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Translated fiction: coming of age in Trieste, tales from 19th century Brittany, and life in a post-Soviet world

Reviewing works by Diego Marani, François-Marie Luzel, María Bastarós, Sasha Salzmann and Anna Stern

It’s cooler at the edge. Trieste, that darling of cosmopolitan regret, has continued to fascinate writers from James Joyce and Italo Svevo to Claudio Magris and Jan Morris, with its creative instability on the periphery of three language zones, the German, Slovenian and Italian.

In Diego Marani’s The Celestial City, translated by Graham Anderson (Dedalus, 207pp, £9.99), Trieste provides the setting for a coming-of-age novel from the author of the highly acclaimed New Finnish Grammar (2011). The nameless hero, who elects to study translation and interpreting at the University of Trieste, must leave his Emilia Romagna home and the punitive asceticism of his bookish and pedantic father.

The intimate description of this Oedipal tussle is the best part of the work as the son struggles to meet the father’s maddeningly imprecise expectations and resents the calculated tyranny of his emotional distance. As was the case with Finnish in the earlier novel, so is the situation with Slovene in the latest; language and love for Marani are ever-troublesome playmates.

Through the Kovač sisters, Vesna and Jasna, our hero begins to enter into the parallel world of the Slovene-speaking community in the Italian port city. Atrocities committed by Yugoslav partisans in Trieste at the end of the second World War and fascist exactions in central and eastern Europe during the war mean that speaking Slovene in public spaces in the city is rarely perceived as a neutral act.


For the young Italian, learning the language, like exploring the new idioms of intimacy, is as much about respecting limits as about celebrating discovery. Marani’s sensitivity to the absurd is ever present in this quietly engaging memoir masquerading as fiction. Humour rarely deserts him as he describes, among other things, the bad manners of Trieste’s grumpy elders: “They swarmed the streets, hopping on buses like locusts, scornful, sulky, spiteful. They grabbed for the door handles, planted themselves on the seats, pushing aside anyone in their way and especially young people like us.”

The stories, originally told in Breton, and often by women, are mischievous, playful, complex and remarkably adroit in using a handful of sentences to bring whole worlds into being

Folk tales, too, can fall foul of solemn oldsters, either jealously locked away in the philological archive of national piety or allowed out on day release for the educational entertainment of children. They are either taken too seriously or not seriously enough.

Now appearing in an English translation by Michael Wilson (Princeton University Press, 243pp, €27.54), The Midnight Washerwoman and Other Tales of Lower Brittany, a wonderful set of stories collected in 19th-century Brittany by François-Marie Luzel, show us how much enjoyment such stories can provide. The stories, originally told in Breton, and often by women, are mischievous, playful, complex and remarkably adroit in using a handful of sentences to bring whole worlds into being.

These were tales told by and for the most marginalised sections of French society, the great mass of the labouring poor who would never get to be the noble subject of the chronicle or the praise poem. Specific references to local people and places (”One day in the month of June, a servant at the manor house of Lestrézec, by the river Jaudy in the commune of Runan”) mean that the magical is always near to hand, the listener only a step away from the impossible.

A recurrent theme is the resourceful hero who outwits the rich and the powerful. In a French region famous for its religious piety, stories such as The Priest of Saint Gily or The Just Man display a robust scepticism about clerical authority and its material comforts. Not surprisingly, in terms of the overwhelming odds faced by the least favoured trying to eke out a living, giants are everywhere. Goulaffre the Giant and Jean the Strong and the Three Giants show how the voracious and the powerful can be humbled and brought down to earth.

In stories where birds, horses, and snakes speak, we are reminded of a world that is alive with the voices of the more-than-human, characterised by relationships of co-operation and exchange, rather than exclusion and domination. One story, told by Marguérite Philippe, begins: “There was a time, there will be a time/When all the stories will be told.” Thankfully, as these Breton storytellers remind us, that time is far off.

Just how far off is suggested by María Bastarós’s short story collection, Hungry for What, translated by Kevin Gerry Dunn (Daunt, 213pp, £9.99). From the captivating opening story, A Grown-Up Dinner, to the profoundly disturbing end story, Those Who Keep the Fire, the Spanish writer – published for the first time in English – reveals herself to be an important, new voice in European literature.

Her ability to create a sense of sustained menace in a story such as That Time with the Shotgun, or to capture a darkly surreal suburbia in It Doesn’t Come Cheap, shows her in full command of the form. Bastarós’s writing has a sharpness of tone and vision that is especially adept at recreating the more shadowy ambiguities of childhood lives in tales such as Initiation Rituals or Girls Don’t.

Alongside expressing a sense of real anger at the various forms of violence experienced by women at the hands of inept or malignant men, Bastarós is equally attentive to the touchy fault lines of family and the workplace. Her language is laconic and lyrical in equal measure (”She steps out as the sun squats behind the mountain, focused and yellow, like the eye of a watchful cat”) and rarely runs to excess. No giants are slain in these stories and no frogs transformed, but the storyteller’s art is consistently harnessed to highlight or undo the harm of those who become enchanted by everyday forms of wickedness.

Glorious People does not indulge in soft-focused Ostalgie but is implacable in picking through the endemic corruption and larval anti-Semitism of the Soviet era

What happens when the everyday collides with the historical is the substance of Sasha Salzmann’s Glorious People, translated by Imogen Taylor (Pushkin, 331pp, £16.99). Lena and Tatjana are two women born in the Soviet Union, who, as history intervenes and borders get redrawn, find themselves in Ukraine and eventually go into exile. Salzmann – who in 1995 emigrated with her Jewish family to Germany at the age of 10 and writes in German – charts the lives of the two Russian speakers as they negotiate over time the bewildering shifts from the frozen worlds of state socialism to the predatory present of unchecked capitalism and the brutal divisiveness of invasion and conflict.

Focusing on intergenerational stories and relationships between grandmothers, mothers and daughters, Glorious People does not indulge in soft-focused Ostalgie but is implacable in picking through the endemic corruption and larval anti-Semitism of the Soviet era. Pioneer summer camps and seaside sojourns in Sochi are vividly reimagined alongside a pervasive sense of hopelessness in a society permeated by party privilege.

Exile to Germany for both Lena and Tatjana brings in its wake a familiar train of heartbreak, humiliation and possibility. Their daughters, Nina and Edita (or Edi), in turn, have to negotiate the tortuous mind games of identity and belonging. In one scene from the novel, Edi, living in Berlin, returns to Ukraine for a birthday party for her mother. Edi’s Russian is not always up to the task of dealing with her mother’s relatives, who are quick to put her down for her perceived political naivety.

Valeri, a friend of the extended family who describes himself as an uncle, is noisily dismissive of the conflicted exiles: ‘”Berlin, Berlin! You know what they say where we come from: Don’t come home if you drown. Either you make it in the big city or you don’t. But don’t come back and moan if you can’t cope.’ Salzmann’s moving and richly detailed account of women’s lives in the suspended footnotes of Soviet and post-Soviet history is gifted with an exceptionally fine translation by Imogen Taylor.

Not so much making it in the big city as making it through is what haunts a group of young people in Anna Stern’s all this here, now, translated by Damion Searls (Lolli, 235pp, £12.99). Winner of the Swiss Book Prize and the Prisma Prize for LGBTQI+ Literature, the novel is avowedly experimental, shunning all upper-case spellings and avoiding precise identifications of gender.

It is the cumulative force of memories that both sustains Stern’s characters and brings their lost friend back to life in the author’s tentative, shifting prose

Too much play can often end in tears, but Stern avoids the soulless formalism of a certain aesthetic avant-garde through the emotional precision of their writing, beautifully rendered by Damion Searls, better known to English readers as the translator of Jon Fosse.

The thoughts of friends mourning the death of their shared companion, Ananke, mingle and they gradually formulate the plan for a road trip to dig up Ananke’s ashes and have them scattered at sea. At one point, the narrator observes: “family is not blood, not genes. family is memories, it’s tears blending together on tired cheeks; family is what you make of it. what you let be family.”

It is the cumulative force of memories that sustains Stern’s characters and brings their lost friend back to life in the author’s tentative, shifting prose, a kind of last family reunion in words before the ashes are fed to the waters. Claude Simon, French winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1985, is cited in an epigraph and Stern has made full use of Simon’s insistent, incantatory style to produce a striking expression of the many dimensions of grief and healing, testing the margins of writing and experience. Edginess is not always an ignoble condition.

Michael Cronin

Prof Michael Cronin, a contributor to The Irish Times, is director of Trinity College Dublin's centre for literary and cultural translation