Need a good book to go with the good weather? In the lead-up to this evening’s English PEN Summer Party, Marina Warner, James Meek, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, Blake Morrision, and many more offer their tips for what to read in translation this summer
I’d like to recommend Stefan Chwin’s Death in Danzig, translated from the Polish by Philip Boehm, an eerie evocation of the immediate aftermath of the Second World War in which Polish families begin to recolonise the city from which the Russians drove them out, and the stories old and new inhabitants mysteriously commingle. The novel dates from 1995 and the translation was published in 2005.
A Tale of Love and Darkness, by Amos Oz, translated from the Hebrew by Nicholas de Lange. In 1952, Amos Oz’s mother committed suicide. This monumental, heart-breaking, extremely funny memoir seeks the reasons why against the backdrop of the family’s arrival in Thirties Palestine.
Beware of Pity, by Stefan Zweig translated by Anthea Bell. Dark, subtle, psychologically astute – I read page after page with a hand clapped over my mouth in horrified fascination. A young Austro-Hungarian cavalry officer entangles himself with the crippled daughter of a rich landowner, blurring the lines of love and pity and plunging – we watch him do it, tumbling in slow motion – ever deeper into a deception from which no good could ever come. Zweig is a magnificent storyteller.
I recommend Pasternak’s Dr Zhivago, (latest translation by Larissa Volokhonsky and Richard Peaver), which I’m reading at the moment, a maddeningly complicated novel that shouldn’t work at all but which draws you in slowly and subtly. Written in Russian, unpublished, banned, first published in the west in Italian, then translated back into Russian, its own journey is as circuitous and inspiring as those of the characters.
Emile Habiby, Saraya, The Ogre’s Daughter translated by Peter Theroux Ibis. Inspired by a Palestinian variation on the fairy tale of Rapunzel, it’s a philosophical fable for our time, written in 1991, undiminished in its eloquence about the tensions and the high hopes that continue to be part of daily life in the region.
I’ve long been an admirer of Francophone writing from sub-Saharan Africa and the Maghreb. I have particularly loved works by Tierno Monénembo, Ahmadou Kourouma, Alain Mabanckou and Leonora Miano. Many are available in English, but not enough. I was lucky recently to read a manuscript of Leonora Miano’s latest work, La Saison de l’Ombre. It’s not yet translated, but it is brimming with power and inventiveness. Moving northwards to Morocco, and written in a completely different style, I’m still haunted by the horror and beauty of Tahar Ben Jelloun’s This Blinding Absence of Light translated by Linda Coverdale.
Admittedly, I’m biased in this recommendation, but readers of English can take a strange and wonderful trip to the beach this summer: Bulgarian novelist Angel Igov’s new book, A Short Tale of Shame, translated by Angela Rodel and published by Open Letter.
Pablo Neruda’s Memoirs, translated by Hardie St Martin, is a hugely enjoyable book: it is a moving insight into how personal experience brings about the birth of the poetic voice, and it offers a treasured view into a Chilean childhood.
Carlo Levi, Christ Stopped at Eboli translated by Frances Frenaye. This is an extraordinary book written by an extraordinary man. Levi was a doctor who was exiled to the south by Mussolini during the 1930s. The book is a gripping, moving and occasionally very funny insight into a world most of us never knew existed: the rural communities of the Mezzogiorno, where superstition and vendettas were daily events. I reread from time to time and always find something new. One of the more astonishing facets of the book is that Levi wrote it while on the run from the Nazis in Florence. Had they caught him he would probably have been dead, both as a Jew and a communist.
Friedrich Christian Delius’s Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman (Peirene Press) follows the inner and outer journey of a German woman as she makes her way across Rome, over the course of an hour, one day in 1943 – a compelling story of innocence on the one hand and Nazism on the other, told in a single 120-page sentence, excellently translated by Jamie Bulloch.
In Small Memories, José Saramago (Harvill Secker) recalls a 1920s Portuguese childhood full of wonder and warmth – poverty and hardship too. All writers are formed to a degree by their childhoods and here, in distillation, are the ideas and experiences that shaped the future Nobel prize winner. Margaret Jull Costa’s translation perfectly captures Saramago’s sly humour.
Ashes of the Amazon by Milton Hatoum and translated by John Gledson. This is a vivid family saga about a clash of values, the personal and political, art versus materialism and militarism, reliable and unreliable memory and ultimately a story of Brazil. Better still, it does not serve up yet more magic realism, once a flight into unexplored literary spheres, now a clichéd expectation of South American writing.
The translation I’ve read recently that has given me the most to think about, that affected me most strongly, is Robert Fitzgerald’s translation of the Iliad. It is as if all European literature since has been one great house, and Homer stands in the doorway; alone, he has come from the outside.