ally Germany; Pietri Friari is a doctor from Hamburg on a German hospital ship moored in Trieste harbour. He treats a young soldier so seriously wounded that he has lost his memory - his past, his language, his identity. All he has is a jacket bearing the name SAMPO KARJALAINEN. This leads the doctor, who is originally from Finland, to believe the man is Finnish. He helps him on the route ‘back home’ - or so he believes.
Marcel by Erwin Mortier (Pushkin Press; Dutch; translation Ina Rilke)
I’ve long been a fan of Belgian writer Erwin Mortier. Several of his novels have been translated into English. Now Pushkin Press is republishing all of them and the first is Marcel, also Mortier’s first novel (1999). Family secrets, a rich evocation of the past, great characters, translation, and atmosphere set in a Flemish village. The grandmother of a 10-year-old boy fiercely guards the family secrets, keeping photographs of the family dead in a special cabinet. One photo is of Marcel, who died young, far away, and without a grave. What became of him? The little boy is determined to find out.
The President’s Hat by Antoine Laurain (Gallic Books; French; translation Gallic Books)
One of the stars of this year’s European Literature Night at the British Library, Laurain has written 5 novels, had a career directing and writing films, and loves art and antiques. This all contributes to making this book flawless. It’s a funny, clever, feel-good social satire with the page-turning quality of a great detective novel. Set in Paris in the 1980s, President Mitterand mistakenly leaves his hat in a restaurant. The hat passes to 4 new ‘owners’, transforming their lives.
A Grain of Truth by Zygmunt Miloszewski (Bitter Lemon Press; Polish, translation Antonia Lloyd-Jones)
Thanks to Stieg Larsson, crime now pays in Europe and the new post-communist era in Poland has produced some stunningly original writing and Polish noir. A Grain of Truth is part of a trilogy of topical crime novels by Miloszewski, a brilliant young writer and journalist. It features public prosecutor Teodor Szacki, a middle-aged, world-weary, witty, short-fused detective. In this one volume you get reflections on modern Poland, anti-Semitism, the history of the Jews in Poland, religion, technology, the media, politics, AND crime!
What more do you want?!