In this new bimonthly series, “Best of the B-Sides,” critic and bookseller Lori Feathers recommends a new work in translation along with a number of backlist (“B-Side”) titles that you might have missed. The books selected might explore a similar theme, or include various titles from an author’s body of work. With this series we hope to draw readers to timeless works in translation. In her first installment, Lori looks at five books that take on identity.
Death. Love. Identity. These are the thematic cornerstones of literature. I’ve been reflecting on the last, identity, after reading Woman of the Ashes (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018), the most recent of Mozambican author Mia Couto’s novels to be translated into English and the first in a trilogy by Couto on the Portuguese occupation of Mozambique. Woman of the Ashes is a fictionalized account of the Portuguese struggle for conquest of the State of Gaza, a vast territory that encompassed the southern half of Mozambique and was ruled by the African emperor Ngungunyane. The Portuguese eventually overthrew Ngungunyane in 1895.
Couto alternates his narrative between two protagonists: Imani, a fifteen-year-old girl who is a part of the VaChopi tribe, and Germano, an officer exiled to a Portuguese garrison on the Gaza frontier as punishment for participating in a plan to murder the Portuguese king. Both Imani and Germano experience crises of identity. Imani, in VaChopi, means “Who’s there?” With this enigmatic name, Imani is fated to possess a conflicted sense of self. These feelings are compounded by the tribe’s hostility toward her family for its association with the Portuguese, ties that afford Imani a Catholic education and fluent Portuguese. Mistrustful of the Lisbon government and its feckless protection of her village and acutely sensing the differences between herself and her neighbors, Imani is like the bat in the old folktale: rejected by the mice because of its wings and by the birds because of its teeth and hair, the bat dies alone because it “aspired to belong to more than one world.”
For Sergeant Germano confidence in self and mission swiftly disintegrate under the pressure of his strange, new surroundings and isolation. The only Portuguese stationed in the remote outpost, he is lonely and increasingly unsure of himself. The ghosts of his past and guilt about his impotence to protect the VaChopi are revealed in letters to his military superiors that are more personal confessions than official reports. Germano feels that God has abandoned him, and his faith is shattered. Out of self-pity and disillusionment, he turns to Imani for sex and emotional solace. Echoes of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness reverberate in Germano’s lonely desperation and his stumble into madness. Couto’s exploration of Imani’s and Germano’s struggle for belonging and identity is compelling.
Published in 1996 and in English translation by Sverre Lyngstad in 2006, Norwegian author Dag Solstad’s slim novel, Shyness and Dignity (Harvill Secker), looks at identity from a very different perspective. The story opens with Elias Rukla, a proud, staid, fiftyish senior master at an Oslo high school fleeing work after he has a violent outburst against a student. As Elias angrily walks the Oslo streets, he considers the ramifications of his act on his livelihood and on Eva, his wife. He reflects as well on his pivotal relationship with Johan, his best friend and confident from college who was also Eva’s first husband. Johan was Elias’s social and intellectual role model, and Elias lived in his shadow. When Johan abruptly moved to the US, abandoning not only Elias but also his wife and daughter, Elias stepped in, marrying Eva and becoming father to Johan’s child. Shyness and Dignity is the close study of a man who allows his identity to be eviscerated by another without whom his life has little meaning. Minus Johan, Elias feels irrelevant, disconnected from his students and colleagues and alienated from society—feelings that ultimately cause him to act out, unraveling his fragile existence.
Thanks to Two Lines Press and the talented translator Isabel Fargo Cole, the English-speaking world now has access to the novels of East German author Wolfgang Hilbig, who died in 2007. Originally published in German in 2002 and in English translation in 2015, The Sleep of the Righteous is a lyrical work of autobiographical fiction, a mix of the childhood memories and adult musings of a post-Soviet man—a representative of the millions of citizens of the former Soviet bloc whose identity and self-worth are tied to a world that abruptly disappeared. The exigencies of life in Germany after unification create a sense of alienation for the narrator. His wife accuses him of being unable to live independently or take initiative. To her, his passivity is repugnant and incongruous with their new freedoms and capitalism. But he will not and cannot adapt. With Hilbig’s incomparably fine powers of description, the narrator recalls his work as a stoker in a boiler house during his youth, an occupation in which he was needed, where he belonged because his labor was integral to the factory’s operation. But now he feels outside the system, his life and attitudes superfluous to the engine that is propelling society on its new course. Here we find a crisis of identity that is not rooted in the protagonist’s struggle to find himself but rather in his inability to adapt to a new context, to change the way that he sees his value in a transformed society.
Jakob Wasserman’s 1934 compelling, autobiographical novel My Marriage (New York Review Books), published in Michael Hofmann’s 2016 English translation, places us inside the mind of a novelist named Alexander Herzog, a husband living through a painful, troubled marriage. Not long after Alexander first meets the much younger, ungainly, and temperamental Ganna, he finds himself betrothed to her. The efficiency with which Ganna captures the reluctant Alexander is an early sign of her ability to manipulate him, a skill against which Alexander’s accommodating passivity will be no match. Alexander soon realizes that his feelings toward his new wife are not what they should be. He has no romantic feeling for Ganna but revels in her steadfast and fawning admiration of him and his talents as a writer. Later Alexander falls in love with Bettina, a woman who shares his artistic sensibilities and, most importantly, carries a rational calmness about her that is an antidote to Ganna’s wild, angry tantrums. Although Bettina is his emotional refuge, Alexander is incapable of ending his dependency on Ganna. He needs her constant validation that he is a worthy person, that writing is an honorable profession, and that he is a good provider for his family. Ganna is the only one who can affirm the identity that he needs the world to see.
And finally, a personal favorite that probes issues of identity is the classic novel Silence by Shūsaku Endō, published in Japanese, and in English translation by William Johnston, in 1969. The novel was reprinted in 2016 by Picador Classics in advance of the Martin Scorsese film of the same name. Silence is set in seventeenth-century Japan where a jailed Portuguese priest, Father Rodrigues, must decide whether he will comply with his jailers’ demand that he defame an image of Christ. If he refuses to do so, he will, in effect, be complicit in the continued torture and death of Japanese peasants who have been imprisoned for converting to Christianity. Endō’s novel is an introspective look at the clergyman’s painful decision to abandon his role as a priest for the chance to save his life and the lives of Japanese converts whose suffering is a consequence of his church’s ambition. Father Rodrigues embodies the hubris of upholding a fixed identity no matter the cost, and in his prideful self-blindness the lives of those meant to be saved by his Christian charity are nearly lost.