This has been one of those truly wonderful reading weeks, when a whole host of wonderful books fall into your lap at once. Here are three glorious European novels that celebrate the best of the continent’s whimsy, darkness and exuberance (just don’t mention the B-word!).
‘Tyll’, by the acclaimed German-Austrian author Daniel Kehlmann (translated from German by Ross Benjamin), may well be the best book I’ve read so far this year. Part historical fiction, part folklore, it is a glorious, dark and savagely funny romp around Europe during the 30 Years’ War. The story revolves around Tyll Ulenspiegel, an infamous character from German folklore. Jester, entertainer, thief – this is Tyll’s life, from his formative youth, where he is exposed to magic in the woods and his father’s prosecution for witchcraft, to his part in the great war that follows. Written in lyrical prose by a master storyteller, this is historical fiction as you’ve never read before.
In Snow, Dog, Foot by Claudio Morandini (translated from Italian by J Ockenden), we follow Adelmo, an old hermit living above a tiny village in the Italian alps. Adelmo spends his summers in his high cabin at the top of the mountain, throwing rocks at hikers who threaten his peace and solitude. His winters he spends in his lower cabin, buried for months under the snow with his meagre provisions. But this year a stray dog has followed him home and Adelmo has let him in. As winter bites – and supplies for two mouths begin to run out – the dog asks Adelmo a question… And Adelmo simply replies. This sets off a season of discussions, jokes and jibes between this odd couple, both of whom are aging fast and losing their memories. When the weather begins to warm, the pair throw open the door to find a foot sticking out of the snow. The only problem is, they can’t remember if it has anything to do with them. Riotously funny, sad and touching in equal measure, this is a real antidote to the current craziness of the modern world.
Lastly, ‘Real Life’ by Adeline Dieudonne (translated from French by Roland Glasser). This is a stark and disturbing slice of contemporary Belgian literature. Our unnamed narrator is a 10-year-old girl who shares her home with her parents, her younger brother Sam and a large selection of taxidermy; the spare room is filled with her father’s big-game trophies and guns. After the children witness a shocking accident, Sam is rendered mute, conversing only with a stuffed hyena and shutting out his sister completely. It is left to our narrator to find the cure, whether that be from science, witchcraft or by studying her beloved Back To The Future films. A dark, troubling novel where the brutality of the adult world clashes suddenly and violently with the fairytale-innocence of a child.