Archives » Translated fiction

The Use of Man by Aleksandar Tišma

faber and faber, 1990, 346 p. Translated from the Serbo-Croat Употреба човека (Upotreba čoveka) (Nolit Belgrade, 1980) by Bernard Johnson.

The Use of Man cover

At first this book appears to have an odd structure, starting as it does with a description of Fräulein Anna Drentvenšek’s diary, as if this is to be her tale, but she is soon dead following a gall-bladder operation. Then Chapter 2 is devoted solely to descriptions of various habitations. In addition there are later chapters which deal only with descriptions of characters, or their nightly preoccupations, or their deaths – whether natural or violent.

Fräulein Drentvenšek, however, was a teacher of German and her services were much sought after in the then Yugoslavian city of Novi Sad. In her final hospital days she entrusted her diary to her Jewish pupil Vera Kroner, with instructions to burn it after she died but instead Vera inscribed it with the details of Anna’s death before replacing it on Anna’s shelves. The book is thereafter mainly concerned with the lives of four of Anna’s pupils, Vera, Milinko Božić, Sredoje Lazukić and Sep Lehnart. As these events occurred in 1940 the book becomes an exploration of the Yugoslavian experience during the Second World War. There is obvious scope here for a novelistic focus on love, sex and death. The first of those is in short supply here (perhaps it’s a luxury in a time of war and the breaking of nations) but there is plenty of the latter. Whether due to the filter of translation or the author’s own intentions sex, though, is observed in a somewhat detached manner in the book – it’s something people do (or have done to them, in Vera’s case) but never described in any detail nor as a means to joy.

Being Jewish, Vera is of course predestined to the concentration camps, which she survives in the only way one could, by endurance and luck, Sep, her cousin on her non-Jewish mother’s side, joined the SS, Milinko became a partisan, Sredoje a sexual predator. All are changed, after the war unable to settle to a life at odds with dark memories and broken minds or bodies. The utter disorientation which camp survivors must have felt is summed up by Vera’s thought on returning to her childhood home after her experiences, “It was not home at which she arrived, though it was Novi Sad.” And the war’s end is not the story’s, the idiosyncrasies of the new communist regime also have to be negotiated.

The Use of Man is both easy to read (since Tišma writes well,) yet not an easy read. The countries of central Europe and the Balkans have unenviable histories. For readers to explore those histories in fiction might be one of the best ways to prevent their repeat.

Pedant’s corner:- “he like luxury” (liked.) “In their, furnished room” (no need for the comma,) “mount of Venus” (this may be a literal translation but in English it’s ‘mound of Venus’,) heavey (heavy, unless ‘heavey’ is a word meaning ‘having to be dragged’,) a missing comma before, or at the end of, a piece of direct speech (several instances, with more of the former,) teen-agers’ (teenager’s,) “came to nought” (naught,) cozy (cosy,) willd (wild,) “she lost her husband from a bullet” (the English idiom is ‘to a bullet’,) dumfounding (dumbfounding.)

The Story of a New Name by Elena Ferrante

Book Two, The Neapolitan Novels. Youth.

Europa Editions, 2015, 467 p. Translated from the Italian Storia del nuovo cognome (Edizioni E/O, 2012) by Ann Goldstein.

 The Story of a New Name cover

I was not overly impressed by Ferrante’s first novel of her Neapolitan Cycle, My Brilliant Friend, and wasn’t actively seeking out any more of them. I saw, though, the remainder of the quartet priced very reasonably in a second-hand book shop and felt I couldn’t pass them by. I’m now glad that I did, for this second instalment seemed to have much more to commend it than the first. There was certainly a better flow to the narrative.

This may be because this book didn’t have the almost relentless focus on courses taken and exams passed that the first had – those are still here but muted by the fact that narrator Elena Greco is by and large undertaking these herself and not contrasting her successes and failures so much with her comperes – or that her attention has shifted to gender relationships.

There is naturally more focus here on sexual politics than in a book about childhood friends. Her brilliant friend Lila’s marriage is blighted from the start by the conflict sown by that incident at the end of Book One of the trilogy where the shoes she designed were given on her wedding day by her husband-to-be to her sworn enemy. Lila is immediately subjected to that physical chastisement by her husband – prompted by the desire to be seen to be a man and followed by the phrase, “look what you’ve made me do ,” – to which women of her milieu seem to be resigned and turn a blind eye to in others. But dark glasses can only cover so much. Curiously, Elena’s first boyfriend, Antonio, despite his seeking (and selfishness for) his own sexual pleasure at her hands, behaves with sanctimonious (albeit in his case temporary) abnegation by denying her similar succour on the one occasion when she implicitly offers her body to him.

One aspect that seemed out of kilter, though, for all her academic excellence, was Elena’s apparent obliviousness to the wider world. She contrasts her lack of self-assurance, of knowing how to behave, the attitudes to have, in comparison to that of the scions of the middle class she meets in her high school and – later – University days. Her school professor more or less introduces her to newspapers – which Elana confesses to finding boring and confusing, under the influence of a University boyfriend she affects interest in left-wing politics but she never seems to connect them to her childhood neighbourhood. Poverty is something that simply exists, to be struggled against, naturally, but not considered systemic or alterable. Lila is of the opinion “that there was nothing that could eliminate the conflict between the rich and the poor,” because those at the bottom always want to be on top and those who are on top want to stay on top.

Nunzia, Lila’s mother, has one of the most striking lines in the book, ‘For your whole life you love people and you never really know who they are,” while Nella, the mother of the object of Elena’s unrequited affections, Nino Sarratore, in relation to Lila’s attractions tells Elena of men’s great fear in the face of female beauty, “that their thingy won’t function or it will fall off or she’ll pull a knife and cut it off.”

From certain incidents (most notably the narrator’s eventual loss of virginity being referred to as reproduced in detail in a later fictionalised telling) it would seem we are being invited to assume that Elena’s story is a disguised account of Ferrante’s own life but that would be to deny any degree of authorial artifice. In any case our narrator’s coming to wider prominence is not pseudonymous as ‘Ferrante’’s is in the real world. There is certainly a density of apparently lived experience, a proliferation of detail, a fecundity of (re)construction; but it is an author’s job to try to represent the world.

And once again, the novel ends on a cliffhanger of sorts. Not portending as much of a potential conflict between characters as that in My Brilliant Friend but a tease just the same.

Pedant’s corner:- In one of the blurbs at the front: “both The Days of Atonement and Troubling Love are tour de forces” (tours de force that would be.) In the Index of Characters; “Elena, who likes the story a lot, and gives it to” (no need for the “and”.) Otherwise: “I knew only I was not what I wanted at that moment,” (it was not what I wanted,) insure (ensure,) enroll (enrol,) milleniums (millennia,) curtsey (curtsy,) “I handed in my … tests when my schoolmates … had barely started on it.”

The Dream of the Celt by Mario Vargas Llosa

faber and faber, 2013, 504 p. Translated from the Spanish El sueño del celta by Edith Grossman.

 The Dream of the Celt cover

On the face of it this seems an unlikely endeavour. A Peruvian novelist focusing on a relatively obscure incident in British – and Irish – history? (Then again the Peruvian Jorge Luis Borges was fascinated by Scotland.) But this novelist’s protagonist, (Sir) Roger Casement, was instrumental in exposing the barbarous practices of colonial exploitation in the Congo and later the Amazon, wherein he made his name and for which he received his title, before he took up the cause of Irish independence and was subsequently arrested for treason after visiting Germany during the Great War to seek its government’s help in that endeavour.

The odd numbered chapters here focus on Casement’s life in prison after his trial, in the run-up to his execution. These are the most novelistic parts of the book, displaying his relationship with the guards and the visitors who come to see him, outlining their efforts to obtain a commutation of his death sentence. The even numbered chapters tend to be longer and cover his career in the years leading up to his arrest – and often read more like a history book than a novel. Llosa discounts a large portion of Casement’s diary entries (which many contend were forged by his captors) relating to his homosexual encounters with various men – which damned him not only in the authorities’ eyes, but more crucially in those of the public – as imagined or else wish fulfilment fantasies, giving a novelistic alternative account of several of these incidents, though he treats others as veracious. As Casement’s priest says to him about the suggestion the stories about him were put in the newspapers to counteract the petition for clemency, ‘Nothing can be excluded in the world of politics. It’s not the cleanest of human activities.’ Yes, indeed.

In what is perhaps a comment on the motives of campaigners, a consul in S America tells Casement, “‘I don’t have much admiration for martyrs, Mr Casement. Or for heroes. People who sacrifice themselves for truth or justice often do more harm than the thing they want to change.’”

It is in the ‘historical’ (in the sense of predating the events in the odd numbered chapters) sections though that it is set out how Casement’s experiences in the Congo and the Amazon led him to the idea that Ireland too was a colonised country, albeit with its inhabitants now less harshly treated.

Despite Casement’s conclusion in South America that, We should not permit colonisation to castrate the spirit of the Irish as it has castrated the spirit of the Amazon Indians. We must act now, once and for all, before it is too late and we turn into automata, Llosa also suggests Casement’s trip to Ireland on a U-boat was to try to forestall the Easter Rising rather than encourage it, or even to bring it weapons, as it would not be supported by German action to neutralise the British Army and Royal Navy. When Joseph Plunkett tells him in Germany the Rising is imminent Casement thinks, “No matter how heroic and intrepid they were, the revolutionaries would be crushed by the machinery of the Empire. It would use the opportunity to carry out an implacable purge. The liberation of Ireland would be delayed for another fifty years.”

Plunkett’s response is that, “‘of course we’re going to lose this battle. It’s a question of enduring. Of resisting. For days, weeks. And dying in such a way that our death and our blood will increase the patriotism of the Irish until it becomes an irresistible force.’” Which it did.

The novel’s title The Dream of the Celt comes from that of a poem Casement wrote in 1906 about Ireland’s mythic past. While as a novel it is a little unbalanced and not, perhaps, Llosa at his best, it does act as a useful primer on Casement’s life and times.

Pedant’s corner:- sheriff (illustrates the drawbacks of translation into USian. There are no sheriffs in British prisons. We have prison officers or, at a push, warders. And it wasn’t the prison Governor, since he appears later in the book.) “In Brixton Prison” (in the context of an earlier mention of Pentonville a British translator would just write ‘In Brixton’ here,) “Dr Livingstone, who never wanted to leave African soil or return to England” (return to the UK? Livingstone was Scottish after all.) “The Irish historian ……. she had been” (even though there are 34 words in between ‘historian’ and ‘she’ that ‘she’ is not needed,) “gave Walla a week to fulfil their quota” (its quota,) “where a formation of African soldiers were marching” (a formation … was marching.) “There were also a good number of” (There was also a good number,) “Perhaps one, some of his colleagues” (one, or some, of his colleagues?) “with the Irish insignia on their visors” (I suspect this refers to cap badges. These do not sit on visors,) Casement refers to the British Army as “the most powerful army in the world” (in 1916 the British Army wasn’t. The German one still was,) “the Court of Appeals” (it’s the Court of Appeal.)

Inez by Carlos Fuentes

Bloomsbury, 2003, 156 p. Translated by Margaret Sayers Peden (into USian) from the Spanish Inez.

 Inez cover

Fuentes is the first Mexican writer I have read and his style has similarities to fellow Latin Americans Gabriel García Márquez and Maria Vargas Llosa but couldn’t be mistaken for either. Throughout Inez his prose has that assuredness – even in translation – of a writer in full control of his material and vision, one whom the reader feels instinctively can be trusted to know what he is about.

Here, Gabriel Atlan-Ferrara is a famous conductor, precious enough to regard himself not merely as a conduit but as a chef d’orchestre. He will make no recordings, only performing live, so that each concert is unique, unrepeatable, believing that this forces audiences to listen. The story of his involvement with the Inez of the title, born Inés Rosenzweig but professionally known as Inez Prada, revolves around three performances of Berlioz’s Damnation of Faust; in bomb-ravaged London in 1940, Mexico City in 1949 and London again in 1967. This tale is intercut with the much more obscure account of the pre-historical first encounter between a man and a woman, known respectively as neh-el and ah-nel, told mostly in the future tense. Due to that use of tense these passages are rendered trickier to read, a blend of myth and destiny lending a distancing to the events, at least until this second narrative crashes into the first during that third concert.

As well as love, sex and death (“Sex teaches us everything. It’s our fault that we never learn, and again and again fall into the same delicious trap,”) Fuentes touches on music as a wellspring of human existence. “Was music … the true fig-leaf of our shames, the final sublimation … of our mortal visibility…?” He also describes “the acrid odour of English melancholy, disguised as cold and indifferent courtesy,” and comments on his background when a Mexican tells Atlan-Ferrara, “The cruelty of war in Latin America is fiercer, maestro, because it’s invisible and has no time frame. Besides, we’ve learned to hide our victims and bury them at night,” adding, “In Mexico even we atheists are Catholic, maestro.” Fuentes notes, too, that, “a man… is slow to give up his childhood. There are few immature women, but many children disguised as men.”

While the book at first seems an odd mixture of the traditional love story (if an intermittent one) and the all-but mythic second strand, this is clearly good stuff, the whiff of magic realism (OK, outright fantasy) bends the final intertwining of the two into a strange orbit of its own. I’ll be keeping my eye out for more Fuentes.

Pedant’s corner:- no opening quote mark when a chapter starts with a piece of speech or quotation. “‘Him and his object. Him and his tactile, precise, visible, physical thing’, (‘He and his object. He and his tactile, precise, ..’,) “more that a perishable flower” (more than.) “‘The Moon makes two orbits around the Earth every twenty four hours and fifty minutes. That’s why there are two high tides and two low tides every day.’” (Atlan-Ferrara is mistaken here. The Moon makes one orbit every twenty seven – and a bit – days. The tides occur because the Earth is spinning once a day ‘beneath’ it and so its gravitational effect varies accordingly,) platform shoes (not in 1967.)

A Strangeness in my Mind by Orhan Pamuk

faber and faber, 2015, 613 p including v p Contents, ii p Aktaş and Karataş family tree, v p Index of characters and vii p Chronology. Translated from the Turkish Kafamda bir tuhaflik by Ekin Orlap.

 A Strangeness in my Mind cover

This is the story of Mevlut Karataş who wanders the streets of Istanbul at night selling boza – a kind of fermented drink concocted so as Turks could believe they were not actually drinking alcohol even though they were – from the panniers hung from the pole across his shoulders. While the narrative is mainly carried by a third person account of Mevlut’s life and thoughts, the viewpoints of many of the individuals connected to Mevlut are interpolated into the text. All of these are written in the first person and introduced by that narrator’s name. Though all the details of Mevlut’s life from his arrival in Istanbul to help his father on his boza rounds, through his prolonged and ultimately unfruitful sojourn at the Atatürk Secondary School for Boys, his years conscripted in the army, the attempts to sell yoghurt, ice cream and cooked rice, the other ventures into employment, cashier in a café, car park guard, electricity inspector – residents of Istanbul seem to have been very creative in the ways they could steal electricity from the supply company – it is his love life which provides the book’s main thrust.

The first chapter depicts the defining incident in Mevlut’s life, and it is as magic realist as you could wish – only not magical at all. For three years Mevlut had been writing letters to Rayiha, a girl whose eyes he had stared into at the wedding of his cousin Korkut. Korkut’s brother Süleyman agrees to help Mevlut elope with Rayiha and arranges the deed. When Mevlut glimpses the girl in the back of Süleyman’s van that night he is bewildered to discover she is not the one he thought he had been writing to. Nevertheless, he marries her, comes to love her and have two daughters with her. Süleyman’s deception, of course, (he had designs on the girl with the eyes, Rayiha’s sister, Sadiha, himself,) has ramifications throughout the book.

Many observations about love are made within the text. Hadji Hamit Vural avows, “‘if you’re going to love a girl as deeply as your brother here … you’ve got to make sure to start loving her after you’re married …… but if you fall in love before that .. and you sit down to discuss the bride price with the girl’s father, then those cunning, crafty fathers will ask you for the moon … Most couples would not fall in love if they got to know each other even just a little bit before getting married …. There is also the kind that happens when two people get married and fall in love after that … and that can only happen when you marry someone you don’t know.’” Süleyman’s later lover Melahat (a stage performer under the name Mahinur Mehrem) lets us know that, “‘I could write a book about all the men I’ve known, and then I would also end up on trial for insulting Turkishness.’”

The changing face of the city into whose nooks and crannies Mevlut wanders plying his wares and the evolution of Turkish life become major themes, with the political ups and downs a background never fully occupying Mevlut’s mind; but a sense of the role played by emphasising the nation is never far away, “in this night, pure and everlasting, like an old fairy tale, being Turkish felt infinitely better than being poor.”

The more you read Pamuk the more it becomes clear that his real subject, his true love, is Istanbul; though Turkishness in the wider sense is also important and affairs of the heart never far away. Here Mevlut’s friend Ferhat tells us that, “What makes city life so meaningful is the things we hide.” Pamuk’s œuvre has probed into those hidden places – more so in A Strangeness in my Mind as his previous books have tended to concentrate more on middle class Istanbul, whereas here our hero (as Pamuk refers to Mevlut several times, this is a knowing type of narration) is one of those for whom getting on in the world has always been difficult, he does not know enough of the right people, never accumulates sufficient capital to become affluent.

Again in a Pamuk novel set in modern times there is an acute consciousness of football, but here no hint of anyone called Orhan Pamuk. If Istanbul itself were not enough, allusions to a journalist character from The Black Book would tie this novel in with previous works.

Through all his modern novels – and arguably in those set in historical times – Pamuk has been picking away at the threads of Turkish life, the tensions between religion and the secular sphere, the restrictions set on the people by political, societal and religious dictats. It is almost possible having read enough Pamuk to feel you know something about Turkey, and especially about Istanbul. This may be a delusion but it’s closer to the truth than those without that experience can ever have.

Pedant’s corner:- no start quotation mark when a chapter begins with a piece of dialogue, shopwindows (shop windows. Is it one word in Turkish?) “enormous billboards that look up one whole side of a six- or seven story [sic] building” (took up makes more sense,) “thirty two liras” (isn’t the plural of lira just ‘lira’? Many instances of liras,) “he would open at random to a page” (‘he would open a page at random’ sounds a more natural construction,) the text refers to Argentina and England being at war, and to ‘English’ ships (that of course should be Britain and British respectively,) occasional omitted commas before and after direct speech, “provide the overhead” (in British English it’s ‘overheads’,) “the lay of all the neighbourhoods” (the lie.)

The Joke by Milan Kundera

faber and faber, 1998, 327 p including 5 p Author’s Note. Translated by Michael Henry Heim, the author himself, and Aaron Asher from the Czech Žert, originally published by Československỳ Spisovatel, 1967.

 The Joke cover

Kundera’s first novel endured a peculiar journey- outlined in the Author’s Note – to get to this publication, the fifth English language version of the novel. Kundera was unsatisfied with all previous renderings of The Joke as they contained altered syntax, different divisions, reconstructions, shortenings or omissions. He says he, “once left a publisher for the sole reason that he tried to change my semi-colons for periods,” but promises us, since he more or less undertook it himself, this will be the last translation.

The novel is a depiction of Czech life in the early to middle period of Soviet influence in the country. Main protagonist Ludvik Jahn provides the viewpoint for the odd numbered Parts – Part Two is narrated by a woman named Helena, Part Four by a man called Jaroslav, Part Five by another, Kostka, and Part Seven by Ludvik, Jaroslav and Helena in separate but intermixed sections.

Told from the perspective of a return to Ludvik’s home town in mid-life, we see the incidents influencing Ludvik’s circumstances from his time as a university student and part-time clarinet player in a cimbalom band, when he was a committed Communist. His life began to unravel when to impress a woman called Marketa he unwisely set down on a postcard the thought, “Optimism is the opium of the people! A healthy atmosphere stinks of stupidity! Long live Trotsky!” signed, and then sent it. When he was brought before a disciplinary hearing for this transgression, every member of his class voted for him to be punished. Despite his protestations that his action was a joke he was sent to a special Army unit, in effect a punishment battalion, not for training with weapons but set to work in mines. In what free time he was allowed Ludvik struck up a friendship with Lucie, but her reluctance to have sex with him (for which we later learn she had a very good reason,) made the relationship end badly.

Ludvik’s experiences are later given perspective by the thought, “no great movement designed to change the world can bear sarcasm and mockery, because they are a rust that corrodes all it touches.” So, too, is the sheer impossibility of proving yourself innocent in a world that sees evidence of guilt even in denial of the charge, still more in any efforts to prove loyalty.

Within the details of Ludvik’s life and embittered attempts at petty revenge Kundera finds time to touch on the importance of folk culture and traditions to a nation’s sense of itself. “During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the Czech nation almost ceased to exist. In the nineteenth century it was virtually reborn. Among the old European nations it was a child. True, it also had its own great past, but it was cut off from that past by a gap of two hundred years, when the Czech language retreated to the countryside, the exclusive property of the illiterate. But even in their midst it never ceased to create its own culture. A modest culture, completely hidden from the eyes of Europe. A culture of songs, fairy tales, ancient rites and customs, proverbs and sayings. The only narrow footbridge across a two-hundred-year gap….. The only fragile stem of an unbroken tradition. That is why the men who at the turn of the nineteenth century began to create a new Czech literature and music grafted them onto this stem…. why the first Czech poets and musicians spent so much time collecting tales and songs.”

Kundera goes on to argue that stripping away the veils of Czech music culture reveals the residue of the Great Moravian Empire, whose borders were swept away a thousand years ago, yet its legacy remains imprinted today in the most ancient stratum of folk songs. “The folk song or folk rite is a tunnel beneath history, a tunnel that reserves much of what wars, revolutions, civilization have long since destroyed aboveground,” even preserving classical antiquity for us.

When the state sanctions this culture though, it loses force. “The fact that something like folk music was on the radio constantly should not delude us.” What they play, “is more like opera or operetta, or light music…. A folk instrument band with a conductor, a score, and music stands! What bastardization! … Real folk art is dead.” And it can be abused in other ways. “Drunkards are the most loyal supporters of folk festivals. Once in a while, at least, they have a noble pretext for taking a drink.”

Translated fiction is arguably a necessary endeavour, revealing to others aspects of the world and thought systems of which they otherwise would not be fully aware, a reminder that the ability to read widely – and without restriction – is a blessing.

Consider the alternative. “We lived in a devastated world; and because we did not know how to commiserate with the devastated things, we turned away from them and so injured them, and ourselves as well.”

Pedant’s corner:- Translated into USian. Otherwise; repertory (repertoire,) “a slipshod permanent crumpling her hair” (ie, permanent wave; the British usage is perm,) aboveground (above ground,) “‘your not a woman who’” (you’re,) the opening quotation mark (deliberately) missing when a chapter begins with dialogue, Jesus’ (Jesus’s,) “head bowed bowed” (only one “bowed” needed,) Mathias’ (Mathias’s.) “There are a number of hypotheses” (there is a number of.) “A group of people were walking after it” (a group of people was walking.)

The Salmon Who Dared to Leap Higher by Ahn Do-hyun

I was attracted to this book by its title, which appears to indicate a fairy tale or children’s story containing a moral. (Compare, for example, The Little Engine That Could.) That it was written by a Korean only confirmed my desire to read it as I had never sampled Korean fiction before. Given the story’s allegorical/fabular nature (though the illustrations are resolutely realistically sketched with the odd hint of Japanese style) I doubt it is representative of the country’s fiction writers: more so as the author is primarily a poet.

The Salmon Who Dared to Leap Higher is an exploration of the latter stages of the life cycle of a salmon. Its main protagonist is Silver Salmon, so-called because he does not have the usual dark upper body colouring but is easily visible to predators from above and thus requires to be surrounded by the shoal in order to protect him. (The author makes the claim that Pacific salmon shoals in the necessary formation resemble downed Boeing 747 aircraft.) Other named fish include Clear-Eyed Salmon, with whom Silver Salmon is mutually in love, the shoal leader, Big-Mouth Salmon, and a misfit, Bent-Back Salmon. The Green River, the shoal’s homing grounds, is also sentient and capable of speech.

Talking animal stories are always in some sense about human behaviour otherwise there would be little point in writing or reading them but I must admit I found the concept of salmon being in love a bit of a stretch. Prior to this development of their relationship Silver Salmon tells Clear-Eyed Salmon that he sees little point in a goal in life that consists solely in the laying of eggs but of course a salmon’s destiny is to circle back to its beginning.

The tale outlines the problems the salmon encounter on their life’s journey, and the fact that their greatest foe is humanity. The crux of the tale comes when they are faced by the rapids in the Green River and discover the opportunity to avail themselves of a human provided fish ladder. In the shoal’s discussions on how to proceed Silver Salmon says, “If we start by taking the easy way then our children will naturally want to follow in our footsteps, and soon it will be the only way they know. But if we leap up over the rapids, then our legacy will instead be all the suffering and joy of that single moment, the fear and exhilaration of putting everything at risk.” Here is our moral laid out.

The book is enhanced by occasional illustrations but the tense in the text changes from past to present and back again seemingly at random, sometimes within the same sentence. I assume this is a reflection of the original Korean and is intended. It certainly helps to give a sense of disjunction. It is a neat touch though that the book’s structure exactly mirrors a salmon’s life cycle.

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

Europa, 2012, 328 p. Translated from the Italian L’amica geniale by Ann Goldstein.

Book One: Childhood, Adolescence

My Brilliant Friend cover

Ferrante’s writing – especially her Neapolitan Quartet, of which this is the first – has been attracting a lot of attention if not hype. The mystery surrounding her identity – Ferrante is a pseudonym whose real-life counterpart has not revealed herself – is one of the elements in that I’m sure.

This volume is the tale of two childhood friends growing up in the back streets of Naples – not quite two children dressing in rags but poor certainly. Our narrator is Elena Greco, daughter of a porter, her friend is Lila Cerullo, the shoemaker’s daughter. Lila is gifted intellectually – at least according to Elena – but does not progress at school, as she decides not to. (Not that her parents would have allowed her to.) Elena is given every opportunity by her teacher who persuades her parents to allow her to continue her education beyond the normal for her milieu.

While still young Lila reveals to Elena the conspiracy of silence about before, before the war, before they were born, seeing all her elders as complicit. Elena realises, “Without knowing it, they continued it, they were immersed in the things of before, and we kept them inside us, too.”

Through Elena, Ferrante is good on the absurdities and embarrassments of puberty, the lack of control over the body and of how others perceive you. In time and in contrast to Elena, Lila begins to exert a magnetic attraction on all males. She is well able to defend herself (and Elena) against any unwanted advances however. She throws herself and her talents into designing shoes but her father has no faith in their ability to sell and scorns the possibility. Elena’s continuing education and the necessary separation as the new higher schools are across the city gradually puts a distance between the pair.

An element of fantasy – undeveloped in this volume – appeared when on New Year’s Eve 1959 Lila experienced what she will later describe to Elena as dissolving margins. To her the outlines of people suddenly dissolved, disappeared. How much this contributes to Ferrante’s overall story arc I can’t say but her story-telling in general I found irritating. There was too much telling not enough showing, too much concentration on boring minutiae – every test score Elena ever got seems to be included. In addition there were many cases in which the characterisation was lacking. There is an index of characters – inserted before the novel proper – so that you can tell them apart by name but many of them, the young males especially, do not stand out from each other on the page. I felt too that there was a stretching towards significance in phrases like, “there are no gestures, words, or sighs that do not contain the sum of all the crimes that human beings have committed and commit,” and “‘When there is no love, not only the life of the people becomes sterile but the life of cities,’” which actually don’t bear scrutiny. Moreover the book ends on a point of imminent conflict. Yes, there are three more instalments of Ferrante’s quartet to go but this still felt like a breach of the contract between writer and reader.

I would agree that as a social document of a time and a place, of certain attitudes, My Brilliant Friend is interesting enough but despite that “cliffhanger” I wasn’t moved to seek out further instalments with any alacrity.

Pedant’s corner:- The text has been translated into USian. Otherwise; “an anti-gas mask” (this may be a literal translation of the Italian, but the English term is simply, gas mask.) “To not be second.” (Not to be second,) pubis (is the pubic bone not the pubic area,) knickers (conveys a different meaning to a British reader than the knickerbockers or plus-fours I took it was intended,) an useful (technically correct I suppose, but not a common usage,) Aeneas’ (Aeneas’s,) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech.

Identity by Milan Kundera

faber and faber, 1999, 155 p. Translated from the French L’identité (Gallimard, 1998?) by Linda Asher.

Identity cover

After the loss of a baby from a previous marriage, the constant refrain from her husband and his family that another child would set things right Chantal left to take up with Jean-Marc, who feels he only engages with the world through her but is fearful that is only an illusion and without her he’d lose any connection to the world. Her realisation that, ‘Men don’t turn to look at me any more,’ is the starting point of the couple’s estrangement. She begins to receive anonymous letters, keeping them from Jean-Marc, and imagines who might be their writer. Eventually their contents contain too many details of her activities to be the work of someone who does not know her well. The confrontation that ensues sees Chantal take a trip to London, in part to escape.

In its early stages this book reminded me of the work of John Banville but then it took a left turn into a phantasia of unlikely occurrences which it is a tribute to Kundera’s skill are nevertheless entered seamlessly without any jarring to the reader.

Identity, the awareness of self, is of course the theme of the book. “Remembering our past, carrying it with us always, may be the necessary requirement for maintaining the wholeness of the self.” Saying friends help to bolster this sense, Jean-Marc calls into evidence Dumas’s four musketeers and claims friendship is, “proof of the existence of something stronger than ideology, than religion, than the nation,” but Chantal tells him. “Friendship is a problem for men. It’s their romanticism. Not ours.”

Chantal works at an advertising agency. One of her colleagues declares, “‘Only a very small minority really enjoys sex.’” When challenged, he adds, ‘If someone interrogates you on your sex life, are you going to tell the truth?….. while everyone may covet the erotic life everyone also hates it, as the source of their troubles, their frustrations, their yearnings, their complexes, their sufferings.’” Sex is never far from the surface in a Kundera book. Here advertising is characterised as, “Toilet paper, nappies, detergent, food. That is man’s sacred circle, and our mission is not only to discover it, seize it, and map it, but to make it beautiful, to transform it into song.” We are, “condemned to food and coitus and toilet paper.”

Identity is a slight volume at 155 pages but packs a lot in. However, the simile in, “her voice wavering like the lament of a woman raped,” strikes an off-note.

Pedant’s corner:- Patroclus’ (Patroclus’s,) Alexandre Dumas’ (Dumas’s,) unfriendlike (is that a translation of a French word for which there is no direct English equivalent?) “an burdensome thing” (a burdensome thing, surely? Or was it a peculiar emphasis in the French?) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech, Britannicus’ (Britannicus’s,) “to épater les bourgeois” (not translated, but italicised,) a curious shift to past tense for one paragraph in a section otherwise rendered in the present.

The Black Book by Orhan Pamuk

faber and faber, 2006, 476 p, including iv p Translator’s Afterword.
Translated from the Turkish Kara Kitap (published by Can Yayinlavi Ltd, 1990) by Maureen Freely.

 The Black Book cover

Galip comes home to find his wife Rüya (with whom he has been besotted since childhood and who is also his cousin – apparently this last is a custom widespread in Turkey) has left him. He spends the rest of the novel trying to find out where she has gone. Back to her first husband, once a left-wing firebrand? Or to live with her half-brother Celâl, a famous columnist for the newspaper Milliyet, who has also disappeared?

The chapters written from Galip’s point of view alternate with those in which Celâl’s columns are reproduced, a device which allows Pamuk to ruminate on Turkish and Istanbul history, customs and predilections. It is slightly more complicated than that as just over halfway through, with Celâl’s stock of columns and reprints beginning to run out, Galip takes to writing them himself and presenting them as Celâl’s, so it is possible that all such extracts may in fact be Galip’s thoughts. Indeed one telephone caller to Galip in the guise of Celâl asks if these columns contain the signs that would lead to life’s secret meaning -even if that secret meant nothing. He adds his insight that, “‘No one in this country can ever be himself.’”

In search of Rüya, Galip wanders the streets of Istanbul, especially at night. (A habit also attributed to Ibn Rashid, Sultan Selim, and Mehmet the Conqueror.) This is “the endless fascination afforded to those who wander a city in disguise.” In this novel the presence of the city as in effect a character in its own right – as are all big cities to be fair – is extremely pronounced. After reading the book it’s as if I could walk the place blindfolded. Istanbul also loomed large in the author’s later novel, The Museum of Innocence, and that book’s preoccupation with mementos of a life is prefigured here in The Black Book. What Rüya has left behind, Galip’s memories of Rüya and the remnants of Celâl’s existence are described in loving detail. Again prevalent is the habit of smoking. Everyone in this seems surrounded by clouds of blue tobacco smoke. Once more football as an important factor in Turkish life makes its appearance. (Imagine the reception a British “literary” novel would receive if it mentioned the game at all.)

Rüya was an avid reader of detective novels (which is to say Western detective novels, as the Turkish variant barely existed at the time of writing) and The Black Book has been described as a detective, or at least a mystery, novel. There is a mystery, the disappearances, but the usual preoccupations of a detective novel are absent and, as a detective, Galip is spectacularly ineffective even if, ‘murders that explain books and books that explain murders have a universal appeal, because it is only when a man believes himself to be someone else that he can bring the cudgel down on the victim’s head….. We learn all the rituals and telling details of murder from others, in other words, from legends, stories, reminiscences, and newspapers. In short, we learn about murder from literature….. Even the simplest murder … is an imitation, a literary imitation, even if its perpetrator doesn’t know it.’

Rather than a mystery The Black Book is more an examination of Turkey/Istanbul as seen through the apparently random reflections of Galip on his travels through the city or Celâl in his columns. To an outsider at least, Pamuk appears to have captured his city and culture in the round by focusing on the particular. It is also a rumination on the nature of life and story (or stories within stories inside stories.) “Each story led to another story in an infinite chain,” and, “no matter where they were set …. the love stories were sad and moving.”

In one of these a character pleads, “If people would only just be themselves. If only they would stop telling stories!” In another an heir apparent comes to believe, ‘A sultan’s duty is not to be happy – it is to be himself… it is everyone’s duty – everyone’s.’

The novel is a thinking writer’s work. Galip ponders on the second meanings that might be lurking inside pieces of writing – inviting us to speculate on what he might be hiding in plain sight. As the novel progresses so too does Galip develop a belief about the letters of the alphabet to be discerned on people’s faces and that everything that had ever been written, even the greatest and most authoritative texts in the world, were [sic] about dreams, not real life, dreams conjured up by words. That a text provides insights about its author is suggested by the thought, “What did it mean to read a text if it did not mean entering into the garden of its author’s memory?”

Galip (who, a very short passage intimates, may be Pamuk himself, an intimation which might itself constitute a misdirection) comes to the notion that nothing is as surprising as life. Except for writing, the only consolation.

Pedant’s corner:- Unfortunately the translation is into USian so that we get “soccer” (it’s football,) “a corner shot” (a corner,) “a head shot” (a header,) and “soccer uniform” (a football kit is called a strip.) One actual phrase used was, “after countering a corner shot with a head shot”. This may be how it’s expressed in Turkish but the English term would be “after heading a corner”. Otherwise: dilipidated (dilapidated – used later!) syphillis (syphilis,) “true to our ourselves” (an extraneous “our”,) Trabizon (now more usually rendered Trabzon,) caravansaries/caravansary (caravanserais/caravanserai,) “that I was on to something” (onto.) “Everything that had ever been written, even the greatest and most authoritative texts in the world, were about dreams,” (everything was about dreams,) “whenever writing about about real life” (remove one of those “about”s,) “it is is located” (ditto one “is”,) Averroes’ (Averroes’s – this was in a chapter epigraph so may be original to that.) “He up and left me” (upped and left me,) cul-de-sacs (culs-de-sac,) a lightbulb (light bulb,) “illumination than never came” (that never came,) imposter (impostor – used once, though imposter appeared several times,) “who it was who had beat him” (beaten him – it was a game of chess,) “left- and ring-wing splinter groups” (left- and right-wing,) reptutation (reputation,) “‘He asked me come here’” (to come here,) telerium (tellurium,) sawed-off (sawn-off,) “both staring Bruce Lee” (starring.) “‘These amusing little signs you sent out to your poor deceived readers’” (the rest of this tirade is in present tense so, send,) pedestrals (pedestals.) “The only sound to be heard in the hunting lodge were the cries of the crows” (the only sounds were the cries, or, the only sound was the cries,) “because the city could not afford to keep their generators running” (its generators,) ““destabilize”” (destabilize, preferably destabilise; however, the word is in inverted commas so may be a representation of an original deliberate misspelling in the Turkish.)

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