HomeNovelWhat the world is reading: Fiction by bestselling authors
What the world is reading: Fiction by bestselling authors
January 23, 2023
A two-hour stop on the Paris Metro sends a Vietnamese passenger into a long and moving reverie. A Japanese soldier continues to fight World War II years after his country’s surrender. Fed up with workplace sexism, a woman fakes a pregnancy to escape certain unpaid jobs.
Vivid characters and memorable plots abound in five works of fiction, all originally published overseas and recently translated into English. Written by authors from Asia, Europe and the Middle East, they offer a window into a variety of national cultures, customs, traditions and histories, which may be unfamiliar to many English-speaking readers.
Dig up family secrets
Two estranged childhood friends meet as adults in Zhang Yueran’s complex and gripping drama “Cocoon”.
Li Jiaqi and Cheng Gong grew up together in the 1980s in Jinan, the provincial capital in eastern China. Though their backgrounds and social status are vastly different, the two became unlikely friends when Jiaqi transferred to Gong’s school. Over time, complicated family events separated them. Now settled as an adult in Beijing, Jiaqi returns to Jinan to take care of her grandfather and pays a surprise visit to Gong, who he hasn’t seen in 18 years. Over the course of a snowy night, the two reminisce about their childhoods, their troubled families, and a tangled web of secrets, including a deadly one that connects the two families to events that took place during China’s turbulent Cultural Revolution.
Zhang is the author of three other novels and numerous short stories. She is well known in her native country. Translated from Chinese by Jeremy Tiang, ‘Cocoon’ should win more readers for this exciting young writer.
Fighting a fictional war
In his long and celebrated career as a director of both fiction and documentary, Werner Herzog has been drawn to the lives of unconventional characters, compulsive loners in search of often difficult goals.
Like many of his films, “The Twilight World,” Herzog’s lean and poetic first novel, is based on a true story, that of Hiroo Onoda, a lieutenant in the Imperial Japanese Army during World War II. Stationed on the Philippine island of Lubang, Onoda is ordered, once Japanese troops withdraw, to hold and defend the island at all costs, making his own decisions without orders from above and making his own rules . “You will be like a ghost, elusive, a constant nightmare for the enemy,” he is told. “Your war will be inglorious.”
Fighting in the jungle using guerrilla tactics, cut off from all communications, Onoda was unaware that the war was over less than a year after receiving his orders. He and a few men under his command fought on for another 29 years, pillaging villages for food, surviving ambushes by terrified villagers whose farms were being pillaged, and were constantly on the move. Years later, Onoda mistakes American planes flying to Korea and then Vietnam as proof that the war has continued. He is convinced that the leaflets dropped on the island urging him and his men to surrender are enemy inventions.
Translated from the German by Michael Hofmann, “The Twilight World” is a sublime meditation on time, self-discipline, purpose and unwavering devotion to a hopeless mission.
An engaging monologue
“Chinatown”, by Thuận and translated from Vietnamese by Nguyễn An Lý, opens in the Paris metro in 2004, where a suspicious bag is discovered. During the two-hour delay as authorities investigate the potential terrorist threat, the unnamed narrator falls into a dreamy 158-page monologue. He recalls major events in his life: his childhood in Vietnam in the 80s; his move to Soviet Russia during the Gorbachev era; his brief marriage to Thuy, his high school sweetheart, who dumped her 12 years ago and who is hated by his parents for his Chinese heritage; and his current life in Paris, where he is teaching English and working on a novel.
“Chinatown”, by Thuận, translated by Nguyễn An Lý, New Directions Books, 184 pp.
First released in Vietnam in 2005, “Chinatown” unfolds as a single paragraph, uninterrupted except for two lengthy excerpts from the narrator’s in-progress novel, “I’m Yellow,” about a man who leaves his family. The stream-of-consciousness monologue, the narrator’s endlessly whirling thoughts as she ruminates on her own life, trying to make sense of her past, recall the modernist literary movement of the early 20th century. The author’s reliance on the repetition of thoughts and memories gives the novel’s prose a propulsive quality, propelling the largely plotless narrative forward.
While the style may not appeal to everyone, the adventurous reader will find much to like and admire in this unconventional novel.
A curious collection
A young woman discovers sparrows living in her ribcage. A soldier becomes trapped in a minefield during the Iran-Iraq war and transforms into a scarecrow, scaring away the birds that would carry away the bones of his fallen comrades. The girls of an Iraqi village wake up, each with a starfish in their hair. Butterflies emerge from Walt Whitman’s beard, which grows wildly above a public park, “strewn everywhere, like white algae”.
“No Windmills in Basra”, by Diaa Jubaili, translated by Chip Rossetti, Deep Vellum Publishing, 202 pp.
Transformation is a prevalent theme in Diaa Jubaili’s compelling and highly creative story collection, ‘No Windmills in Basra’. Many characters undergo a metamorphosis, passing from one thing to another, and the cloud of war hangs over many of the stories. Published in the author’s native Iraq in 2018 and drawing heavily on Arab folktales, the 76 very short stories that make up the collection also show the strong influence of Latin American magical realism as well as echoes of writers such as Kafka, Chekhov, Cervantes and O. Henry.
Jubaili is well known in his country, having published nine novels and three other short story collections. Translated from the Arabic by Chip Rossetti, “No Windmills in Basra” is Jubaili’s first book to be translated into English. Most stories are less than two pages long. While reading “flash fiction” can sometimes feel like trying to make a meal out of hors d’oeuvres, the book offers an intriguing look into an important and, for many English speakers, little understood part of the world.
Carry out a lie
There is a touch of magical realism in “Diary of a Void”, Emi Yagi’s debut novel, translated from the Japanese by David Boyd and Lucy North. Shibata works for a company that makes cardboard tubes for paper products. The only woman in her section of hers, she is expected to perform tasks such as making coffee, buying supplies, and cleaning up after everyone else, in addition to her regular duties. Tired of this treatment, she tells everyone that she is pregnant. “What I did was not supposed to be an act of rebellion, more like a little experiment,” she says. “I was curious. I wanted to see if any of my colleagues, maybe someone who had actually been at the meeting, thought to clean up.
“Diary of a Void”, by Emi Yagi, translated by David Boyd and Lucy North, Viking, 213 pp.
In the first few weeks, Shibata discovers that pregnancy comes with some unexpected benefits. Her co-workers are deferential and she is allowed to leave work on time at 5pm, which is early enough to get to the grocery store before the produce department is picked up. With the extra time, she cooks elaborate meals, takes long baths, watches classic movies on television, and joins an aerobics class for moms.
Shibata’s lie takes effort to keep. As the weeks go by and she works harder to support the ploy, her pregnancy feels more and more real to her, so much so that a colleague can feel the baby kicking and an ultrasound reveals a fetus displaying the peace sign. Readers with a taste for the absurd should find this whimsical short novel highly entertaining.