"Literary works stem from memories, whether recent or remote, whether our own or those of others...we are left to work with what already exists: recreating, reinventing, that is to say recalling it in all its horror and its harmony. It is our safeguard against death."
So remarks Colombian novelist Tomás González in a recent interview with English PEN. His elegiac novel, In the Beginning Was the Sea, written over thirty years ago, has finally been published in English by Pushkin Press, translated by Frank Wynne. The Sea was inspired by the tragic murder of González'a brother Juan who was shot dead by his estate manager.
The novel is set in 1970s Colombia. J. and Elena leave the licentiousness of city life for a run-down ocean finca. We know from the offset that J. is partial to a drink, particularly the deadly liqueur, aguardiente. His lust for alcohol does not diminish by the sea and causes tension, followed by violence against Elena. Financially, things sour very quickly. Their cows are stolen or die. The shop they set up is run mainly on credit. Elena becomes increasingly withdrawn. She spends her time sun-bathing, but resents the other islanders who are insatiably curious about her pale skin. Then J., in hock to the bank, decides to start cutting down his beloved kapok trees for lumber. The men he employs are surly and difficult so he hires a manager, himself a menacing character. This final act is to be J.'s undoing.
González has been hailed as the next Gabriel García Márquez. Personally, I don't see the genius of Marquez in this early novel but In the Beginning Was the Sea is a fascinating read and illustrates how writers use their creative imagination to process horror and loss.
Another engaging, provocative book is Egyptian Mohamed Salmawy's Butterfly Wings, translated by Raphael Cohen and published by The American University in Cairo Press. First published in Arabic at the beginning of 2011 it has been described as "the novel that predicted the Revolution". It also deals with memories and how we respond to them.
The main plot follows the love affair that develops between Doha, a fashion designer married to a government minister (a leading figure in Mubarak's regime) and Ashraf, an academic and opposition figure. They meet on a flight to Rome and when they are separately imprisoned on their return to Egypt, Doha finds herself re-examining all that she took for granted. Their unexpected emotional and physical connection comes to represent the political sea change about to sweep across Egypt.
Running parallel to their story is that of two brothers. Ayman discovers that the woman who brought him up is not really his mother and sets out to find her. His older brother Abdel Samad has fallen for a rich Kuwaiti widow and all she represents. She offers him marriage and a share in her dead husband's business. But first he has to raise 5000 pounds and pay it to her Egyptian contact who, she promises, will ensure his papers and work permit are in order. The two brothers' differing fortunes represent the choices that many young Egyptians faced on the eve of the revolution - flee and seek your fortune elsewhere or stay and re-engage with your roots.
Salmawy's novel culminates in a description of mass civil unrest followed by the overthrow of the regime and a new dawn. The analogy with 'the butterfly effect' is obvious - small acts of defiance can lead to defining acts of revolution.
Rustam Ibragimbekov's Solar Plexus (translated from the Russian by Andrew Bromfield, and recently published by Glagoslav) spans three generations, from the 1940s to the 1990s. It covers Stalin's purges, Azerbaijan's secession from the USSR and the brutal Nagorno-Karabakh War. Solar Plexus chronicles the fortunes of a group of friends who grow up under Stalin and follow very different paths. They reunite in middle-age when their country is on the brink of yet another seismic shift.
Ibragimbekov is an acclaimed screenwriter, dramatist and producer. His 1994 screenplay, Burnt by the Sun, was awarded the Grand Prix at Cannes and an Oscar for Best Foreign Film. He explores the complexities of his homeland with humour and a perspicuity that makes Solar Plexus a rich, satisfying read with an epic quality reminiscent of Chekhov. Memories, truth and acts of moral conscience collide with often devastating consequences.
Finally, Kemal Ben Hameda's Under the Tripoli Sky (translated from the French by Adriana Hunter and published by Peirene Press in September 2014) is about a boy's coming of age in Tripoli in the 1960s. While others sleep in the sweltering heat, Hadachinou roams the streets and spends time with the various women in his neighbourhood - these include his mother's friends and relations as well as the local prostitutes who both fascinate and repel him.
He is insatiably curious about girls, women and their secret rituals but is often disappointed by what he learns. Gradually, in beautifully simple and restrained prose, his childish perspective reveals the yawning disparity between men and women and a society on the verge of embracing one of the cruellest dictators of the modern age.
This is the appeal of literary fiction in translation. We may cross over into different worlds, but similar themes emerge that help us better understand our own experiences and histories. Supporting González's observation, these four novels weave stories out of memories, recall horror and harmony and expose the specific cruelties of certain moments in time. By offering us insights into the troubled pasts of different cultures, these fictions help illuminate some of the inequities and contradictions faced today.