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In Translation

Genre-defying Translated Fiction That Deserves More Attention

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Rabeea Saleem

Staff Writer

Rabeea is a Karachi-based writer. Her two vices are cricket and literature. Book critic for various international publications including Chicago Review of Books, Irish Times and The National. She can be reached at

Each month a slew of high profile books are published featuring big names or riding on the back of the popularity of certain ‘hot’ genres (apparently, the next Gone Girl is out every other week!). In all the buzz and in-your-face advertising of commercial fiction, a lot of remarkable literary gems slip through the cracks into obscurity. Here are a few recently published books which I think deserve a lot more hype and readership than they got. They all happen to be translated works but trust me, they are way more addictive than most of the PR-driven contemporary novels doing the rounds these days.

Umami by Laia Jufresa, translated by Sophie Hughes – Umami literally means ‘the fifth taste’, the kind that can’t be precisely described but is rich and lingering. This debut is exactly like that – unusual and vivid with a certain je ne sais quoi. This beautifully written book is a unique little masterpiece and was one of the most memorable books I read last year. Featuring multiple narrators who are by turn eccentric, naive and jaded, it lithely depicts the many permutations of grief and loss. Even though some of the characters are dealing with despair and bereavement, this book is not depressing in the least. With enchanting verve, it illustrates hard truths about life in a whimsical and invigorating manner. Umami is an engaging and oddly life-affirming story of growing up, the intricacies of relationships, and mental illness.

Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin, translated by Megan McDowell – This haunting piece of fiction has a very apt title- if we could verbalize the delirious state of a person experiencing high fever, the end product would be something like this book. It’s a strangely dark and gripping story about a woman lying in a hospital bed who is recounting the events that brought her to this stage to a mysterious boy. Fever Dream on the surface is about the bond between a mother and her child but it is also a sinister tale about children who get spookier by the minute. Brought to life with a vividly detailed prose, things and people constantly change form in this surreal novella and gives it a terrifying edge. Fever Dream is shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker International Prize and I’m keeping my fingers crossed for this one.

Ghachar Ghochar by Vivek Shanbhag, translated by Srinath Perur – This contemporary classic is at once deliciously ominous and nuanced. A rags-to-riches story of a close-knit Indian family, Ghachar Ghochar incisively explores middle class anxiety and family relationships. This is one of the very few South Asian novel which does not exoticize the traditional culture and lifestyle. With laconic insight and subtlety, the writer presents a very relatable yet intriguing portrayal of a family and the role money plays in their interpersonal dynamics. A beguiling quick read that will resonate with readers because of the clever precision with which it tackles universal themes.

Memoirs of a Polar Bear by Yoko Tawada, translated by Susan Bernofsky – This book is bizarre and subversive yet extremely affecting. It is the story of three generations of polar bears and their struggles with public life. The writing is dream-like and playful which conceals an effective political and esoteric subtext. Tawada addresses grave issues like the self, incarceration and motherhood with great emotional acuity. So even though the narrators here are polar bears, their experiences and thoughts transcends the boundaries between species. The character of Knut, specially, will warm the cockles of your heart. He is an orphan polar bear cub and his experiences at the zoo are the most heart-rending part of the book. Memoirs of a Polar Bear takes an absurd premise and turns it into something poignant and tenderly humane.