From a Dutch bestseller about childhood loss to a passionate lesbian romance in France, a refugee’s journey from Iraq and the dark side of Sweden … six novelists telling fresh stories about Europe
Only their hands betray their other life as a one-day-a-week dairy farmer, with scrubbed nails that are bitten to the quick. “Farming keeps me grounded. The cows are my best friends; I like cleaning out the stables and shovelling the shit.”
This unglamorous side of farming slops through both the novel and the poems. Jas’s mother doses her children with worm medicine and slathers them with udder ointment to protect against the cold. One of the poems in Calf’s Caul is titled “Lice Mothers”. “People from the city get scared of these things that villagers think of as normal.” For example? “For example, torturing frogs – it’s not very nice but it happens and children will experiment with it.”
Despite being published three years apart, the novel and poetry collection began in tandem, even sharing some lines. “The challenge was how to write them when I didn’t have many memories of my brother’s death. So I started with Matthies, and only during the writing arrived at the shape the novel has now. I saw Calf’s Caul as preparation for writing The Discomfort of Evening.”
The collection, which has yet to be published in English, is full of the anxieties that Rijneveld’s chosen identity has created in a family who are god-fearing members of the Reformed church. “Papa has been searching for a daughter for years,” reads one poem. “It’s difficult for my parents to understand that I’m not the girl that they raised,” Rijneveld says. “It’s not in the Bible.”
Whether the papa of the poems is any more Rijneveld’s own father than Jas’s papa in the novel is left open by a writer who admits that they regard their public identity as a performance, to be donned along with the braces. “Writing is playing with who you are. Being an author makes me feel more confident.”
Rijneveld was born on 20 April 1991 on a farm in the north Brabant, a province in the south of the Netherlands. The date is significant, they disarmingly disclose, because it means they share a birthday with Adolf Hitler. “As a child I thought it was a funny idea to be born on the same day as such a monstrous man, but it made me wonder if I was a good or a bad person.” In the novel, Jas builds a fantasy about a Jewish family her mother has hidden away in the basement. She acts out her social alienation by making a Nazi salute at school and cracking a joke which was judged too offensive for the English edition of the novel.
It’s part of a strand of black humour that is as dangerous in its way as the children’s games (one gruesome scene involves a dummy cow and an insemination gun). Asked why the novel pushes so hard at boundaries of what is acceptable, the author shrugs: “It is related by a child and children are naive. They say these things. They don’t know any better, so they can get away with an innocent joke.”
At nine years old, Rijneveld says, “I had a very strong belief in God and was convinced he was living in the attic.” The novel is full of glimpses into what it was like growing up in a strict religious household. Jas’s father restricts their TV channels for fear of nudity, which he pronounces “as if a fruit fly had just flown into his mouth – he spat as he said it”; her mother daringly watches a quiz show involving words that are not in the Bible. “She called them ‘blush words’ because some of them made your cheeks turn red.” When her children try out these words, she attempts “to wash them out of our mouths with a bar of green soap, like the grease stains from our good school clothes”.
Of their own experience Rijneveld simply says: “Behind the book is such a strong force. After leaving school I didn’t know what to do. I started living in a room in a new city and I just knew I had to write it. In daily life it’s hard to be as strong as I am behind my laptop.” They now live in Utrecht, and work on a farm that is not their parents’.
There are only two responses to the death of a child, Rijneveld says: either it draws a family closer or rips them apart. So what happened in their own family? “I have to think about the answer to that … ” Rijneveld says solemnly. “No, it hasn’t torn us apart, but all the relationships changed.” One brother and sister are now teachers, and a second brother is in the police. None of them has read the novel. “I hope that my parents will read it one day and be proud; that they will understand it’s a novel, it’s not all about them. But it is probably too soon.”
Meanwhile Rijneveld’s writing has gained them a new cultural family, which stretches beyond the Netherlands to Italy and Germany. Calf’s Caul has gone through 11 editions to date in Dutch while The Discomfort of Evening has sold 55,000 copies in the Netherlands; it will be published in French in April and is currently being translated into Spanish, Korean, Chinese and Arabic. A second poetry collection is already out, and Rijneveld is working on a second novel. All of which bears out their fervent belief that “there’s always light in darkness, just as there’s always humour in gruesomeness. It’s just the way things work. There must always be something to laugh about.”
• Marieke Lucas Rijneveld’s The Discomfort of Evening, translated by Michelle Hutchison, is published by Faber in the UK and out now.
Andrzej Tichý, Sweden: ‘From the outside, Sweden was this paradise. But it was never actually true’
As a young man travelling around Europe in the late 1990s, the Malmö-based writer Andrzej Tichý remembers telling friends about the conditions endured by marginalised groups in Sweden. “And they just would not believe me,” he recalls. “From the outside Sweden was this harmonious, social democratic paradise and people preferred to believe the folk hymn that here was a society that looked after everyone. But it was never actually true.” He cites historic state-sanctioned forced sterilisations of those deemed to be mentally or physically impaired, and discrimination against Jews, Roma and indigenous peoples. “And there has always been the day-to-day treatment of the poor and of immigrants, let alone the junkies and criminals,” he adds. “Of course there were places in the world that were worse, but Sweden was never perfect.”
The poor and the immigrants, the junkies and the criminals, loom large in Tichý’s prize-winning novel Wretchedness (Eländet, translated by Nichola Smalley) which will be published in the UK in June by And Other Stories. It is his fifth novel, but the first to appear in English, and opens with a cellist on his way to a classical concert being asked for money by a drug addict on the street. The encounter summons a swirling sequence of flashbacks from the cellist’s own chaotic past. Graphic depictions of crime, racism, poverty, drug use and violence are rendered through paragraph-free slabs of text that propulsively veer between voices and minds, times and locations: “Suddenly my mouth is full of it again,” the musician declares, “of names and places, of events and movements, of memories and images.” The inescapable realisation is how easy it would have been for him to have become that junkie.
Tichý was born in Prague in 1978 to a Czech father and Polish mother. His family moved to Sweden when he was three, and he was brought up on a Malmö housing estate with a large migrant population not unlike the one featured in Wretchedness. “I’m not interested in autobiography or autofiction, but I know there are always borderline areas between the writer and the subject and I am not a stranger to many of the things in the novel. Much comes from personal experience, although sometimes indirectly.”
As well as the Swedish estates, the novel draws on Tichý’s experiences of living in Hamburg and London to paint a picture of a pan-European community of the excluded passing through squats, underground clubs, petty scams and cash-only employment.
This internationalism is also reflected in the language he deploys. “A lot of it is written in a sort of slang encompassing many different languages. Some words have long been incorporated into standard Swedish, from Roma for example. But now there are also a lot of Arab words, Serbo-Croat, Polish, Spanish, Albanian. It’s all mixed together, but interestingly while one sentence can contain several different languages, people will know what you mean.”
These lives not only deserve to be chronicled, they also deserve to be elevated
Tichý’s early creative life centered on music – playing guitar in the hardcore scene rather than classical cello – which led to him starting up fanzines for which he first wrote poetry and then prose. There is a sense of musicality inherent in the dense text of Wretchedness, as episodes from the composer’s past repeatedly return, with references ranging from Snoop Doggand Mobb Deep’s hip-hop to the concert hall avant garde of Julius Eastman and Italian composer Giacinto Scelsi’s atonal drones. (There is a coolly eclectic Spotify playlist that accompanies the book).
Literary and philosophical influences include Simone Weil and Thomas Bernhard, and Tichý admits that his is a potentially demanding kind of literature. “I sometimes go out and talk to young people on the estates, people not really interested in books, and some of them find it hard. But they are interested in the themes, which is partly why rap lyrics have always been a huge influence on me. They can be complex and sophisticated yet can describe street stuff in a wonderfully direct and concise manner and so make art out of what is thought of as low life.
“That is partly my project too. I’ve always wanted to depict lives and environments under-explored by literature. These lives not only deserve to be chronicled, they deserve to be elevated.” Nicholas Wroe
• Andrzej Tichy’s Wretchedness, translated by Nichola Smalley, will be published by And Other Stories in the UK in June.
Naoise Dolan, Ireland: ‘There are plenty of novels about straight people already’
It is no longer the curse of the Irish author to be compared to James Joyce: these days, if they happen to be sharp, socially conscious and writing about twentysomethings living now, they will be announced as the new Sally Rooney, and also as some kind of child prodigy, even when they are well into their 20s. Naoise Dolan, 27, finds this all hilarious. “In any other career, it is completely normal to get going in your 20s – we’ve just normalised the desperate state of affairs around writing,” she says. “And the idea that young women couldn’t ever have had an emotional or interesting life, or that it’s somehow cringeworthy to capture the present moment – both are ridiculous to me.”
Despite the inevitable comparisons, Dolan’s debut, Exciting Times, published in April by Weidenfeld, is more caustic and cynical than Rooney’s writing, if just as clever. It follows Ava, a 22-year-old who had “been sad in Dublin, decided it was Dublin’s fault and thought Hong Kong would help”. There she meets 29-year-old banker Julian, an only child who went to Eton. (“These were the two least surprising facts anyone had ever told me about themselves,” Ava notes.) Their relationship is sexual, if carefully ambiguous, and is built mostly on their mutual enjoyment of acidic banter over any deeply-felt romance. Ava admires Julian’s cushions and willingness to give her his credit cards; his highest praise for her is that she is “good company”: “Really it was amusing that we were having sex,” Ava muses. “He was attractive and confident, whereas I was willing to centre my emotional life around someone who treated me like a favoured armrest.” When Julian temporarily moves away, Ava meets Edith, a young and wealthy Hong Kong lawyer. It is here that Dolan’s novel feels most contemporaneous; all the fretting over love and class could be compared to Austen or Wharton, but her light treatment of bisexuality and polyamory is utterly 2020. Ava, Julian and Edith are never really a love triangle but a hinge, with Ava in the middle of two people who benignly tolerate each other. The only drama in their arrangement lies in the choice Ava feels she must make, despite Julian’s indifference and Edith saying things like: “I have many opinions about the nexus between monogamy and patriarchy, opinions which are available on request should they interest you.”
I think it is more interesting to write about relationships without the assumption that it has to be a monogamous one
Dolan is less interested in sexuality than in relationships: “Sexuality only affects the ability to be attracted to someone – how that manifests is more about who that person is. As a queer person, I have no understanding how it might feel different to experience heterosexual attraction, though I’m quite interested in that. But there are plenty of novels about straight people already. And I think it is more interesting to write about relationships without the assumption that it has to be a monogamous one.” She suspects older readers will be baffled by the dynamic. “There is this expectation that you should write to people who are powerful in ways that you’re not, to explain to them why you’re different. I think it’s better to just throw it out there and if they don’t like it, fine. For people my age, the most important question is: are you treating your partners well or poorly?” When in conversation with older writers, she says, “I sometimes feel like I’m trying to prove that it’s OK to write stories about people who aren’t them. It’s not a gendered thing, there is a class element too. A lot of things that we call ‘the millennial experience’ were always part of a universal experience for some social groups – middle-class people are just upset that those things are happening to them now.”
Dolan grew up in Dublin, studied English at Trinity College and was published in Stinging Fly magazine – by Rooney, who was editor until 2019. (This makes Dolan “such an Irish cliche”, she says.) She was always interested in literature, but never had any aspirations to write – “firstly because it’s not financially possible for most people, and secondly, I don’t stake a significant amount of my self-image in how I relate to the modes of production. It was a hobby, not a career goal. I have a limited amount of patience for the writer-as-personality thing – it is a very mechanical and somewhat distant thing for me. I just make things up. I don’t relate to accounts that people give of being struck by ideas or their characters taking over. Writing was always just kind of something that I plugged away at.”
Dolan, who is autistic, “doesn’t like talking to people”, so to get away from colleagues and students at her teaching job, she spent five months hiding in coffeeshops on her lunch breaks. “I find it easier to relate to people by thinking about why they are the way they are. I aim to observe people rather than empathise with them,” she says. And her observations are brilliant, often simultaneously comic and bleak. “Julian often reminded me to eat. It made him feel better about liking that I was thin,” Ava notes. Or, at a party: “Ralph’s girlfriend Victoria was good at wearing clothes. She was so beautiful I couldn’t see why she was talking to me. Sometimes her eyes said: I don’t know why, either.”
With the emergence of Rooney, Eimear McBride, Lisa McInerney, Nicole Flattery and others, Ireland has been held up for its almost mythic ability to cultivate brilliant women writers – but Dolan puts this down to Ireland being a more egalitarian playing field than the UK. “Ireland isn’t perfect, but we still have relatively good support for the arts so literary writing doesn’t have as much of a bourgeois connotation as it does in the UK. We have a better range of writers here. UK journalists always ask the oddest questions, like, ‘have you had a job before?’ I’m a normal person – yes I have.”
Dolan stopped travelling by plane in September, after the fires in the Amazon moved her to reconsider her impact on the environment. “It might hold me back from promoting the book, but to be pumping all that CO2 into the air to push a novel just seems like such a ridiculous thing. If my novel doesn’t get promoted, someone else’s will. The literary world will be much unaffected.” Her decision, she thinks, comes back to her feelings about being a novelist. “I don’t think that I’m a special person who has an innate entitlement to exist writing novels while demanding other people do less pleasant things with their time. I’m lucky to, but there are a lot of things that I’m not willing to do to keep that situation going. Flying is just one of them.” Sian Cain
• Naoise Dolan’s Exciting Times is published by Orion in the UK in April.
Hassan Blasim, Finland: ‘As a refugee you are always between two fires: your first home and your new one’
“The thing I write best,” Hassan Blasim says, “is violence.” His acclaimed short-story collections, The Madman of Freedom Square and The Iraqi Christ, are fervent, unblinking depictions of post-invasion Iraq, the country of his birth, though their violence is focused through the lenses of surrealism, humour and poignancy. The former was longlisted for the Independent foreign fiction prize in 2010, and the latter won it in 2014, becoming the first title translated from Arabic to do so.
In 2000, Blasim left Iraq, where he had been persecuted for his film-making and where his writing is still banned. He spent four years walking illegally across Europe, eventually settling in Finland. His debut novel, God 99(translated by Jonathan Wright and published in July by Comma), draws on his experience: its protagonist (called Hassan) is an Iraqi refugee attempting to establish himself as a writer in Finland. But he stresses that “the book puts reality and fiction in dialogue. Autobiography is a fiction – we lie about things; we misremember and misrepresent. So too fiction has truths. Luckily, I’m not famous enough for people to know my life, so I can still play with it.”
God 99, he says, is “born of dialogue – always in conversation are death and life, war and peace”. In the novel, Hassan traverses Europe and interviews 99 refugees, examining the effect of war on their lives, and their impact on the countries they make home.
Blasim is ambivalent about the label “European writer” – more ambivalent than he is about “debut novelist”, which he flatly rejects (“I just write. This shift to long-form is not important”). In his mind, his identity is simply “writer”. “In England,” he says, “and other parts of western and southern Europe, you have a history with immigrants. In Finland, it’s relatively new, and while some people embrace me as a Finnish writer, others resist.” Because he writes in Arabic, he is ineligible for Finnish literary prizes, and cannot join the Union of Writers.
This context, combined with censorship of his work in the Middle East, means translation into English has been vital. But although Blasim attributes his success to translation, he stresses that it was never something he sought: “When I came to Europe, I didn’t know where to go. I had this romantic idea of reaching France, because of the literature. But you just go wherever you can. How can you think about the future, when life is like this? How can you think about succeeding as a writer? About reaching English-language readers?”
Translating Blasim’s work – which is as experimental linguistically as it is formally – is no light task. The Arabic of God 99 is what Blasim calls “street Arabic”, and it’s another reason he’s reviled by some in Iraq: “They call me a ‘dirty writer’ – they say that I do not respect the language. Nobody can touch classical Arabic because it is a holy language. But nobody uses holy language on the street. And when I dream it is not in classical Arabic.”
Does he still feel at risk? “Of course,” he says. He has returned to Iraq only once, secretly, and does not believe he will again. But his new home in Finland is not one of undiluted Scandinavian peace; he is working on a project about the Finnish far right, and confides that he fears for his safety if he publishes it. “Maybe I’ll meet you in England, a refugee again,” he says. “As a refugee, you are always between two fires. Your first home, and your new one.” Will Forrester
• Hassan Blasim’s God 99, translated by Jonathan Wright, will be published by Comma Press in July.
Narine Abgaryan, Russia: ‘Humanity is in dire need of hope, of kind stories’
A Russian writer of Armenian origin, Narine Abgaryan is already renowned as a children’s author and blogger in Russia. Her novel Three Apples Fell from the Sky has sold more than 160,000 copies since it was first published in 2015 and won Russia’s most prestigious literary award, the Yasnaya Polyana prize (founded by the Tolstoy estate). A magical realist story of friendship and feuds, published in English this month by Oneworld, the book is set in the remote Armenian mountain village of Maran, where the villagers pick mulberries and make baklava. An ancient telegraph wire and a perilous mountain path that even goats struggle to follow is their only connection to the outside world. Abgaryan cites One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez, set in the isolated fictional village of Macondo, as her favourite book. But she was haunted by the ending of Márquez’s multi-generational saga of the Buendía family, as all traces of Macondo’s existence are wiped away. In Three Apples Fell from the Sky (translated by Lisa C Hayden), she resolved to write a fable that did exactly the opposite. “I wanted to write a story that ends on a note of hope,” she says. “Humanity is in dire need of hope, of kind stories.”
“We live such fast-paced lives, barely managing to speak to one another, to ask how things are going,” she says. “The thing that bothers me is how young people are leaving their elders behind.” Abgaryan, who now lives in Moscow, points to how the villagers in her novel spend their days “cultivating wine that nobody wants or needs”. “Globalisation has benefits, of course, but also negative side-effects, when national customs, the things which define people, are taken away.”
Her work has already been translated into 12 languages, and with English being the 13th, she now calls this her lucky number. “When you’re published in English there’s a greater chance that your work will resonate more widely,” she says. “When your work is translated, you start to work with greater joy and hope. You start to believe in yourself more.” Jade Cuttle
• Narine Abgaryan’s Three Apples Fell from the Sky, translated by Lisa C Hayden, is published by Oneworld and is out now.
Pauline Delabroy-Allard, France: ‘I’m not bothered if people think the book is about me – but it isn’t’
Pauline Delabroy-Allard’s first novel took the French literary world by surprise. She wrote it to get the story out of her head and then stuck it in a drawer. “I didn’t expect anyone would want to publish it.” A few months later, with her 30th birthday approaching, she decided she had nothing to lose by posting the manuscript to a few French publishers. “I told myself I would get a load of rejection letters and then I could stop dreaming and get on with my life.” When publishers began calling the following week, “I thought someone was playing a joke”. Delabroy-Allard eventually chose Les Éditions de Minuit, whose catalogue includes the writers she most admires, including Marguerite Duras. “I signed the contract on my 30th birthday. That was a real party.”
Ça raconte Sarah (All About Sarah) won a literary award even before it was published in 2018 to almost unanimous praise. The book was shortlisted for a the Prix Goncourt, the most prestigious literary award in France. Translated into English by Adriana Hunter and published this month by Harvill Secker, it is a story of desire and desolation. Its narrator is a bored secondary school teacher and single mother in Paris whose comfortable but humdrum life is upended when she falls in love with Sarah, a professional musician, who is loud and impetuous.
The narrator and Sarah embark on an all-consuming, passionate relationship. The first part of the novel concludes when they separate and Sarah reveals she has breast cancer. In the second part, the narrator flees Sarah’s apartment, telling nobody and leaving her child behind. It is unclear whether Sarah has died or dumped the unnamed narrator, who descends into despair.
Like the book’s narrator, Delabroy-Allard is a teacher, has a daughter and is in a relationship with a professional violinist called Sarah. But that is where the similarities end, she insists. “I’m not bothered if people think it’s me, but it isn’t. I find it difficult to invent things from nothing, so I use reality as a base. Once I have that base I can create the rest.”
She says she left Paris to live in isolation in the countryside to complete the second part of the novel. “It was very hard being in her head – almost physically painful. I was happy to finish it.” She is now working on a second novel that she is racing to complete before she and her pregnant partner have a baby in July. The 31-year-old says she wanted to write about a passionate relationship between two women because there are so few “lesbian novels”. “But really this is a portrait of one woman, because everything we know of Sarah is through the narrator and in the second part there is no Sarah.”
The novel ends leaving readers in limbo. “Several editors wanted me to rewrite it, but I didn’t want to change it. Everyone is free to imagine their own ending.” Kim Willsher
• Pauline Delabroy-Allard’s All About Sarah, translated by Adriana Hunter, is published by Harvill Secker on 12 March.
• This article was amended on 7 March 2020. The catalogue of publishers Les Éditions de Minuit does not include the works of writer Annie Ernaux, as an earlier version said.