Found in Translation

Of the many things I regret not having mastered in life, the ability to read and speak another language well is a major one. Sure I took German in high school and, don’t laugh, Latin in college. But other than asking for directions in Vienna (wo ist die Bibliothek?) or declining a few pronouns with the Pope (Hic, Haec, Hoc) most of my severely limited foreign language ability has little use.

Despite this gap in my education, I do like to read fiction originally written in other languages. It is always interesting to see how authors that are products of different cultures handle characters, society and ideas in ways that I’m not always used to. Here are three that I’ve read recently that may be of interest—in translation, of course.

The tantalizingly titled Broken Glass Park by Alina Bronsky is technically a coming of age story. Seventeen year old Sascha Neumann was born in Moscow, but her fractured family moved to Berlin and took up residence in “the Emerald” a depressing series of apartment blocks populated mostly by recent immigrants to Germany. After the murder of her mother by her step-father, Sascha vows to tell the world about her mother’s life and seek revenge. With its direct style and gripping storyline, the strength of this novel is how it introduces the reader to a gritty world that feels very real but may not be familiar.

Me and You by Niccolo Ammaniti also has an adolescent main character, Lorenzo, but is set in a much more affluent neighborhood in Rome. In an effort to placate his parents who desperately want him to fit in at school, Lorenzo makes up a skiing holiday with fictitious popular friends. Instead of hitting the slopes, he hides out in the forgotten cellar of his family’s apartment building which he has stocked with books, food and video games. 

Reality interrupts his best laid plans for solitude in the form of his half sister who discovers his hideout and forces him to face some unpleasant truths. This slim book is written in a lyrical style that captures not only the character’s inner life but also the setting in a convincing way. If you enjoy this work, definitely check out his earlier novel I’m Not Scared for a similar, but darker, experience.

Speaking of darkness, there is a lot to be had in The Land at the End of the World by Antonio Lobo Antunes. Almost more of a fever dream than a novel, this is the story of a drafted Portuguese medic who is pouring out his life story to an unnamed stranger over the course of one day. The narrative skips in time but is primarily concerned with the narrator’s tour of duty in Angola during Portugal’s futile attempt to maintain political control of that land in the 1970s. The beautiful but devastating language is a perfect accompaniment to a tale that has little concern for power and everything to do with survival.

So don’t let your lack of language skills scare you away from fiction from other cultures. Thankfully there are many great works in translation available at the library.

Richard