Dreaming of home
Emily Rhodes picks three compelling works of recently translated fiction
All the Rivers Dorit Rabinyan (Serpent’s Tail, £8.99) The Last Bell Johannes Urzidil (Pushkin Press, £12) A Broken Mirror Mercè Rodoreda (Daunt Books, £9.99)
BECOMING an instant bestseller in its native Israel after the Education Ministry controversially banned it from the school curriculum due to its subject matter, All the Rivers centres on a love affair between an Israeli and a Palestinian. Liat and Hilmi’s relationship takes place in New York, where they are brought together by their shared foreignness: ‘In this deep, Arctic, North American cold, we are both from the East—painfully Levantine.’ Their common ground remains divided and divisive, however, as Liat is a passionate Zionist whereas Hilmi is for a binational state.
one night, Hilmi’s sleeptalking in Arabic ‘shocked’ Liat awake— ‘it entered my ears as something dangerous’—and she realises that ‘even in this huge city… it isn’t just the two of us lying here’. In this political, poetic and finely tuned novel, Dorit Rabinyan shows how her lovers are both brought together and held apart by their homeland.
If only Liat and Hilmi’s love could be truly hinternational, a word coined by German-czech writer Johannes Urzidil meaning literally ‘behind nations’ or ‘beyond nations’. Born in Prague in 1896, Urzidil was one of the ‘Prague circle’ of writers and counted Kafka among his friends, but was deemed by the Nazis to be a ‘halfjew’ and fled to London before settling in America.
The Last Bell is a neat volume of five unusual, arresting short stories, translated from German into English for the first time. They tend to be about eccentric, lonely misfits, such as Siegelmann, a travel agent who tells elaborate travellers’ tales although he’s never holidayed further afield than the village of his birth, and Schaschek, who impulsively steals a painting of a Duchess and has long conversations with it, even serenading it with his violin. Schaschek’s joy at acquiring the painting turns to guilt, however, when he discovers that his theft ‘ruined an entire family and [has] given rise to a Sophoclean tragedy’.
In the powerful title story, a maid is left her employers’ fortune when they flee the Nazis, but frets about how she can explain her newly acquired wealth; the burden becomes literal when her sister comes to stay and she takes to carrying the money in pouches on her thighs. She asks: ‘How can it be that something completely sickens you and still you guard it like a treasure?’ Perhaps the ambivalence in many of these stories reflects Urzidil’s sentiment as a writer-in-exile—cherishing his freedom in America, but in his writing, time and again, revisiting the Prague he was forced to flee.
Mercè Rodoreda (1908–83) was another exile who wrote about her homeland. Her astonishing, genre- defying novel A Broken Mirror follows a fishmonger’s beautiful daughter, who marries a wealthy diplomat and moves into a grand villa on the outskirts of Barcelona, the author’s native city, which she fled during the Spanish civil War. There, we watch the family grow over three generations, as it suffers secrets and dramas.
Rodoreda’s writing alters to reflect time passing, beginning with a traditional 19th-century narrative suited to 1870s Barcelona, then fracturing into Modernist prose to echo the breaking up of family and society as we edge towards the Spanish civil War.
It is a multi-faceted novel— playful, experimental and with brilliant flashes of wit, but at its heart comes a terrible murder, so pain-fully affecting that I could hardly bear to read it.
‘While things are the way they were, I won’t be completely dead’: perhaps this line from A Broken Mirror helps to explain why both Rodoreda and Urzidil used their writing to remember the cities they were forced to leave, a preoccupation with one’s native land shared by the modern-day exiles of All The Rivers. Although differing from one another in all manner of ways, these three books demonstrate how homelands continue to haunt.
Explore fashionably eclectic East London (Thames & Hudson, £19.95) with Charles Saumarez Smith, chief executive of the Royal Academy of Arts-turned-flâneur, who guides us through the district where he has lived since the 1980s, revealing unexpected architectural and sculptural delights, churchyards and shops, parks and canals—all illuminated with his own photographs and engaging, erudite commentaries.