Here are some of the best examples of world literature from the past 20 years as translated books finally get the recognition they deserve
Literature in translation has been having a moment for a while now, in part due to nearly a decade’s worth of international commercial success for writers such as Elena Ferrante and Karl Ove Knausgaard. The past 20 years have also seen the recognition and rise of the “star” translator, no longer hidden in copyright pages.
The final novel of WG “Max” Sebald, the German writer and academic who made his home in the UK as a young postgraduate, but wrote his hybrid books in his native German, a deeply personal mingling of fact and fiction charting memory and dislocation in the lost 20th century. In Austerlitz, the eponymous main character, an elderly architectural historian who had been a Kindertransport refugee, attempts to retrace and rebuild his early life – and with it a vanished Europe. Sebald died in a car accident in December 2001; his singular, unclassifiable works continue to astonish.
The appearance of Suite Française, more than 60 years after its manuscript disappeared – when Némirovsky, a naturalised French author from a Russian-Jewish family, was deported to Auschwitz in August 1942 – was an international publishing coup. The first in a planned sequence of five novels, Némirovsky’s ambition – never to be realised – was to write the story of the German occupation of France in real time. Inspired by Tolstoy’s War and Peace, it is a beautifully observed, devastating critique of French society on the brink of war.
Javier Cercas somewhat controversially attempted to depoliticise the Spanish Civil War by inserting himself into his own narrative of the story of the leader of the nationalist Falangists, and his subsequent escape from execution. By consecutively playing the roles of investigative journalist, biographer and novelist, Cercas makes The Soldiers of Salamis both a multi-layered, gripping reading experience and a pointed commentary on the subjective nature of history.
Tolstaya’s short fiction is as languid and piercing as anything by Chekhov. Her first novel, by contrast, is a brilliantly fashioned satire of a post-apocalyptic Russian future. Two hundred years following The Blast, which brought about the end of civilisation, a strange beast, the Slynx, howls in the wasteland on the outskirts of Moscow. Tolstaya’s dystopian landscape mixes feudal and Soviet Russia to create a country of serfs and doublethink, in a book set in a cruelly mutated future while firmly grounded in the great literature of Russia’s past.
Simultaneously one of China’s most fêted and most banned writers, Yan (below) used his own birthplace inthe vast Henan province in central China’s Yellow River valley to create, in The Explosion Chronicles, a morality tale, a satire and a work of magic realism. The story of one village, the fictional Explosion, painfully transformed with alarming speed from rural peasant backwater to a megalopolis of skyscrapers within the space of just 50 years, is a blistering condemnation of political corruption and excess.
Kafka is Blasim’s and the reader’s guide through this collection of fantastical tales, which owe as much to European and Latin American influences as they do to the culture closer to Blassim’s native Iraq, such as the Arabian Nights. Illegal invasion and its bloody aftermath stalk the streets of Baghdad, in a world which can be survived only by turning its horrors into dazzling metaphor. Blasim won the penultimate Independent Foreign Fiction Prize for this stunning and subversive array of short fiction.
Szerb was an intellectual giant of Hungarian literature, who was murdered in a concentration camp in 1945. His elegant, deadpan worldview found its outlet in his 1937 masterpiece Journey by Moonlight, acclaimed as an instant classic upon its eventual translation into English in 2001. A man goes on honeymoon to Venice and accidentally – or on purpose – boards a different train to his new wife and heads off on a Dante-esque quest across Italy. In Szerb’s playful and capricious telling, his anti-hero recklessly pursues his past self in order to make sense of his future – and obliquely, that of a civilised world fast disappearing into the maw of history.
A comic-book bestseller and then a film: this memoir by Satrapi (above) of her early life growing up in Iran under the rule of the ayatollahs is moving, funny, and anarchic. In the voice of the stroppy teenager sent away to France at 14 in order to escape notice by the Revolutionary Guard, Persepolis (the Greek name for Persia/Iran) is a sarcastic, punkish and opinionated love letter to family and country, beautifully illustrated with Satrapi’s stark black- and-white drawings.
Spanish-Argentine Neuman’s intimate novella manages to speak more profoundly about love, death and sex in its 160 pages than most novels do at three times the length. A man with terminal cancer takes his young son on one last road trip; his wife, meanwhile, attempts to put a lid on her grief by embarking on an intense affair with her husband’s doctor. Each of the three main characters takes turn in narrating their stories to create a work of great honesty and force.
A summerhouse built by an architect for his family on a forest lakeshore outside Berlin in the late 19th century is the backdrop and silent witness to some of the most extraordinary events of the 20th. Each of the house’s occupants becomes displaced and replaced by others as a result of occupation and invasion, in a stunningly original mosaic work and meditation on the meaning of Heimuschung (“Homeland”, the German title of the novel) based on Erpenbeck’s own family history.
A terrifying fairy tale of unearthly beauty set in Kazakhstan in central Asia. Ismailov’s young protagonist, Yerzhan, grows up a folk music prodigy near the largest nuclear test site in the former Soviet-ruled Kazakh steppes. An atomic bomb blast near the Dead City has created a radioactive lake, in which the children are forbidden to swim. In a bid to impress his neighbour’s daughter, Yerzhan dives into the lake, to be changed forever by its poisoned waters, in a dark parable which compares with Günter Grass’s The Tin Drum.
Much more than a riposte to Camus’s classic of alienation The Outsider: Algerian journalist and writer Daoud not only fleshes out the backstory of the nameless Arab man randomly killed by Meursault on the beach, but also gives him an avenger in the shape of a brother. The book transcends simple plot reversal to be simultaneously both a smouldering critique of colonialism and post-colonial disillusion, its rich imagery and fervent storytelling deeply contrasting with that of the icily existential Camus.
The border between Mexico and the US takes on a mythical resonance in Herrera’s thrillingly unusual novel of a young migrant woman’s search for her brother who has crossed to “the other side”. The opening of the book, in which a giant sinkhole swallows a man, a dog and a cat, is just one of the inauspicious signs signalling the end of the world in nine brief chapters, packed with glorious language, as much psychological as physical.A disorienting, dizzying work of death and rebirth.
The first, and to my mind the best, in the series (but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t read the other five books). Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard’s auto-fiction epic on the life of his narrator, also called Karl Ove Knausgaard, has made its author (above) as infamous as he is famous. Aside from the controversy and scandal surrounding his books – and about who has the right to tell their own story – it should be read for its blazing account of a feared father set on self-destruction, the boredom and bewilderment of adolescence, and its flashes of sheer brilliance.
Before the phenomenal success of her Neapolitan Novels (with a fifth in the series due this autumn) the pseudonymous and reclusive Ferrante published four stand-alone novels. In The Days of Abandonment, a woman psychologically unravels in her claustrophobic apartment in Turin one hot summer after her husband, for whom she gave up her dreams of being a writer, abruptly leaves her and their two young children for another woman. Visceral, mordant and austere by turns – Ferrante excels at depicting a world in which ordinary events become seismic.
Han and translator Smith won the Booker International Prize in 2016 in a break-out three-act novel confirming Korean literature’s rightful place on the world stage. Originally written in 2007, The Vegetarian is a darkly surreal tale, reeking with the symbolism of Korea’s divided present. Family and societal tension congeal into cold-sweat violence amid what Han has called “the impossibility of innocence” over the anger resulting from a young married woman’s sudden and increasingly extreme refusal to eat meat.
A tightly written absurdist novel, with echoes of Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, in which three quarrelling siblings seek to honour the last wish of their dead father: that he be buried in his home village. To ensure this, they must travel across a Syria divided by war. Their journey, which deftly mirrors the conflict outside their minibus, is a modern classic in a era of civil uprising and strife.
In Poland in the Second World War, Izolda manages to escape the Warsaw Ghetto in search of her husband, Shayek. The urgent question throughout this illuminating, passionate novella where nothing is ever quite what it seems, is: “Is it fair to have to stay alive and save people when there is, increasingly, no one left to save?” Izolda changes her name, hair colour and religion in order to survive brutal experiences, convinced, rightly orwrongly, that her belief in love will save her and Shayek, her less-than-deserving“king of hearts”.
“Other people’s memories gave us a place in the world.” With this impressionistic fictional memoir of the years 1941 to 2006, Ernaux (above), one of the great chroniclers of women’s lives in France in the post-war 20th century, has written a work which has been hailed as “ a new kind of autobiography… private and collective”, Beginning from her own birth to the present day, while never using the first-person pronoun, Ernaux’s is at once a personal story and the story of a generation, a book of her time and for all times.
Dark, and darkly humorous, Chilean author Meruane’s semi-autobiographical experimental novel about the sudden blindness of a young academic named Lina, is written in bold stream-of-consciousness style, fizzing with energy even as it charts its narrator’s impending dysfunction and isolation. Trying desperately to hold on to normality as her blood-clouded sight disappears, Lina’s memories of her own and Chile’s recent past become startlingly vivid: a newly heightened world of striking colour and imagery.
A novel, a memoir, an anti-travelogue, a compendium of curious novelties, this winner of the Man Booker International Prize by Nobel laureate Olga Tokarczuk, is also a work of anthropology, history and philosophy. The unnamed narrator at its centre, a Polish author persistently on the move, journeys across the globe, accessing all of the accoutrements of modern travel at her disposal, incorporating them into what is essentially a meditationon the living and the dead across time and space.