I’m sure it’s a statement of the obvious for more seasoned readers of translated fiction but I’ve learned to check the translator’s name when choosing what to read. Out of the five novels below, four are translated by particular favourites of mine – two by Charlotte Collins and two by Jamie Bulloch – although I’m beginning with Margot Bettauer Dembo whose name I’m sure I’d add to that list of favourites if I could track down more translations by her. Each of the five are linked to my review.
All three books I’ve read by Judith Hermann are characterised by the delicacy of their writing but my favourite is Letti Park, a collection of short stories, some just a few pages long. Memories are examined, epiphanies are experienced, encounters with strangers or people from characters’ pasts quietly change lives. Much is left unsaid, leaving the reader to draw their own conclusions: a man mentions video footage of a trip taken with a friend; a woman observes the controlling behaviour of the partner of someone who was once lively and in charge of their life. It’s a fine collection, thoughtful and thought-provoking.
Robert Seethaler’s A Whole Life is the book that sent Charlotte Collins to the top of my translators’ list. There’s something very attractive about a slim novel which encapsulates the life of an ordinary person, someone whose life might well be judged narrow by those who stride across the world’s stage but which turns out to be rich and well lived. Andreas Egger leaves his Austrian alpine home just once to go to war in Russia. Egger is painted as a simple soul – he’s stolidly practical, feels adrift even a few miles away from his Austrian valley and finds women impossible to fathom – yet he’s a great romantic. Seethaler’s style is wonderfully clipped and matter of fact, punctuated by the occasional philosophical reflection or lyrical descriptive passage. The tumult of change which swept through so many Alpine regions in the twentieth century, marking the pristine landscape with gondolas and ski lifts but bringing prosperity, is strikingly captured through Egger’s experience.
Benedict Wells’ The End of Loneliness, my second Collins translation, is about an altogether more complicated life. Forty-one-year-old Jules is in hospital, recovering from a motorbike accident and looking back over his life. In 1984 his parents were killed in a car crash. Each of their three children deal with their loss differently: Liz takes to promiscuity and drugs; Marty loses himself in study and Jules becomes a dreamer, trying his hand at all sorts of work but unable to settle at anything. Narrating his novel through Jules’ voice, Wells explores grief and death with empathy and compassion neatly avoiding the maudlin while facing what many of us might prefer to avoid contemplating.
In Timur Vermes’ Look Who’s Back Adolf Hitler wakes up with a dreadful headache, bemused to find that it’s August 30th 2011. He’s at a loss to know what’s happened but before long he has his own TV show. The trouble is, nobody quite gets it: they think he’s particularly edgy stand-up comic, he thinks he’s launching a campaign to restart National Socialism. Satire can often go horribly wrong but Vermes carries it off beautifully, chucking lampoons in all directions and almost always managing to hit his mark. Horribly plausible, Hitler spends much of his time in a state of furious astonishment at the idiocy of the modern world. Hats off to translator Jamie Bulloch, not just for an excellent translation but also for adding a short essay on the German historical and political context for the novel.
My fifth choice is also translated by Bulloch and also has an eye on the past. One Clear Ice-cold January Morning at the Beginning of the Twenty-First Century is renowned German playwright, Roland Schimmelpfennig’s first novel. It begins with a wolf crossing the frozen river which marks the border between Poland and Germany. As the wolf’s journey progresses, so do the intersecting stories of the characters who glimpse it, and some who don’t. This carefully constructed intricate piece of fiction offers a picture of Berlin a decade or so after east and west became one: Tomasz is an economic migrant, uncomfortable in Berlin and longing for home; the ageing remaining occupants of the apartment block he’s helping to gentrify in the old east Berlin are determined not to be ousted; Elisabeth’s mother bitterly resents her ex-husband for thwarting her artistic career while Micha’s father has taken to drink in the face of economic decline. Schimmelpfennig’s writing is pared-back and spare, cinematic in its images and complemented by his novella’s fragmented structure in which deftly handled coincidences abound.
Any books translated from German you’d like to recommend?
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