New International Fiction, From Ecuador to Zimbabwe

JAWBONE
By Monica Ojeda
Translated by Sarah Booker
264 pages Coffee house. Paper, $16.95.

The four teenage girls — Ximena, Analía, Natalia and Fiorella — at the heart of Ojeda’s strange, twisted novel “Jawbone” seem to have everything going for them: They’re rich, pampered and enrolled at an exclusive girls’ school in Guayaquil, Ecuador. Then why are they so miserable and tortured, in thrall to their clique’s inseparable ringleaders, Annelise and Fernanda?

Meeting at an abandoned building after school, the girls one-up one another with dares: reading spooky “creepypasta” stories from the web, leaping down flights of stairs, mutilating themselves. It’s all part of Annelise’s morbid vision of her — or is it a religion or cult? — of life’s “cosmic horror,” its symbol “a jaw that chews up all fears.” But if they push one another to the edge, they torment their teacher even more. Miss Clara (“Latin Madame Bovary”) already happens to be on the verge of a nervous breakdown, ever since she was held hostage by two students several years earlier. To Miss Clara, the girls are out to “cannibalize her authority from her.” Their very presence of her is an assault on her senses of her, with their bodies that “smelled like sweat and menstruation.”

Ojeda, who was named one of Granta’s best young Spanish-language novelists, writes with a polyphonic verve, agilely translated by Booker. Her language of her, like adolescence itself, is unruly and excessive, full of dramatic shifts and capable of both beauty and horror. “Puberty makes us werewolves, or hyenas, or reptiles,” Annelise claims. Meanwhile, Fernanda divulges her darkest fears from her to her therapist: “Anne told me something once that really scares me because I think it’s true: One day, we’ll be like our mothers.”

WOMAN RUNNING IN THE MOUNTAINS
By Yuko Tsushima
Translated by Geraldine Harcourt
275 pages New York Review Books. Paper, $17.95.

Big changes are in store for Takiko Odaka, 21, who at the outset of “Woman Running in the Mountains” is on her way to a Tokyo hospital to give birth. The baby’s father is no longer in the picture and Takiko is determined to raise the child on her own. It’s a bold and defiant decision for someone who otherwise feels herself drifting through life. “She had no special hopes for her own future,” Tsushima states matter-of-factly. “She wanted to get away from her family from her. … The baby would at least give her an opportunity to leave home.”

Takiko has good reason to want to escape — her father is a physically abusive drunk; her mother de ella continually pushes her to have an abortion. Once the baby arrives, Takiko is consumed by the “moment-to-moment life” of her son de ella but also a vague sense of “weariness and disappointment in herself.” She takes to roaming the city with her infant de ella, aimlessly riding buses and daydreaming on park benches. She meets up with a casual lover; she yearns to “remember the softness of her own body de ella.”

Her son becomes a source of unfathomable joy despite remaining something of a mystery. When Takiko meets Kambayashi, a soft-spoken gardener, her complex range of emotions only intensifies, and the novel truly takes flight. Originally published in 1980 and subtly translated by Harcourt, the book captures the intimate transformations, physical and existential, of a solitary young mother. “She was being told something of her through her body of her,” Takiko thinks. “She wanted to listen.”

THE HISTORY OF MAN
By Siphiwe Gloria Ndlovu
301 pages Catalyst. Paper, $17.99.

Emil Coetzee is in his 50s and “still an enigma to himself” when war in a fictitious southern African country comes to an end in 1979. Coetzee — who first appeared in the Zimbabwean writer Ndlovu’s debut, “The Theory of Flight” — is a white man considered an “authority” on Africans. He’s the head of the Organization of Domestic Affairs, which to his dismay has become a key tool in the colonial government’s “bush war.” (To the African population, it is a “liberation struggle.”) But with Black majority rule imminent, “the winds of change had rendered men like him relics of a bygone era.”

How will history remember him, he wonders, as he looks back over his life, often in a sweeping, melodramatic way: his childhood spent in the beloved veld; his prestigious boarding school where “boys become the men of history”; his scandalous love affairs of him with wives of his closest friends of him. Throughout, he has been in search of a cause worthy of the “real men” who built empires, and yet “all his life he had seemed only to be able to grasp at the edges of things.”

At first, his role in Domestic Affairs fulfills a sense of mission. By keeping track of the details of African lives, he believes he is contributing to their own historical permanence. But as the fighting draws on, it’s impossible to ignore that he has blood on his hands and his life has been founded on lies. “For the first time,” Ndlovu writes, “Emil understood that there was an interiority to African life that, while not apparent to him, existed nonetheless.” How could one man know so little about himself — and even less of others?

THE WIND WHISTLING IN THE CRANES
By Lidia Jorge
Translated by Margaret Jull Costa
and Annie McDermott
511 pages Liveright. $30.

“The Wind Whistling in the Cranes,” by the Portuguese master Jorge (robustly translated by Jull Costa and McDermott), also takes a broad, encompassing view of the last century. Here, the action takes place on Portugal’s southern coast, where the Leandro family’s canning factory, founded in 1908, has been seen better times. But after the Carnation Revolution in 1974, which overthrew the country’s fascist regime and led to the independence of its African colonies, the Leandros realized the futility of “battling against the winds of History” and the factory was handed over to its workers.

But history works in strange ways: A decade later, the crumbling business is returned to the Leandros. By 1994, a family from Cape Verde, the Matas, is living there, enlisted to guard the complex. The intertwined story of the Leandros and Matas follows “its own zigzag course, preparing its surprise.” After the Leandro matriarch, Regina, is found dead outside the gates one August day, the simmering suspicions and resentments between the two families — and within each one — come to the fore.

The novel moves rhythmically, as if wavering under the blazing sun. Milene, Regina’s granddaughter, falls in love with Antonino Mata, who works in the town’s sky-high cranes. Rumor and hearsay spread like wildfire. Who are the witnesses? Whose story can be believed? This is a thrillingly immersive “parable about life, about the struggle between rich and poor, between one race and another.” Even the trees and surrounding landscape — “mute figures who, of course, had knowledge and memory” — have their point of view.

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