Summer reading - literary fiction in translation

 If you love literary fiction in translation, travelling to different times and other worlds, three must reads for late summer include One Night, Markovitch by Ayelet Gundar-Goshen, The End of Days by Jenny Erpenbeck and The Meursault Investigation by Kamel Daoud. All three embrace big themes – existentialism, identity, love, loss and grief – cover huge swathes of 20th century history and interweave the personal and political to great effect.
In Jenny Erpenbeck’s The End of Days (deftly translated by Susan Bernofsky) we follow the fortunes of a Jewish family, in particular one woman who manages to keep escaping death. We travel with Erpenbeck’s character from her birth in a small Galician town in the early 1900s, through Vienna and Moscow to East Berlin and finally a reunified Germany. As a baby she is rescued from a cot death by a handful of snow; as a young woman she is saved from suicide by taking a different route home; later she is spared Stalin’s gulags by a propitious act of fate. She survives various horrors of the last century and becomes a successful writer. Her numerous possible deaths reflect the transitory nature of life and the fragility of the human condition. At the end of the novel, her weeping son wonders ‘whether these strange sounds and spasms are really all that humankind has been given to mourn with.’ This slim novel, winner of this year’s Independent’s Foreign Fiction Prize, packs a mighty punch and richly deserves its numerous accolades.

Another prizewinner, Kamel Daoud’s debut The Meursault Investigation (in a limber translation by John Cullen) re-examines Albert Camus’s The Outsider from an Arab perspective. Harun resides in Oran and drinks every night in his local bar. He regales a literature student with his version of Meursault’s murder of a nameless Arab on a hot summer’s day in Algiers in 1942. The victim was Harun’s older brother, who he names Musa.  Harun describes the impact Musa’s death had on his family and just as Meursault struggles with feelings of indifference after his random act of violence, Harun confronts his own lack of faith: ‘As far as I am concerned, religion is public transportation I never use.’ During his trial, Meursault is effectively condemned for not mourning his mother’s death. By contrast, Harun’s murder of a Frenchman, twenty years later, is deplored by the Algerian authorities because it happens after Independence and had not been a deliberate act of resistance. Daoud has created his own memorable fiction in which he brilliantly exposes the rise of Islamism in Algeria and his nation’s failures post-independence. At the end of the novel Harun describes an overwhelming desire to climb up his local ‘prayer tower’ in order ‘to cry out that I’m free, and that God is a question, not an answer and that I wanted to meet him alone, at my death as at my birth.’ Chillingly, Daoud’s indictment of religious authoritarianism has led one cleric to call for his death.

Ayelet Gundar-Goshen's accomplished debut, One Night, Markovitch, opens in the British mandate of Palestine on the eve of the Second World War, and spans many years in the lives of two friends Yaacov Markovitch and Zeev Feinberg. They could not be more dissimilar. Zeev is a fearless fighter and womaniser whose mustache 'was famous in the entire area and, some said in the entire country'. Yaacov is immediately forgettable - the sort of man who is 'gloriously average', his face 'remarkably free of distinguishing features.' They forge an unlikely alliance after Yaacov saves Zeev's life. The pair join a group of men en route to Europe to rescue Jewish women. They marry them so that they will be allowed into Palestine, on the understanding that once there they will divorce. But Yaacov's partner is Bella, the most beautiful woman he has ever seen and he refuses to give her up on their return. Their loveless marriage, Yaacov's obsession, Bella's cold distain, is in sharp contrast to the devotion and passion enjoyed by Zeev and his one love, Sonya, a lioness of a women who smells of oranges. Yaacov and Zeev's friendship endures through war and peacetime. They bring up children, suffer pain and loss, and grow old together. Expertly translated from the Hebrew by Sondra Silverston this is an unforgettable tale of love, hope, desire and friendship.

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