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Viva Europa: a vox-pop on European reads

Thursday 4th Aug 2016

Jess Johannesson

Viva Europa: a vox-pop on European reads

The weekend after the Brexit vote we decided to create a podcast celebrating European fiction. We felt that the best way to move forward in uncertain times, was to embrace the cross-cultural creativity which underpins so much of the writing we love and champion in the shop. We also knew that many of the customers who come in have a catalogue of books they’ve read and cherished throughout their lives, which they might never have come across if it wasn’t for translators, investment in foreign writing, and collaborations between publishers in the UK and elsewhere. It was fascinating to see the responses coming in, and also to discuss our favourite European book choices with each other.


You can listen to the podcast episode here.


Below are some of the responses we received. We hope you will be inspired to read some of them!


‘Thinner than a Hair’ by Adnam Mahmutovic

Cinnamon Press

I had a friend, a Croatian poet who came to Birmingham as a refugee so I had an interest in that war and his need to flee.  The novel is written in the form of a diary- a bit like Anne Frank. Fatima is a young Bosnian Muslim in love with Azim when the country is invaded by the Serbs. The Bosnians are afraid and refugees appear in their village.


This is one description: Spring to Autumn 1992


“Their cheeks were simmering in the unusual autumn heat. Their hair was dust-white, grizzled by the days and nights spent in the open. Their cardboard faces were stiff and stony. Their stuff was on tractors, carts, donkeys and on their own backs. They weren’t thin or emaciated, like walking skeletons, for they were just at the beginning of their careers as refugees. Nonetheless, they didn’t look like sensible creatures. Even the young looked as empty as cartridges. My thoughts were coiling and uncoiling like thin green snakes, gliding around, trying to bite their own tails.

The refugees marched into my town as if there were no dead-ends or cut-de-sacs, as if they’d never stop, unless we pulled them off the road and embraced them. They looked damned to always search for the true meaning of a hearth, of home, even when huddled in warm rooms. But there was something else in their new way of being that I liked, the inescapable closeness of the next man. They were forced to rely upon one another, and keep one another warm. “


By Marg Roberts



‘Ronia the Robber’s Daughter’ by Astrid Lindgren

1985 ed. Translated by Patricia Crampton, Puffin Books


One European book that I really love is Ronia the Robber's Daughter, by the Swedish author Astrid Lindgren. Lindgren is best known in the UK for her anarchic Uebermensch Pippi Longstocking, but much as I love her red-haired heroine, Ronia has a place in my heart which no one can replace. The tale follows Ronia and Birk - two children growing up in rival robber clans who forge an unexpected friendship - but it's about so much more; about finding joy in the world around us, and taking care of that world; about deciding the kind of person we want to be and the burden that decision can place on our relationships with loved ones. There are also harpies, trolls and gnomes, re-imagined to be eerie and laugh out loud funny in turn. It is the kind of story that meets you, and stays with you, that reminds you of the slightly different, nicer, more adventurous 'you' you could be. The moment at which I fell headlong in love with the book was perhaps this quote, fairly nearly the beginning, describing the first time Ronia leaves her father's castle and sees the outside world:

"Of course, she had heard Matt and Lovis talking about things beyond Matt's Fort; they had talked of the river. But it was not until she could see how it came rushing in wild rapids from deep under Matt's Mountain that she understood what rivers were. They had talked about the forest. But it was not until she saw it, so dark and mysterious, with all its rustling trees,  that she understood what forests were, and she laughed silently because rivers and forests were there."


By Annie Rutherford

‘Alone in Berlin’ by Hans Fallada
Translated by Michael Hoffman, Penguin


It is very hard to choose a favourite European novel.  There are many that are etched onto my soul.  A short list would include ‘The Leopard’  by Guiseppe Lampedusa, for its beautiful characterisation and humour.’ If on a Winter's Night a Traveller’, Italo Calvino, for its dizzying, experimental format. ‘Satantango’ by Laszlo Krasnahorkai for the feeling of being beaten up by reading a book.  However, you asked for one, which is ‘Alone in Berlin’ by Hans Fallada.

This is a book that my thoughts turn to often.  It is portrays the life of a couple, bereaved of their son, in Berlin during the war.  Life is atrocious and bleak.  Refusing to join the party, Otto is increasingly isolated.  He plans a campaign of resistance, writing postcards to leave around the city.  When this gentle act of subversion occurs, the novel transforms into a terrifying thriller.  I felt like I was being sucked into a vortex and struggled not to hold my breath as I read.

“Then he picked up the pen and said softly, but clearly, "The first sentence of our first card will read: Mother! The Führer has murdered my son."....At that instant she grasped that this very first sentence was Otto's absolute and irrevocable declaration of war, and also what that meant: war between, on the one side, the two of them, poor, small, insignificant workers who could be extinguished for just a word or two, and on the other, the Führer, the Party, the whole apparatus in all its power and glory, with three-fourths or even four-fifths of the German people behind it. And the two of them in this little room in Jablonski Strasse.” 


By Lucie Winter


'Her Father's Daughter' by Marie Sizun
Translated by Adriana Hunter, Peirene press


A book I have recently read and loved was This story is set in Paris at the close of the Second World War. It centres around a child named France, not yet old enough to attend school, who lives in a small apartment with her beautiful mother. It is told from the girl’s perspective but with the clarity of an adult’s mind. It is memory, those fragments of a life that stay with us when others are lost to the passing of time. 

France's father returns from the war and the little family must adapt. He is still suffering the effects of his incarceration, is appalled at France’s behaviour and the way his wife has kept house. France observes how her parents act when together and how her mother has been altered, shrunk. France desires nothing more now than to win her father’s affection for herself. The events related will change the child’s life forever, in ways that she could not then comprehend.

The writing is subtle and exquisite, a literary ballet offering a poignancy and depth beneath the delicacy of presentation.

My chosen quote is from early in the book, when the child is told her safe world with her adored mother, all that she has ever known, is to change.

"The child's real universe, her entire world and the only imaginable world, is her mother. Of her mother, the child knows everything - or believes she does. [...] Your father's coming home. Those words. Now out in the open. Like a threat. [...] What is a father? The notion of fatherhood is beyond the child. And how could it not be? Fathers, these days, are pretty thin on the ground."


By Jackie Law


‘Strumpet City’ by James Plunkett


Eileen Battersby, who is never wrong, calls it the Great Irish Novel. It is the story of the Dublin labour movement up to the 1913 Lockout, when the workers of Dublin and their families were starved by their bosses. The portrait of Dublin as a city has never been bettered, and probably only Joyce could touch it, and the characters, historical and fictional, are dear to the people of that city. From the RTE dramatization:


By Michael Carley


‘The Outsider’ by Albert Camus
1982 translation by Joseph Laredo, 2012 translation by Sandra Smith (Penguin)


I love this book because it's so simply written yet somehow manages to become incredibly beautiful. I admire the intellectual honesty of it, and the way it teaches us to live courageously, which is certainly something that I appreciate being reminded of at this current time.

I could go for the classic "Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday, I don't know.' But opening the book at random I came across the following lines, which the previous owner has helpfully underlined and then annotated as "the theme of the novel." I don't know about that, but this quote does seem quite relevant:


"They were all looking at me: I realized they were the jury. But I couldn't make any distinctions between them. I just had one impression: I was on a tram and all the anonymous passengers on the opposite seat were scrutinizing the new arrival to find his peculiarities. I know it was a silly idea since it wasn't peculiarities that they were looking for here, but criminality. There's not much difference though and anyway that was the idea that came to me."


By Adam ley-Lange


‘Momo’ by Michael Ende

UK edition translated by J. Maxwell Brownjohn, Puffin Books


I've read this numerous times in English and German and am looking forward to revisiting with my own children. A fable for all ages and a devastating look at our modern day attitudes to time, beautifully written with memorable characters.


By Melanie Tyrrell


‘A Whole Life’ by Robert Seethaler
Translated by Charlotte Collins


A Whole Life by Austrian writer Robert Seethaler is a slim novel with a beautifully designed cover that is a delight to hold in one's hands. Recommended by a book blogger, it became my perfect holiday reading in the Austrian Alps last year.  I love the calm atmosphere of this precisely written book with its evocative descriptions of the mountains. However, there are also incidents of gripping drama in the book and, as progress through the building of the cable cars impacts on his life, one builds up a clear picture of Andreas Egger as a person of few words but deep thoughts. In my view, this gentle book thoroughly deserved its place on this year's Man Booker International Prize shortlist.

"One clear autumn day, when a roll of sandpaper slipped out of his hand and sprang down the slope like an impetuous young goat before eventually sailing out over a spur of rock and vanishing in the depths, Egger paused for the first time in years and contemplated his surroundings. The sun was low, and even the distant mountaintops stood out so clearly that it was as if someone had just finished painting them onto the sky. Right beside him a lone sycamore burned yellow; a little further off some cows were grazing, casting long, slim shadows that kept pace with them step for step across the meadow."


By Mary Boardman


'The Reader on the 6.27' by Jean-Paul Didierlauent
Translated by Ros Schwartz, Pan Macmillan


I love this book because of the plot and the characters, and the writing. It all starts off with ordinary people leading ordinary lives, and helps remind me that even in an ordinary day, extraordinary things can happen. From the mysterious lavatory assistant, to the brilliant security guard who is obsessed with classical theatre. 'The day he had discovered the alexandrine, Yvon Grimbert had fallen head over heels in love. Faithfully serving the twelve-syllable line had become his sole mission on earth.’


I think this is my favourite quote:

""I need a goldfish," mumbled Guylain. Need - that was indeed the word. He was truly addicted to the golden creatures. Guylain could no longer cope without that silent, colourful presence gracing his bedside table. From experience, he knew that there was a vast difference between living alone and living alone with a goldfish.'


By Tamzin Anderson


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