Five essential reads from a world of francophone literature

Aya Iskandarani reveals her favourite works of francophone fiction, all of which have been translated into English

Broken Glass by Alain Mabanckou. Courtesy Soft Skull Press
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When we think of French literature, an all-white panel of writers from Victor Hugo and Albert Camus to Michel Houellebecq come to mind. But in reality, the French language is far from being the property of the Hexagon. This is why I want to share with you my most cherished francophone works of fiction, which have been translated into the English language.

Allah is Not Obliged by Ahmadou Kourouma, Ivory Coast (2006) 

This novel is a first-person account of Birahima’s life as a child soldier in 1990’s West Africa. Its provocative title is an ominous mantra the narrator repeats throughout the book. Ahmadou Kourouma’s raw narrative offers a vivid yet oddly ingenious account of wartime violence, as seen through the eyes of a boy, the complicit victim of post-independence strife.

A House at the Edge of Tears by Venus Khoury-Ghata, Lebanon (2005) 

This beautifully written semi-autobiographical novel tells the tale of a Lebanese family’s disintegration, as the country spirals into civil war. When Mina’s sister dies of illness, her father – a former monk – is heartbroken and his grievance turns into senseless violence against his only son, a sensitive poet, who is blamed for the family’s hardships.

Vernon Subutex I, II, III by Virginie Despentes, France (2015) 

The eponymous punk rocker, DJ and homeless hero of this story was once the owner of Revolver, an alternative vinyl shop in the heart of Paris. By the 2000s, CDs, then the internet, killed the vinyl industry and Vernon slowly found himself slipping down the social ladder, until he was left begging on the streets of the French capital.

Vernon Subutex, 1 by Virginie Despentes. Courtesy Editions Grasset

Broken Glass by Alain Mabanckou, Republic of the Congo / France (2010) 

Broken Glass is about a disillusioned alcoholic with a gift for prose, who is writing the story of Credit Gone West, a rundown bar in a shabby Congolese town. The whole book is devoid of punctuation and capitalisation, giving readers the impression they are having a conversation with the main character, rather than reading his journal.

The Rock of Tanios (‘Le Rocher de Tanios’) by Amin Maalouf, Lebanon (1993) 

Maalouf is a storyteller with a keenness to rediscover the bygone times of the Levant, so if you are interested in history novels, he is a must-read. The Rock of Tanios tells the story of a young boy raised in the Lebanese mountains, who one day sat on a rock and disappeared. Villagers claim that his last dwelling place is still cursed to this day.