It is an extraordinary undertaking, and one not without controversy – as Knausgaard’s family and friends would certainly attest. They have unwittingly found themselves at the centre of a story about the rise of Norway’s latest literary sensation.
Sometimes a novel feels like a closed circle – you reach the last page and sense that everything has been tidied away. This is not one of those novels. Though it reaches a natural conclusion, it lingers like a thick stink. Everything is elliptical.
A Dutch woman arrives in rural Wales to begin an indefinite stay at a rented farm cottage. As she settles into her new life, we are drip-fed details. She is an academic fleeing some sort of scandal. Her marriage is in tatters and she is plagued by aches and vivid dreams. She begins to unwind and seems little surprised when a stranger wanders in off the hills one morning, and established himself in her home. The perspective switches and suddenly we are with her husband. He is working to piece his life back together and soon he is on her trail, accompanied by a weirdly over-familiar detective. The novel skips back and forth between these strands until they become inevitably knotted.
HHhH, the debut novel from Laurent Binet, tells the story of Operation Anthropoid, two Czechoslovakian parachutists’ mission to assassinate Nazi commander Reinhard Heydrich. With skill Binet guides us through Heydrich’s cruel ascent to power, the Resistance fighters’ preparations and the crucial showdown in Prague. But Binet also shows us something less familiar to the historical novel.
Interwoven with the narrative of the Nazi monster and the Resistance heroes is the narrator’s own story. He regularly digresses from Operation Anthropoid for brief asides on the nature of historical fiction and the impossibility of ever reconstructing historical events with absolute accuracy. The novel is made up of short, self-referential chapters, hopping from 1942 to the present day where the narrator struggles with ideas of veracity as he writes the book. Lines such as ‘there is nothing more artificial in a historical narrative than this kind of dialogue’ and ‘once again I find myself frustrated by my genre’s constraints’ should give you some idea of what to expect. While this might seem like a familiar form of postmodernism, don’t despair.
The Sound of Things Falling begins in Bogotá, Colombia in 2009, where Antonio Yammara reads a news article about a hippopotamus that has gone astray from the private zoo of the late cocaine lord Pablo Escobar. The article leads him back to his memories of Colombia during the eighties and nineties, his near-death in a mafia assassination, and the man who was the real target: Ricardo Laverde, a half-broken man with a murky past and a cassette tape whose mysterious contents may well have been what got him killed.
Ivan is a the last remaining speaker of the imaginary Vostyach language, but he has been struck dumb after witnessing his father’s murder in a Siberian mine. He has never known exactly why he and his father were consigned to the mine, and he has been there so long that the supposed crime hardly matters to him. Twenty years after Ivan’s father’s death, the guards desert their posts and Ivan escapes. Guided by a mysterious force, he returns to his home and meets a linguist who is amazed to discover Ivan’s language. Soon, Ivan becomes the centre of a complex plot involving sabotage, desperation and violence.
The Last of the Vostyachs won two literary prizes in Italy – The Premio Campiello and The Premio Stresa – and it’s easy to see why. It’s a complex and immersive novel which will reward a patient reader. Although the beginning feels disorientating, in keeping with Ivan’s state of mind, the narrative soon finds its feet. There is humour, but this is expertly balanced with a poetic and profound connection with nature and the landscape. This is a short novel, but it packs a real punch: profound, mysterious and thought-provoking.
In September 1943, German soldiers march on Gjirokastër, the first city in their invasion of Albania. The townspeople, expecting the worst, try to hide in their homes as eighty hostages are taken and rounded up in the town square. But then something unexpected happens: Instead of bullets, they hear music. It sounds like Brahms, and Strauss, and Schubert. It is coming from the gramophone in Dr Gurameto’s house.
What happens in Dr Gurameto’s house that night will change the course of Albania’s history and come to define the doctor’s own personal fate. But what really does happen? As Albania moves through Nazi occupation to communism, the people keep returning to that mysterious dinner party, looking for answers as their country descends into madness.
In a place near Mozambique where no one knows the boundary, drought is changing everything. Tens then hundreds of people seek refuge in a forgotten outpost where a clinic is run by lonely souls of uncertain training, nuns staunchly determined to serve. But the inundation soon becomes too much for them, and there is no help from outside. Within the small community of outsiders a plan takes shape that is as outrageous as it is inspired, when Brand de la Rey, an ecologist who is researching the local baboons, organizes a desperate mission for more supplies, using a damaged airplane that is unfit for purpose.
Samuel Riba, until recently a successful Barcelona publisher and drinker of alcohol – now very much an ex-publisher, a teetotaler and an imperfect husband spooked by turning sixty – wants to make the English Leap. He wants to be at the Centre. He’s bored and antsy and frustrated that he has never, in his long publishing career, discovered the one writer of genius who would have made it all worthwhile. He wants to go to Dublin on Bloomsday and hold a funeral for the printed word. He doesn’t know what he wants.
1980s Syria, our young narrator is living a secluded life behind the veil in the vast and perfumed house of her grandparents in Aleppo. Her three aunts, Maryam, the pious one; Safaa, the liberal; and Marwa, the free-spirited one, bring her up with the aid of their ever-devoted blind servant. Soon the high walls of the family home are unable to protect her from the social and political changes outside. Witnessing the increasing crackdowns of the ruling dictatorship against Muslims, she is filled with hatred for her oppressors, and becomes increasing fundamentalist. In the footsteps of her beloved uncle Bakr, she takes on the party, launching herself into a fight for her religion, her country, and ultimately, her own future. On a backdrop of real-life events that occurred during the Syrian regime’s ruthless suppression of the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1980s, In Praise of Hatred is a stirring, sensual story. Its elegant use of traditional, layered storytelling is a powerful echo of the modern-day tragedy that is now taking place in the Middle East.
Let’s get one thing out of the way before we begin: The Murder of Halland is a Scandinavian crime novel. It’s set in Denmark, the titular Halland is shot at the beginning, and the rest of the book is structured around the police’s attempts to find out who dunnit. These facts, however, are the least interesting things about it: if anything, Pia Juul’s cool, oblique, unsettling novel invokes membership of a genre only to flagrantly disregard its requirements.
In post-Napoleonic Germany, a traveller on his way to Dessau stops off for a night in the mysterious city of Wandernburg. He intends to move on the following day, but the town begins to ensnare him with its strange, shifting geography. After befriending an old organ grinder and falling for the daughter of a local merchant, he soon finds it impossible to leave. A novel of philosophy and love, politics and waltzes, history and the here-and-now, Traveller of the Century is a journey into the soul of Europe, penned by one of the most exciting South-American writers of our time.
Trieste opens with an old woman, Haya Tedeschi, sitting alone in Northern Italy awaiting the retiurn of her son after sixty-two years. Gradually, the reasons for his absence become clear: fathered by an SS officer, he was abducted by the Nazis as part of their Lebensborn programme for “racially pure” Europe, and never made it home again. The ensuing narrative largely takes place within the multiplying refractions of Haya’s kaleidoscopic memory – stories of loss, resistance and atrocity that speak in a clamour of competing voices. The past, quite literally, refuses to lie quiet, and as much as anything else this is a novel about remembrance and its discontents.