Translated Fiction in Review
By Oisin Harris, Toby Smollett and Kate Williams
With Christmas rapidly approaching, we felt the time was right for those of us in the translation team to review some of our favourite recent translated fiction and potentially inspire your Christmas wish lists!
Hurricane Season by Fernanda Melchor, translated from Spanish by Sophie Hughes. Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2020.
The mutilated body of a local known only as the Witch is discovered by a group of children near an irrigation canal in the Mexican village of La Matosa. Thus ensues a hunt for the perpetrator(s). So far so similar to hundreds of procedural novels, this macabre discovery sets up a host of characters who, in unreliable narratives, all offer up different version of events prior to the Witch’s death.
However, unlike many procedural novels, Melchor’s tale is not about solving a murder. The real propulsion is determining the reasons the crime was committed: a way out of economic depravity, homophobia, or some warped sense of gender performativity. This polyphonic novel consists of eight chapters told through the voices of five characters, with the three other chapters treating us to an omniscient, unnamed point of view of the events leading up to and following the Witch’s murder.
Melchor exhibits her characters like dirty seaside postcards, every chapter a vignette of the village’s motley cast and the trappings of each life. There is no redemption for most of the characters’ sordid lifestyles. However, their lives are imbued with pathos for their precarity – both economically and in gendered terms. Reading this novel drags you into a world you would rather not witness but, once you do witness it, it is a very hard sight to let go of quickly. Hurricane Season touches on many themes such as taboos/repressed desires, toxic masculinity, homosexuality, machismo, homophobia, transgender, perversion, misogyny and gender performativity, and Melchor avidly dissects all of these wonderfully. In Melchor’s novel, one could identify the Witch’s character and its many faces as the Hurricane's eye – a character who never once speaks directly but whose fury wreaks havoc and ends lives, destroying itself in the process. As voyagers down Melchor’s Dante-like vision, we are like riveted inmates witnessing the depravity, despair and pain being inflicted upon this part of the world. The true recompense of Melchor’s novel is to pay the tribute of listening to the dead’s testimony.
The Lost Daughter by Elena Ferrante, translated from Italian by Anne Goldstein. Europa Editions, 2008.
Ahead of the release of Maggie Gyllenhaal’s cinematic adaptation of The Lost Daughter at the end of this month, starring Olivia Colman and Dakota Johnson, Elena Ferrante’s encapsulating storytelling is once again turning heads in the film industry, which is testament to her evocative and immersive writing. Two of Ferrante’s previous novels have already been adapted into critically acclaimed films, her famous Neapolitan Novels have been made into a TV series for HBO, and her most recent book, The Lying Life of Adults, has already been snapped up by Netflix for a TV adaptation. The Lost Daughter is another perfect example of Ferrante’s quasi-cinematic writing style.
The book is set in a quiet seaside town in Southern Italy, where Leda, a middle-aged English literature professor, has fled for a relaxing holiday. Newly independent from her duties as a mother (her adult daughters have moved to live with their father in Canada), Leda unexpectedly finds herself enjoying her newfound freedom. That is until the story suddenly takes a dark turn when she encounters a loud and disorderly Neapolitan family who disrupt her serenity and the peaceful Mediterranean scenery. A small but significant event triggers painful memories of Leda’s childhood in Naples along with unsettling reflections of the choices that she made as a mother. The Lost Daughter is a gripping psychological meditation on what it means to be both a mother and a woman in modern society.
The Rooftop by Fernanda Trías, translated from Spanish by Annie McDermott. Charco Press, 2021.
We have briefly highlighted The Rooftop before in The Publishing Post, however we felt that it merited a more in-depth review. A recent release from Edinburgh-based Charco Press, this novella has been described as Kafkaesque and Hitchcockian. But what is most striking about the book is the intensity of the claustrophobia and paranoia, stemming from the distrust of our unreliable narrator, Clara.
Clara lives in an apartment with her father, his canary and her own infant daughter, all of whom she doesn’t trust – she keeps the window in her father’s room locked because when opened he would scream out of it for help “like a maniac.” However, she trusts everyone else even less, from Carmen, who brings the family groceries, to her other neighbours and the police. As such, the four residents stay permanently in the flat, with Clara’s only respite coming when she sits on the rooftop in private, and so our perspective is limited to Clara’s lens, as if Clara doesn’t even trust the reader with such information.
Ultimately, The Rooftop asks us to reckon with how we find our spaces of comfort when surrounded by chaos and danger, and much like The Lost Daughter, relates these issues specifically to the experience of a woman and a mother.