Four Social Novels in Translation Consider the World’s Ills

Four Social Novels in Translation Consider the World’s Ills


By Carlos Manuel Álvarez

Translated by Frank Wynne
143 pp. Graywolf. Paper, $16.

“The Fallen” paints a drab picture of a family in Cuba. Armando, a Castro loyalist, has struggled to keep up all his life with the wiles of corrupt government officials. His wife, once a high school teacher, is now homebound, prone to regular epileptic seizures. Their daughter, María, works in a state-owned hotel where Armando has been appointed as manager. María has a younger brother, Diego, who is away finishing his mandatory military service.

The plot unfolds in brief bursts narrated by each family member. Armando fires an employee who has been siphoning off gas and stealing hotel supplies with María. Diego is disenchanted by the austerity of his childhood years, during the economic crisis of Cuba’s so-called Special Period: “I never had a birthday party. I never had a Nintendo.” At 23, María is the family’s breadwinner. Back at home, their mother is a target of abusive anonymous calls.

Álvarez plausibly conveys the younger generation’s tragedy: their narrowing array of choices in a failed state, their frustration with their parents’ idealism. But Armando and his wife seldom leap off the page as characters; their motives remain opaque, tendentious. The story doesn’t quite cohere, and the episodic form leaves multiple questions unanswered. Is the mother imagining things or not? Why does Armando end up in a police station? Wynne’s translation is often awkward. The parents’ soliloquies, in particular, frequently lapse into truisms. You almost end up believing that all unhappy families are alike.


By Adania Shibli

Translated by Elisabeth Jaquette
105 pp. New Directions. Paper, $15.95.

In 1949, a Palestinian girl is raped and murdered by Israeli soldiers near the border with Egypt. Years later, sometime in the present century, a woman from Ramallah crosses the border into Israel in a rented car.

What links these two stories? Borders, of course, but also some weird echoes. The woman from Ramallah, it turns out, has read about the 1949 episode and is haunted by the coincidence that the crime was committed exactly 25 years to the day before she was born. She sneaks into Israel to find out more, for there may be “nothing more important than this little detail, if one wants to arrive at the complete truth.”

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