There’s always something new to read. Why not consider one of these three new translated fiction titles for your next bookshelf pick?
Prompted by a job transfer, a young couple moves to the countryside after her husband’s employer transfers him to a new branch, which happens to be in the same town as his aging family. Conveniently, his parents rent out an extra home that happens to be vacant. Told from the wife’s point of view, “The Hole” by Hiroko Oyamada (translated by David Boyd) tracks how the couple adjusts to the move and the strange psychological toll this rural setting and aged township has on Asa, who is now a full-time housewife struggling to pass the time.
Asa is thrust into a network of dependency that throttles her individual freedom and privacy. Living free of rent in a home next to, and owned by, her mother-in-law, marooned without transportation, and with only her husband’s income to rely on, Asa struggles to pass the time and maintain her individuality.
Because she is no longer a household earner, she feels too guilty to spend money on entertainment, let alone turn on the air conditioning until her husband is home. Napping, it turns out, is “the most economical way to make it through the day.” “If I were fully awake,” the protagonist narrates, “I don’t know how I’d get through each day.” In this way, Oyamada sets the stage to slip, or stumble, in and out of surreality.
Drawing on the elements of a drowsy summer, Oyamada deftly constructs an atmosphere thick with anticipation. The heat blankets everything in fatigue and the town seems completely abandoned when the sun is out. “There were no people around. No cats, no dogs, no crows. There wasn’t a single sparrow in the sky. My eyes were tingling from the heat.”
Walking to the convenience store on a routine errand, Asa encounters a mysterious animal — dark, hulking, with almost no shadow — and follows it down a riverbank, unsure if the sun is playing tricks on her. In pursuit, Asa falls into a hole “exactly my size” as if it were “a trap made just for me.” Cicadas crescendo. A helping hand, cold to touch, appears from nowhere. A beetle she’s never seen before — a spotless ladybug — bites her finger. All of these incidents could be innocent, could be nothing, but the particular details and juxtaposition with falling in the hole suggest a deeper meaning. Something is off, but what?
After the hole incident, the reader, like Asa, spends much of the rest of the novel parsing through what might be real and what might be imaginary. A confluence of indicators — heat, the crank of cicadas, moisture — swerve in telling moments, signaling to both Asa and the reader, where we might be on the spectrum as we slide between reality and imagination. For example, the second time Asa encounters the mysterious animal, this time in her backyard, she follows it into her mother-in-law’s walled-off yard. “There was no animal. Instead I saw a middle-aged man. The cries of the cicadas stopped.” Note how this man’s appearance coincides with the cicada’s disappearance — coincidence or something more? Oyamada’s brilliance stems from this high-wire balancing act.
This man is actually an in-law Asa had no idea existed who is living in a shed behind her mother-in-law’s home. He describes himself as a “hikikomori,” the Japanese word for an adult recluse, but one that carries the connotation of burdensome parental expectations coupled with bleak economic prospects.
One is so focused on the titular hole, but this in-law, I think, is the true climax of the novel. I began to wonder if the hole, with its strange gravitational pull, was some sort of decoy altogether. Perhaps the real story was buried in the mystery of this in-law, that he might be the skeleton key to explain this strange, sleepy township. Either way, the desire to escape the doldrums of late summer, for both the isolated Asa and the (likely lockdown-weary) reader, is telling of the current moment’s general malaise.
Set in an Argentine slum, “Eartheater” by Dolores Reyes and translated by Julia Sanches stars a women who is inexplicably compelled to eat dirt. Her curious appetite leads to visions of “los desaparecidos” — political activists or dissidents who were disappeared, their bodies buried or worse, their identities scrubbed from history. From her first spoonful of earth, she learns the horrific truth behind her mother’s death. Word gets around of her uncanny talent and soon others in grievance turn to the eartheater in hopes of some resolution. Written as a dark folk tale, this profound debut novel raises questions of collective grief, reparative writing and the relation between knowledge and justice.
Translated by Christina MacSweeney, one of the premier curators delivering Spanish literature to English readers, “Ramifications” by Daniel Saldaña Paris is a coming-of-age novel about a son estranged from his mother who allegedly abandoned him to join the Zapatistas in the remote jungles of Chiapas, Mexico. But, 23 years later, the son begins to doubt this incredulous familial account. Paced like a detective thriller, this slim novel contains hard-boiled meditations on masculinity, personal responsibility and the plasticity of memory.