Week 3 of Novellas in November month (hosted by Bookish Beck and Cathy at 746 Books) turns its attention to translated books. If I get my act together, I’ll have read 2 French, 2 German and 2 Danish novellas and might even get some reviews posted. But until then, here’s a selection of translated novellas from my archives that I’ve particularly enjoyed including Cathy and Rebecca’s buddy read for the week which I read a few years ago. As always, the links in the titles will take you to my full reviews.
Such Small Hands by Andrés Barba, translated by Lisa Dillman
Barba is one of Granta’s Best of Young Spanish novelists, with thirteen novels to his credit already. Such Small Hands, published in 2017, is a profoundly unsettling novella in a Daphne DuM or Shirley Jackson sort of way. At 96 pages, it has to be read in one sitting and disturbs even before you open the front cover, with that waxy pink doll looking at you!
It is the story of seven-year-old Marina who is orphaned in a car accident; she too was badly injured. On the first page she learns how to describe her situation: “My father died instantly, my mother in the hospital.”
During her rehabilitation in the hospital, she is given a doll which she calls Marina too. Her only possession, Marina the doll becomes her alter ego, and she channels everything into it, outwardly remaining emotionless. The girls at the orphanage can’t cope with Marina’s indifference to them, bullying her, and one day stealing her doll, which leads Marina to come up with a plan to control all the girls – one by one. From this point, there is a creeping inevitability to the story’s conclusion, it’s a matter of how and when, but the climax is really quite shocking. The other girls act as a Greek chorus – talking as ‘we’, which really builds the tension in the story. It becomes Marina versus a kind of hive mind. Highly recommended.
Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata, translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori
Japanese novels have long perhaps been the most translated into English outside Europe, but after the runaway success of this novella in 2018, there seems to have been an explosion available to us to read.
Convenience Store Woman is a darkly comic novel about a socially awkward single woman in her late thirties who has worked for eighteen years in a convenience store. She appears to be neurodivergent, but this is never stated and her family despair of her non-normality; she shouldn’t be still working in a dead-end job at her age when she should have been married and having children long ago in their society. Keiko feels no need for a relationship, sex, or children (seeing her nephew, her sister’s child, as little more than a pet), that is her normal; her sister helps her with excuses she can tell the world at large. Keiko lives for her work, striving to do it perfectly. She is superb at her job, surrounded mostly by short-term workers, and longer-term managers. It’s only when she has to work with a rather chauvinist male worker who has ‘stone age’ views of women and mens’ places in society that things come to a head. Shiraha is useless at the work, and is let go, and when Keiko find out he has been thrown out of his home for non-payment of the rent, she adopts him – as you would a pet, and lets him lodge with her, doing nothing to dispel the rumours that she’s finally found a man, and this is when her ordered life starts to unravel.
This book will likely appeal to those who’ve enjoyed The Nakano Thrift Shop by Hiromi Kawakami. It is funny, but it’s darker and more surreal with Keiko’s skewed outlook on life – something the author remains entirely true to throughout the book, which has an apt resolution. A super novella.
Strike Your Heart by Amélie Nothomb, translated by Alison Anderson
Belgian author Nothomb writes taut novellas about flawed heroines that are always interesting (see here and here) and they always read like fables or fairy tales in one sense or another, despite being resolutely modern. Her newest, published last autumn is no different in that respect, and is all about female relationships, specifically those between mothers and their daughters, (including mother-substitutes) – there’s a real Snow White feel to it!
Nothomb writes all her novels as cautionary tales. They’re not overextended, they’re precise with some cracking dialogue, but still have a strong visual sense. The title of Strike Your Heart also resonates throughout the novel in as many different ways as you can imagine. This is my favourite of those I have read.
33 Revolutions by Canek Sánchez Guevara, translated by Howard Curtis
Canek Sánchez Guevara was Che Guevara’s grandson. Was, because he died in early 2015 from complications after a heart operation – he was only forty, which means he never met his grandfather either, who was executed in Bolivia in 1967. A musican and journalist, he grew up in Cuba, but exiled himself to Mexico aged 22, disillusioned with the Cuban regime.
In a mere 75 or so pages, he gives us a portrait of contemporary life in Cuba and the disillusionment seen through the eyes of a young, black Cuban man. The cover shows us a record player with an lp playing, the Cuban flag on the label. We’ll never get to hear whether it’s playing mambo or the cha-cha-cha though, for this record is stuck, destined to repeat itself over and over without progressing – Sanchez Guevara’s metaphor for Cuban politics – ‘like a scratched record’. This refrain, rather like Kurt Vonnegut’s comment on death in Slaughterhouse 5, ‘So it goes,’ is a mantra that pervades each of the 33 vignettes that make up this story.
The book’s protagonist resolves to escape, along with many other young people fleeing the island on any floating vessel they can find. The prose is sultry, tropical, laced with rum – more like a prose poem than a novel. – yet Cuba is no tropical paradise, it is a troubled island whose brand of Communism is daily failing. In Howard Curtis’s translation, it is a stylish and poetic story that highlights the plight of a disaffected generation that want to move on. Utterly worth reading.
Territory of Light by Yuko Tsushima, Translated by Geraldine Harcourt
This novella is Cathy and Rebecca’s buddy read for this week of #NovNov and I hope they enjoy it as much as I did when I reviewed it for Shiny a few years ago for a new Penguin reprint.
A beguiling novella following a year in the life of a young mother and her young daughter after she has separated from her husband, it was originally published during the late 1970s in instalments in a Japanese literary magazine, mirroring the passage of the year in the text.
It begins with the mother, who is never named, finding a new home after the split with her husband. At first the apartments she looks at are too expensive, but she eventually finds the building where she’ll spend the next year in the fourth floor flat with windows on all sides.
… I took one step inside, I crowed to myself that this was the apartment for me. The red floor blazed in the setting sun. The long-closed, empty rooms pulsed with light.
She soon discovers that being a single mother of a toddler is not only hard work, but as a separated woman on the track to divorce, her status belittles her. She works long hours with her daughter in daycare. She’s in that early stage of limbo where you suddenly realise you now must do everything yourself but don’t know how, she’s emotionally drained. The loneliness and darkness of her new life contrasts totally with their light-filled apartment. She also struggles with her daughter’s tantrums and crying at night. “Why were children the only ones who ever got to melt down?“
Everyone else in the world wants to tell her what to do, but she must learn how to take control of her own life again, so she can do the best for herself and her daughter. Parenting doesn’t always come naturally to her, we wince when she gets it wrong and breathe a sigh of relief when she gets it right. It will take time before she achieves some sort of equilibrium, the passing of the year exemplified by the cherry blossom in the park, one of the havens from the otherwise urban environment.
Tsushima herself was a divorced mother, you can sense she’s writing from experience. In the young mother’s narration there is a translucency to the prose that takes you deep into her mind through her detachment from life. Read in one sitting, the repetitiveness of the daily grind comes through strongly, something you wouldn’t feel so much read in the original instalments. There may be a dullness to this life in that respect, but it’s not boring to read. There are enough events taking place in each chapter to distract the reader from becoming too maudlin, from interactions with her neighbours and colleagues to a nearby factory going up with a bang – life goes on.