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Nilanjana S Roy: The fiction round-up

Nilanjana S Roy 

Nilanjana S Roy

Reading in translation is like driving an unfamiliar make of car: most readers adapt once they decide to focus on the destination rather than the bumpy bits.

This is particularly true of the previous year's best fiction; Indians are used to crossing the street into different languages, but the rest of the world's readers might be reading more in translation than they realise.

The best of the year's fiction in translation: Haruki Murakami's Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage followed the unlikely story of a designer of train stations who returns to the inexplicable breach between him and his childhood friends. Mr Murakami helpfully included Liszt's Le mal du pays as the background score. The third volume of Karl Knausgaard's My Struggle - biography fluidly characterised as novel-writing by his publishers - Boyhood Island came out to the usual chorus of stunned acclaim. (Nerdy, lit-crit question: has Mr Knausgaard killed the confessional memoir dead by blending biography with the seedy allure of wait-for-the-next-episode reality television serials?)

I preferred Elena Ferrante, perhaps the best-known pseudonymous author of our times, and Patrick Modiano, whose writings were introduced to many readers, including me, for the first time after he won the Nobel Prize in Literature. Ms Ferrante's unforgettable Neapolitan novels are three books covering the span of a friendship between Lena and the narrator, Elena Greco, who grow up in a Naples neighbourhood: "I feel no nostalgia for my childhood: it was full of violence." Ms Ferrante's novels have the intimacy and the unmistakeable odour of truth that can be found in Mr Knausgaard's books, but she is, unlike Mr Knausgaard, never self-indulgent, and her prose is taut, not rambling.

In October 2014, Mr Modiano's Suspended Sentences was released for the first time in translation; it is one of three novellas based again on his own childhood, marked by the disappearance of his brother, and by the atmosphere of a city caught between resisting and collaborating with its occupiers. "For me, the Paris of the occupation was always a kind of primordial darkness," he said in his Nobel lecture. "That Paris never stopped haunting me, and my books are sometimes bathed in its veiled light."

Mo Yan is a towering but often criticised figure in China - the dissident artist Ai Weiwei calls him "a state writer", and he is not known for challenging the present regime. But Frog is riveting, both in the telling of the tale and the imagining of it: China's one-child policy rests in some respect on the labours of abortionists, like the doctor in Frog whose life was based on Mo Yan's gynaecologist aunt. His voice - powerful, deeply inlaid with old myths and yet frustratingly muffled and oblique - is peculiarly illustrative of what happens to novelists who live at least partly self-censored lives in imperfectly free countries.

K R Meena's The Hangwoman, a translation from Malayalam by J Devika, featured an unusual protagonist - 22-year-old Chetana, daughter of the hangman Phanibhushan, who might be the next handler of the gallows. Shamsher Faruqi's The Sun That Rose From The Earth (translated from the Urdu by the author) was one of the year's most interesting books, a fictionalised set of stories with Mirza Ghalib, Ruswa, Mushafi, Budh Singh Qalandar and other poets and writers as the stars, a beautifully re-imagined slice of our collective literary history.

2014 also saw the revival of Angaarey, a collection of short stories and a play in Urdu by various writers that had been banned, and banished: only five copies of the book survived the firestorm that surrounded its publication in 1932. Snehal Shinghavi's translation of the stories (Angaarey, Penguin India), by Rashid Jahan, Sajjad Zaheer, Ahmed Ali and Mahmudazzafar, has a slight edge over the version for Rupa. The year closed on a wonderful note, with the release of the first few books from the Murty Classical Library, from the Therigatha to Bulle Shah's poetry, yet another reminder of the broad cloth of India's heritage.

Original fiction written in English: In a year when Marilynne Robinson, David Mitchell, Ali Smith, Anthony Doerr, Ian McEwan and many other writers published works of considerable brilliance, a few novels and short story collections stood out.

Lily King's Euphoria should be read alongside Elizabeth Gilbert's The Signature of All Things - but where Ms Gilbert imagines a woman scientist as a parallel contributor in Darwin's time, Ms King bases her novel on the real life of anthropologist Margaret Mead. "You have to pay attention to everything else when you don't know the words," Nell (Margaret) says in Euphoria.

Akhil Sharma's Family Life and Neel Mukherjee's The Lives of Others might both be read as excellent expositions of what goes into "normal" families - love, betrayal, despair, possession, claiming, repudiation.

Kamila Shamsie's A God In Every Stone and Phil Klay's Redeployment are both stunningly good, if very different, perspectives on the aftermath of wars - Ms Shamsie's novel goes from World War Two's killing fields and hospitals to Peshawar's bazaars and archaeological sites; Mr Klay (who served in Iraq) shifts the terrain of his short stories from Iraq to Afghanistan, with love and post-traumatic stress disorder. The present has as little comfort to offer: Denis Johnson, author of Tree of Smoke, updated Graham Greene's Africa in Laughing Monsters - the United States intelligence machine carries out its own black-ops while two adventurers teeter through West Africa, trying to convert civil unrest into small fortunes.

There is only the future left, and William Gibson has that nicely covered in The Peripheral, which he describes as "a sort of two-headed dystopia in which it's impossible to decide who's got the worst deal". Always so nice to have a choice.

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First Published: Mon, January 05 2015. 21:46 IST