Door-stopping chunksters often fit the bill if you’re in the mood for a good old-fashioned bit of storytelling but if it’s a succinct, finely-honed literary punch you’re after, it’s hard to beat a novella. This is my fourth Five Novels I’ve Read post devoted to novellas which gives you some idea of how much I favour them. I’ve devoted this one to fiction in translation, four with links to reviews on this blog, all 200 pages or fewer.
Kim Thuy’s slim, beautifully expressed Mãn is a love story, a work of aching nostalgia and a glorious celebration of language and food. It’s about a young woman who leaves Vietnam for Montreal to marry a man she doesn’t know – a match made for security rather than love. Her husband is older than her, a cafe owner who serves up soup and breakfast to émigrés longing for their families and a taste of home. Quietly and carefully Mãn introduces more dishes until the café becomes a restaurant, growing into a cookery school, then a book is published and a TV show made. She finds herself fêted, a quiet celebrity not only in Canada but in France where the Parisians eagerly attend her book signings. The powerful link between food and memory runs throughout this lovely novella. Kudos to Sheila Fischman for such a sensitive translation of a book in which the nuance of language is paramount.
Food is also on the minds of three German soldiers, striding out into the frigid Polish landscape, in Hubert Mingarelli’s A Meal in Winter. They’ve missed breakfast, determined to avoid the daily round of executions by volunteering to hunt down Jews and bring them back to the camp. When Emmerich spots signs of a hideout, the three flush out a young Jewish man, a prize which will ensure that they will be sent out to hunt again tomorrow rather than man the firing squad. Bauer reveals that he’s stolen enough food to make soup and spotting an abandoned cottage they set about lighting a fire, interrupted by the arrival of a Polish hunter and his dog. What ensues frays the bonds between the three soldiers, opening divisions between them and forcing them to face the moral dilemma of what to do with their captive. Mingarelli’s spare, stark yet compassionate novel shows ordinary German soldiers, horrified by what they have seen and done, trying to find ways of coping while managing to retain their humanity. A triumph for both the author and his translator Sam Taylor.
Dai Sijie’s lyrical Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress (translated by Ina Rilke) tells of a dark time in Chinese history and the transformative power of literature. In 1971, two young men are sent to a remote Chinese village as part of Mao Zedong’s ‘re-education’ programme. Luo and his friend, our unnamed narrator, find themselves assigned the worst jobs in the village, with little hope of returning to the city where they grew up. Luo’s storytelling skills prove the boys’ salvation holding the villagers in thrall but the discovery of a collection of forbidden books kindles a fascination and delight in Western literature which proves to be dangerous, seductive and liberating. When both boys fall in love with the local seamstress, it’s Luo’s reading of Balzac’s novels that wins her heart but the narrator who saves her. Written with wit and humanity, Sijjie’s book is made all the more powerful by the knowledge of his own experience of ‘re-education’. Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress was published in France, his adopted country, rather than in his native China whose government was highly critical of it.
Lightening the mood a little, Hiromi Kawakami’s Strange Weather in Tokyo begins one evening when, ordering a meal at a bar, Tsukiko sits next to an older man who chooses exactly the same dish. She recognises him as her teacher from her secondary school days but cannot remember his name saying nothing until he notices her. To cover her embarrassment, she calls him Sensei and will never call him anything else. They begin by occasionally bumping into each other at the bar, then becoming regulars pulling the barman into their orbit. Sensei is a pedant, constantly correcting Tsukiko but never irritating her – she’s a loner, unaware of her isolation until her feelings for him begin to change. He invites her to go away with him but they sleep in separate rooms. She avoids him for months but can’t forget him. Then they meet again. Expertly translated by Allison Markin Powell this is a beautifully understated love story, a novella of sadness, longing and gentle humour.
In a similar vein, Dorthe Nors’ Mirror, Shoulder, Signal sees Sonja attempting to learn to drive while failing to find a place for herself in the world. Sonja’s in her forties, a translator of popular Swedish crime fiction who lives alone, frets about why her elder sister Kate seems to avoid her calls and often thinks about her childhood. Her driving instructor hurls incomprehensible commands at her while providing her with a furious running commentary on her own life and its many problems. Her flaky masseuse attributes every tense muscle to spiritual problems, insisting on the power of ‘medical intuition’. One day, on her way to a concert with a friend who doesn’t seem the least bit interested in her, she helps a timid old woman and has an epiphany. Deftly combining wit with acute observation Mirror, Shoulder, Signal is essentially about loneliness, about not fitting in when it seems everyone else does.
Any novellas in translation you’d like to recommend? Always room for more on my list
If you’d like to explore more posts like this, I’ve listed them here.