Sunday, December 30, 2012

Found In Translation: My Favourite Fiction of The Year

My Sunday Guardian column.

Most of the fiction I found noteworthy in 2012 was in translation. Here, there was all the inventiveness, ideas and engagement one looked for – often unsuccessfully – in fiction from the English-speaking world. In no particular order, here’s a selection of this year’s titles: a choice that’s both personal and random, given the ones I haven’t yet read (Laszlo Karsznahorkai, Robert Walser) and the ones I haven’t yet been able to get hold of (Bernardo Atxaga, Daniel Sada).

To begin with, Laurent Binet’s HHhH, translated from the French by Sam Taylor, about the British secret service plot to kill Reinhard Heydrich in 1941. (If you’ve seen Operation Daybreak, you already know the story.) HHhH is historical fiction that plays with the conventions of fiction by putting the author’s own misgivings about realism and recreation at its heart. Criticized for the occasionally clunky prose and being too clever by half – with some justification – it’s nevertheless wholly absorbing and engaging.

Also from France is Philippe Claudel’s The Investigation, translated by John Cullen, which tries to out-Kafka Kafka with the story of an unnamed investigator’s efforts to plumb the workings of an entity known as the Firm. As the Investigator spirals towards his nemesis, events become even more nightmarish; an effect balanced by the questions Claudel raises about facelessness and capitalism, among others.

Then, there’s Herman Koch’s The Dinner, translated from the Dutch by Sam Garrett, which has surface similarities with Polanski’s Carnage, but is wickeder and more startling than the movie. Skillfully paced, it depicts the manipulations beneath the surface when two couples meet to discuss their sons’ involvement in an unexpected act of violence, with a denouement that’s as unexpected.

The novel that lays claim to be the most ambitious and luminous of the lot goes to Andres Neuman’s Traveller of the Century, translated from the Spanish by Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia, which begins with a stranger arriving at a fictional German town in the nineteenth century. It’s been called an example of a “total novel”, encompassing a love story, a murder mystery and debates on art, literature, politics and feminism. Sprawling and bulky but never dull: one of those long novels where the length doesn’t matter.

Also in Spanish, and translated by Rosalind Harvey and Anne McLean, is Enrique Vila-Matas’s Dublinesque. This consciously literary novel deals with a trip taken by a Barcelona publisher to Dublin to commemorate his own vision of Bloomsday, and is haunted by the spirit of Joyce – but also by others such as Beckett and Larkin. I hesitate to use the word “inimitable”, but that’s what Vila-Matas’s novels always turn out to be.

It’s long and digressive and stuffed with minor characters, but Grigor von Rezzori’s An Ermine in Czernopol, first published in 1958 and now translated from the German by Philip Boehm, is endlessly fascinating, with prose that alternates between the ironic and the nostalgic. Set in a small town of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire between the world wars – a place and era lost to time -- it deals with the tragicomic fate of a Quixote-like hussar, a humourless man in a place that values humour.

The Switzerland-based Peter Stamm’s Seven Years was one of my favourites of last year and he follows it up with a short story collection, We’re Flying, translated by Michael Hoffman. In a quiet, sparse, but by no means unaffecting manner, Stamm records the lives of ordinary folk who oscillate between memories of happiness and dealing with its loss, leaving them – as the man with the horn said – kind of blue.

Finally, from the other side of the globe is Fuminori Nakamura’s The Thief, translated from the Japanese by Satoko Izumo and Stephen Coates. This tells of a Tokyo pickpocket who takes palpable pleasure in his solitary craft before being caught up in a web of events he’s unable to control. These cleverly delineated sequences of action and reaction create an atmosphere of brooding noir and raise questions that are more existential than criminal.

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