August is Women in Translation month hosted by Biblibio and I have recently read two works of translated fiction written by women which were both shortlisted for this year’s Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. Firstly, there’s ‘The Mussel Feast‘ by Birgit Vanderbeke which is a novella translated from the German by Jamie Bullock and was originally published shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The second is ‘Revenge’ by Yoko Ogawa which is a collection of eleven loosely connected short stories translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder.
‘The Mussel Feast’ is published by Peirene Press, a small independent publishing house who specialise in what the Times Literary Supplement describes as “literary cinema for those fatigued by film” – in other words, they print short contemporary European fiction translated into English which can easily be read in a single sitting. Narrated by the elder daughter, ‘The Mussel Feast’ opens with a mother and her two teenage children waiting for the father of the family to arrive home from work. They have prepared a large bowl of mussels – his favourite meal – but as the hours pass, he still doesn’t appear and we learn from the unnamed narrator’s monologue that he is an oppressive and controlling bully. Vanderbeke said of ‘The Mussel Feast’: “I wanted to understand how revolutions start. It seemed logical to use the figure of a tyrannical father and turn the story into a German family saga.” It’s a perfect choice for Peirene’s Revolutionary Moments series and at just over 100 pages in length, ‘The Mussel Feast’ is an intimate, subtle and brilliantly controlled piece of writing which has been rightly hailed as a modern classic.
Subtitled ‘Eleven Dark Tales’ and originally published in Japan in 1998, ‘Revenge’ opens with a story about a woman who visits a bakery to buy two strawberry shortcakes for her son’s birthday. Except, as she soon reveals, “He will always be six. He’s dead”. The collection overall is as pleasingly sinister as its title and the deceptively straightforward sentences slowly reveal more macabre themes. The stories feature characters who are loosely connected with each other and in some ways this made ‘Revenge’ feel more like a fragmented novel. Like ‘The Mussel Feast’, ‘Revenge’ can be read in one sitting although the unsettling stories are likely to stay with you for much longer.
Neither ‘Revenge’ nor ‘The Mussel Feast’ won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize this year which went to ‘The Iraqi Christ’ by Hassan Blasim in the end (although ‘The Mussel Feast’ did win a deserved runner up prize). However, they are both elegant works of translated fiction and it’s brilliant that they now have a wider audience many years after their original publication in the 1990s.