Novels in translation: Vivid voices preserved across the language divide

 

Nightwork by Jáchym Topol (Portobello Books, £14.99) is a delightfully haunting work. Thirteen-year old Ondra is put on a bus by his father as tanks take to the streets of Prague. The bus drops Ondra off at his father's village, a remote outpost full of colourful characters. The narration jumps from inside one head to another, as momentous events – Topol doesn't spell things out, but we're in 1968, in the midst of the Soviet invasion – mix with local grievances and petty jealousies.Topol is known for his use of colloquial language, always a headache for a translator. Marek Tomin's solution is bold and brilliant: he invents a slang for his protagonists, an argot that is artfully crafted, like the Nadsat of A Clockwork Orange, and perfectly suited to Nightwork, a book that revels in the strangeness of life and language. The book's poetry and ghostly voices bring to mind Under Milk Wood.

Communist rule is also the backdrop to Sworn Virgin by Elvira Dones (And Other Stories, £10), the latest hidden gem uncovered by this publisher. Set in the Albanian mountains, the novel focuses on a young woman's transformation into a man, and back into a woman again. This is not a tale of transsexuality, rather one of machismo and ancient customs: according to the Kanun code, if a family lacks a patriarch, a woman may become a man to assume the role. There is more to the book than the unearthing of a remarkable tradition: Dones' characters are vibrant and her portrait of life in the mountains and in Tirana, the capital, is vivid. The tale follows Mark as he travels to the USA to start a new life as Hana, the girl he stopped being 14 years earlier, and if the Albanian chapters are richer, the US chapters are never less than engaging. Clarissa Botsford's translation (from the Italian – Dones writes in Albanian and Italian) is elegant and sensitive.

Decompression by Juli Zeh (Harvill Secker, £12.99) has two different characters tell two different versions of the same story, one via a diary. The device doesn't convince, for the voices are too similar, but a more serious problem is that the characters are both unlikable and unrealistic: it's hard to care who's telling the truth. The story involves a love triangle between a German diving instructor and the German couple who hire him in Lanzarote. It desperately wants to be smart and zeitgeisty, trying hard to shock with its sex talk. John Cullen translates fluidly from the German, without ironing out Zeh's more awkward moments.

The Fall by Diogo Mainardi (Harvill Secker, £12.99) is the sort of book that dares you to dislike it: a Brazilian father's tribute to a son born with cerebral palsy, it is described as a moving journey of joy and reflection; I thought I'd hate it. That I didn't says much about Mainardi's dignified authorship, as well as Margaret Jull Costa's measured translation, reining Mainardi in whenever he threatens to overdo it. Mainardi tells the story of his son, Tito, suffering a botched birth at a Venice hospital, then learning to walk on the beaches of Rio de Janeiro. We learn curiously little about Tito's personality, but Mainardi's dedication to his son is admirable: if only all children were afforded such tailored parenting. The book is broken down into short passages, with photographs and asides on subjects ranging from Rembrandt to Abbott and Costello. The format works well: it's a book to dip into rather than to lose yourself in.

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