Archives » Translated fiction

When I Whistle by Shūsaku Endō

Quartet, 1979, 275 p, including iv p Preface. Translated from the Japanese, 口笛をふく時, (Kuchibue wo Fuku Toki,) by Van C Gessel.

 When I Whistle cover

A chance encounter on a train with a former schoolmate forces a man called Ozu (I can’t remember being told his first name) to think about a boy at school who was dubbed Flatfish. Flatfish, a new arrival in Ozu’s class (not the top set by any means,) unfortunately had an odour but, because he was seated next to Ozu, by default became his best friend. Ozu had to explain to him all the unwritten rules but Flatfish continually managed to get himself in trouble both by accident and by being himself. The defining moment of Flatfish’s life was an encounter the pair had with two girls from the local girls’ school – with whom they ought not to have had any contact by the strict rules of the time – on the way home one day. Flatfish formed a lasting but doomed attraction to Aiko, the girl who, in an act of compassion, bandaged his injured hand. These schooldays were in the 1930s, Japan was embroiled in China and militaristic attitudes abounded but the nature of schooling (harsh) and the trials of dealing with the opposite sex come over as being not too dissimilar to Western experiences of the time.

In the novel’s present day, Ozu’s son Eiichi is a practitioner at the dispensary of the local hospital and eager to climb the greasy pole of the medical profession so does not demur from the outmoded prescribing and treatment practices of his superiors. He notes, in particular, the habit of telling soothing platitudes to patients. Despite his liaison with a nurse, Keiko, he sets his designs on his boss’s daughter, but has a rival in Doctor Kurihara who also has a nurse on a string. Relations between the sexes in Japan had clearly also undergone a more liberal change post-war. Eiichi then is complicit in administering a new, otherwise untried, cancer treatment devised by a firm owned by Kurihara’s father.

Flatfish not being academic quit school and got a poorly paid job but when war with the Western powers came (the feeling was that Japan would easily defeat them, of course, and at first it seemed so) was swiftly drafted into the miltary and sent to Korea. Nevertheless, he inveigled Ozu to seek out Aiko and give her a pen as a token of his esteem. She in the meantime had married a young naval officer. The reader suspects, rightly, that none of this will come out well. This thread between Aiko, Flatfish and Ozu is what binds the book together.

When I Whistle isn’t one of Endo’s better novels even if it is one of his later ones. There is something about the writing that is sketchy or ill-considered (which doesn’t seem to be because of translation) and more than once information or characters’ thoughts are repeated that have no need to be.

Still, the reflection, “People often wonder when they will die but they rarely wonder where they will die,” is original but, “Now, when all was lost, he felt he understood the meaning they had given to his life,” is a novelistic thought if there ever was one.

The Preface tells us that the author was himself in hospital for a considerable time with various complaints and during one operation his heart stopped. But he survived and continued smoking. It is noticeable that the doctors in this novel all smoke. Then again, it was first published in 1974.

Pedant’s corner:- “if worse came to worst” (if the worst came to the worst,) “None … were” (several times. ‘None …was’.) Opthamology (x 3, Ophthalmology,) knit (knitted, please. Okay the translation is into USian, but still,) “his voice rising to a crescendo” (to a climax; the crescendo is the rise.)

The Book of Fathers by Miklós Vámos

Abacus, 2009, 476 p. Translated from the Hungarian, Apák könyve, by Peter Sherwood

 The Book of Fathers cover

Tinged with a dash of magic realism and told episodically this is a chronicle of the first born sons of the Csillag family (later Sternovszky, later still Stern and then Csillag once more,) beginning with Kornél Csillag in 1705, who starts writing down his experiences in a notebook which his descendants refer to as the Book of Fathers and to which each makes his own additions in due time. More uncommonly, since Kornél took possession of a small globe which enclosed a watch, each of them – bar the penultimate Csillag, after the device has been discarded in a latrine – has access to the memories of his forebears and can seem preternaturally mature and knowledgeable. The title is a slight misnomer – the novel could be entitled “The Book of Sons” after all – as there is not just one notebook since the first becomes filled relatively quickly and others are purchased to continue the tradition.

Each descendant has his own chapter in The Book of Fathers we are reading, relating the significant events of the life of its subject, but too often we are told of them more than shown them. Sometimes too we see the same event from a different viewpoint in succeeding chapters – the father’s (sometimes the grandfather’s) and the son’s. It would be unkind to call the novel a family saga but it shares that enterprise’s lineaments. However, while the bulk of a chapter may be full of incident it sometimes seems as if Vámos lost interest in that particular life as there can be what seems an unseemly rush to its finish and the character is dispatched within a sentence or three.

All of life is here, though; along with those perennial concerns of the novel as a form – love, sex and death – but love is never a main focus here (and relationships between the generations are frequently strained) while there is no emphasis on sex. Death, though, is a necessary component of a book with this one’s premise. One of the family line converts to Judaism in order to marry (thereby upsetting both families involved) but the lives of his descendants allow Vámos to throw light on the status of middle-European Jewry as the years unfold. Then of course, as it approaches the mid-point of the twentieth century, the reader’s sense of foreboding heightens, but arbitrary deaths were no stranger earlier and occur later too.

That early convert is taught by Rabbi Ben Loew of Prague and expresses his confusion about Jewish teachings and his new co-religionists’ place in the world. “‘Everyone is a stranger in this world,’ said the Rabbi. ‘Above all the Jews. The pharaohs drove them from their ancient homeland,* they dispersed to all points of the compass. They are to this day not allowed to buy land in many places.’” Yet for most of the time the family members live lives undisturbed by prejudiced undercurrents, only subject to those political incidents endemic to any country’s history. As such the book is a kind of primer on Hungarian identity and the country’s struggle for independence.

The peculiar nature of the Csillag/Sternovszky/Stern/Csillag line is alluded to when one reflects, “He to whom is given the gift of seeing into the past does not choose what he sees.” As well as the past, some of them can see into the future – but only indistinctly, on occasion Delphically, often with tragical outcomes. A later thought that “whatever happens in this world it all ends in the crying of women” is of universal resonance.

The writing has a similar sensibility to that evident in Czech literature or from the former Yugoslavia: an exercise of imagination, a kind of heightened realism or exaggeration largely absent from Anglophone literature.

Pedant’s corner:- caftan (usually kaftan.) *It was the Romans, not the pharaohs, who were the dominant power when the Jewish diaspora began, “the Book of the Fathers” (usually written as ‘the Book of Fathers’, three times that extra ‘the’ is inserted,) “horses’ hoofs” (in my time they were always hooves,) extra points for ‘stanch’, “only his father’s and grandfather’s exact moment of birth was known to him” (…. moments of birth were known to him.) “‘In Budapest the best streets have had electric light since 1873’” (electricity first came to Humgary in 1884.) “The Csillag side of the family were not in the least happy with Ilse” (the … side …. was not in the least,) churns (churns,) sunk (sank,) “he had simply sawed a hole” (sawn a hole,) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech, “preserved on the black and white snapshots” (‘preserved in’ sounds more natural,) Csilla (Csillag,) “suspecting nought” (nought = the number 0; ‘suspecting naught’.)

The Sin of Father Amaro by Eça de Queiroz

Black Swan, 1985, 430 p. Translated from the Portuguese, O Crime do Padre Amaro, by Nan Flanagan.

 The Sin of Father Amaro  cover

Like The Sealwoman’s Gift this is a story about the conflict between duty and conscience on the one hand and human urges on the other. As I noted before, the cover of this book is something of a spoiler, leaving little doubt as to the nature of Father Amaro’s fall from grace. And the title is inaccurate in that, though it is rather skated over and only mentioned in two short passages, he had already fallen in his previous parish, Feirão, before he met the Amelia Joanneira who is the other focus of the novel – and there is a further crime to add to his debit account by the story’s end. Set in the middle of the Nineteenth Century, The Sin of Father Amaro is, however, about more than a single priest’s misdeeds, dealing as it also does with the privileged position the Portuguese Roman Catholic clergy enjoyed and the hypocrisy it encouraged.

The titular sinner is Amaro Vieira, a junior priest (paroco,) more or less forced into the priesthood by circumstance, who comes to the parish of Lieira after finding existence in Feirão too spartan for him. The senior priest, Canon Dias, arranges for him to lodge with Senhora Joanneira (a woman with whom we find later he himself is having relations) and whose daughter Amelia is profoundly religious. Nevertheless, the proximity between the paroco and her will tend to its natural conclusion. No matter how religions attempt them (usually by blaming women) efforts to curb human sexuality will always founder, as is true in any other societal arrangement.

The pair’s attachment grows despite Amelia also being subject to the attentions of a young clerk, João Eduardo. He is a potential firebrand who finds the strictures of religion claustrophobic and is agitated by the connection between Amaro and Amelia. To try to allay suspicion she agrees to marry Eduardo (a temporary rift between Amaro and Amelia ensues) but a tract he writes anonymously for a periodical called The District excoriating the cosy hypocrisy of clerical impunity and hinting heavily at Amaro’s failings, causes a minor scandal. On being exposed and confronted he strikes Amaro and is excommunicated. As a religious woman cannot be associated with an excommunicant Amelia withdraws her consent to marriage and Eduardo leaves the town. The coast is then clear for the liaison between Amaro and Amelia to come to fruition.

The newpaper editor, Dr Godinho, tells Eduardo when he bemoans his fate, “a good Catholic; his thoughts, his ideas, his feelings, his conversations, the employment of his days and nights, his relations towards his family and his neighbours, the food he eats, the clothes he wears, his diversions – all is regulated by the ecclesiastical authority (abbot, bishop or canon) approved or censured by his confessor, counselled and ordered by him as the director of his conscience. The good Catholic, such as your little girl, doesn’t belong to herself; she has no judgement, no wishes, no free will, nor individual feeling; her priest thinks, wishes, determines, feels for her. Her only work in this world is to accept this direction; accept it without discussion, obey it, no matter what its demands.” When Eduardo argues that’s all very well except when love is devouring someone, Godinho says, “Love is one of the greatest forces of civilisation,” but adds a warning, “the heart is a term which usually serves us, for decency’s sake, to designate another organ. It is precisely this other organ which is the only one interested, in the majority of cases, in affairs of sentiment. In those cases the grief doesn’t last.”

Whether it truly reflects de Queiroz’s attitudes or only those of the time (and of later it must be said) there is a strong course of misogyny running through the book. The master of moral at Amaro’s seminary had “explained the anathema of the saints against women, who were, according to the expressions of the Church, Serpents, Darts, Children of Lies, Doors of Hell, Sources of Crime, Scorpions ….. Paths of Iniquity, iniquitas via.” This leads Amaro to ruminate on the conflict between this and the fact that one of these pariahs was enthroned over the altar as Queen of Grace. In another instance Abbot Ferrão opines to Canon Dias that being possessed by the devil only happens to women, never to respectable notaries nor dignified judges. A character called Pinheiro compares a woman to a shadow, “if we run after her she runs away from us; if we run away from her she runs after us.”

In situations such as occur in this book it was always of course, the woman who paid the price of sin, in novels, as in life. In his depiction of Amaro, de Queiroz does not let him off the hook of culpability, but his position ensures he does not incur a penalty for it.

Pedant’s corner:- “‘Make you mind easy’” (your mind,) waggon (wagon,) shrunk (x 3, shrank,) sprung (sprang,) Sanches’ (Sanches’s,) Novaes’ (Novaes’s,) St Carlos’ (St Carlos’s,) Fernandos’ (Fernandos’s,) Nunes’ (Nunes’s,) “all was not lost” (not all was lost,) strategem (x 3, stratagem,) “a whole series of caresses were necessary to calm her” (a whole series … was necessary.)

Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Döblin

The story of Franz Biberkopf, Continuum, 2004, 381 p, plus ii p Foreword by Alexander Stephan and i p Contents. Translated from the German, Berlin Alexanderplatz, by Eugene Jolas

 Berlin Alexanderplatz  cover

Franz Biberkopf has just been released from Tegel jail after serving four years for the killing (manslaughter) of his partner Ida. This far from straightforwardly told novel tells his story – in nine books – over the next few years at the back end of the 1920s. These were of course troubled political times in Germany and some conversations involve “the Reds” and mention of swastikas but for the most part the political situation is kept in the background. The focus is on Biberkopf and his milieu, his acquaintance (it would not be accurate to describe him as a friend) Reinhold, their associations with various women and the demi-monde in general.

At first Biberkopf is determined to go straight and he manages to gain a living selling newspapers an din the meanwhile having relationships with several women (who tend to be Reinhold’s cast-offs.) Franz is settled with Meize, though, when his life unravels once more as he is hoodwinked into acting as lookout on a burglary. His irritation leads to Reinhold throwing him out of the getaway car into the gutter. His arm is damaged by a succeeding vehicle and he loses it.

The text is overloaded with repetition of phrases such as, “truly, ruly, roo,” “There is a mower: Death yclept,” “tararara taraboomdeay” and “drrumm, brrumm, drrumm.” There are, too, many digressions via Bible quotations, a multiplicity of rhymes, asides on how the novel is progressing, and relatings of everyday events in the wider world, including weather reports. Such things tend to a lack of clarity in the text, a situation not helped by dialogue being carried on from one character to another on the same line – albeit separated by quotation marks. As a mark of its times and of the prevailing attitudes there are also casual references to Jews as if those characters’ ethnicity was the only thing noteworthy about them.

Not only dialogue but also the prose is usually rendered in demotic mode. This is an attempt to represent the various viewpoint characters’ thoughts and as such is justified. However, the demotic employed by the translator was USian – “Say,” or “Gee,” at the start of a piece of dialogue, phrases or words like “back of it,” “boloney,” “dames.” As a result, the book didn’t feel at all German to me. Since experiencing another culture, even if at second hand, is one of the reasons for reading translated fiction this might be thought to be something of a failing. Jolas’s translation has been decried elsewhere.

The back cover blurb describes Berlin Alexanderplatz as one of the masterpieces of modern European literature – the first German novel to adopt James Joyce’s technique. I must admit to not having read any Joyce so do not know whether it was this aspect of the book, the translator’s choices, or the work itself which rendered reading it a bit of a chore. I don’t regret having read it though. Reading new authors, rarely turns out not to be worthwhile in some way.

Additional sensitivity warning: the book contains one use of the ‘n’ word.

Pedant’s corner:- Franze (I have no idea why, in asides, Biberkopf’s first name is sometimes spelled this way,) “work must being immediately” (begin,) Frankfort (either on-the-Rhine, or on-the-Oder, many times. The usual English spelling is Frankfurt,) newsvender (many times, newsvendor,) offuscation (obfuscation?) “let’s me stand there” (lets,) thind (think,) “you might of sat down” (okay it was in dialogue, but does German actually have this egregious mispronunciation? You might have sat down, or, you might’ve,) gayety (x 2, gaiety,) dumfounded (dumbfounded,) “has waked up” (woken up,) “I wouldn’t of started” (ditto as above,) “lay of the land” (lie of the land,) “layin’ around” (lyin’ around,) “he puts his hands over her mouth” (this was Franz. At this point he only has one arm, therefore only one hand,) Karle (Karl,) Mandelay (Mandalay,) “the gang … insist” (the gang … insists,) busses (buses.) interne (x 3, intern.)

Captain Pantoja and the Special Service by Mario Vargas Llosa

faber and faber, 1987, 252 p. Translated from the Spanish Pantaléon y las visitadoras. No translator named.

Captain Pantoja and the Special Service cover

Llosa may have intended this to be a light-hearted piece of fiction. (Then again perhaps not; there are several deaths in it.) It may have been taken so in the 1970s when it was first published but I doubt the book’s premise would be viewed with much favour were it to be submitted to a publisher nowadays.

Because the soldiers posted (in effect “up the jungle”) to Iquitos, driven to distraction by the heat and conditions, are causing havoc among the local women, raping them left, right and centre – even in the street in full daylight – Army Captain Pantaleón Pantoja is given the unusual task of organising a service to prevent this. This is the SSGFRI, the Special Service for Garrisons, Frontier and Related Installations. In effect he is to procure women to provide for the sexual release of the soldiers on an organised basis. But all this is to be done in secret, he must not wear his uniform; the women, though in reality Army employees, are to be unofficial, without rank, though the service will have an identifying colour scheme, red and green, worn as a badge by the “specialists” and displayed on the trucks, boats and single aeroplane the service will have at its disposal.

Pantoja’s wife, Pochita, is at first delighted by his apparent promotion but her disappointment with their new quarters, not, of course, in the army compound but instead a very old, very ugly, very uncomfortable house in town, not at all comparable to the poorest one on the base, is profound. She is doubtful, too, of the increased sexual interest Pantoja has for her (stimulated by the heat and conditions of their new surroundings) though pleased to become preganant with their first child. Pochita’s ignorance of Pantoja’s true activities, despite his associations with shady characters, is sustained for a while but is eventually lifted when a specialist fired for misconduct writes to her.

Being an Army man, Pantoja of course treats the job with military punctiliousness, engaging surveys into the length of time each “service” will require, hence determining the number of specialists to be recruited, and itemises the amounts to be docked from the pay of the service’s users. Due to his logistical skills he makes a great success of everything; so much so that demand for his specialists increases – to the Navy and beyond.

In the meantime a heretical sect known as The Brotherhood of the Ark, led by a Brother Francisco, whose adherents’ trade-mark practice is the crucifixion of animals and birds, is gaining followers in the region. Despite all the authorities’ efforts to arrest him Brother Francisco remains elusive. The intersection between Francisco’s cult and the activities of the SSGFRI provides th enovel’s turning point.

The story is told through conversations, the texts of military dispatches, letters from and to Pochita, transcripts of local radio broadcasts and extracts from newspaper reports. The “normal” text has an unusual flavour, as different conversations are interleaved with each other on the page, with only a paragraph break to signal any change to and from each discussion. This initially has the efect of obstructing the story’s flow but is soon accustomed to.

Sensitivity warning. One of the characters, an inhabitant of the demi-monde whom Pantoja employs to help him with his mission, is called Porfirio Wong, but is also given the soubriquet the ‘Chink.’

Pedant’s corner:- supervisers (supervisors,) a capital letter on the next word following a colon – but not in every instance of a colon, a line repeated on the next line (x 2,) smoothes (smooths,) “the lay of the land” (the lie of the land,) Collazos’ (Collazos’s,) Manaos (this Brazilian city is usually spelled Manaus,) Iquitos’ (Iquitos’s,) “consults with his adjunct” (that military functionary in English is called an adjutant,) “‘he’d of died of sorrow’” (does this illiterate solecism exist in Spanish? The correct English form is ‘he’d’ve’.)

Adrift on the Nile by Naguib Mahfouz

Anchor Books, 1994, 172 p. Translated from the Arabic, Thartharah Fawq al Nīl, by Frances Liardet.

 Adrift on the Nile cover

This novel features a group of friends who regularly meet in the evening on a houseboat on the River Nile to talk about the issues of the day but mainly to smoke kif through a water-pipe.

The viewpoint starts off as that of Anis Zaki, a civil servant with troubles at work and whose wife and daughter died many years previously. Anis’s mind can wander and he has occasional illusions – of the Caliph Harun-al-Rashid, of a whale in the Nile, of conversing with the pharaoh Thutmose III. Sometimes, however, the narrative focus shifts to something more objective.

Others of the company are Ahmad Nasr, notoriously faithful to his wife; Mustafa Rashid, a well-known lawyer; Ali al-Sayid, a famous art critic; Khalid Azzuz, a writer; Ragab al-Qadi, the group’s womaniser in chief. Women are not excluded; Layla Zaydan, a translator, is introduced to new members as “beautiful and cultured” not least in that her golden hair is real, not a wig, while Saniya Kamil turns up whenever her husband has committed an indiscretion. The houseboat is looked after by general factotum Amm Abduh, huge in stature, who mostly keeps himself to himself but when summoned will refresh the water-pipe. As well as making the call-to-prayer at the local mosque he will procure street girls for the members. The group’s female members, despite occasionally spending the night in rooms on the boat, are contrasted to the street girls in that, “‘they are respectable ladies,’” the rationale being, “‘They don’t sell themselves. They give and take, just like men.’”

The text is mostly dialogue, there is not much of a plot here. There is some disquiet one evening when Ragab appears with the teenage Sana al-Rashidi, a student; even more when journalist Samara Barghat arrives, the object of suspicion due to her calling (possibly not unjustified suspicion, revealed when Anis takes the opportunity to rummage in her handbag one evening and filches a notebook which contains a scenario and characters for a play – all based on the houseboat’s habituees.) The only incident occurs on a car journey out of the city, to which Anis had only reluctantly acceded, when, travelling too fast on their return, they hit a pedestrian. But all agree to keep quiet about it.

By showing us a slice of middle-class Egyptian life in the 1960s (when the book was first published in Arabic,) Adrift on the Nile reveals the uneasy connection between Egypt’s past and its then present by subtle indirection.

Pedant’s corner:- Translated into USian (except handbag and purse are used in the British sense.) Anis’ (Anis’s, many instances,) “is a that any description” (no ‘a’,) protozoan (protozoon,) “‘people who will praise you work’” (your work.)

The Fish Can Sing by Halldór Laxness

Harvill Panther, 2001, 252 p, including i p note on pronunciation and ii p map of Iceland. Translated from the Icelandic, Brekkukanstannáll, (Helgafell, Iceland, 1957,) by Magnus Magnusson.

 The Fish Can Sing  cover

There is something almost mythic, or fabular, about the origins of narrator Álfgrímur Hanson, born in the mid-loft of Brekkukot, a dimly lit turf-roofed shack on the outskirts of what would become Reykjavík, and who never saw his mother again, as she was in transit to the US, sponsored by the Mormons or some such. Instead he was brought up by the pair who lived in Brekkukot, whom he called grandfather and grandmother even though they were no relation at all. Grandfather Björn is a lumpfisherman, wedded to the old ways, plying his trade by hand. He never changes the price of his fish; neither when a surplus lowers others’ nor when a shortage makes his catch more valuable. Brekkukot is also a way-station for those with nowhere else to go, packed with adults sleeping in the same cramped space, always available to house those needing a bed. Such is the atmosphere that surrounds him, though, that Álfgrímur does not realise he could be considered poor until almost into adulthood. Not that he ever thought about it, he simply didn’t question Brekkukot’s place in the world.

His grandfather has a firm sense of what is right and proper with his “conviction that the money which people considered theirs by right was unlawfully accumulated, or counterfeit, if it exceeded the average income of a working man; and therefore that all great wealth was inconsistent with common sense.”

In many ways, perhaps due to similarly inclement climates, Icelanders’ attitudes to the world as shown here have something of the Scots sense of endurance about them. Álfgrímur tells us, “I could swear on oath that growing up I never heard the word ‘happiness’ except on the lips of a crazy woman who lodged in the mid-loft with us for a time.” He instances many Icelandic phrases with this kind of sentiment. ‘They have plenty of salt fish,’ = they’re doing all right, ‘Oh, he’s fat enough,’ = he’s well, ‘Oh, you can see it on him’, = he’s unwell, ‘He’s a bit low,’ = he’s more dead than alive, ‘He’s off his food these days,’ = dying of old age, ‘he’s packing his bags now, poor fellow,’ = on his deathbed. When a married couple separated, ‘Yes, there’s something wrong there I believe,’ was said. Or is this stoicism simply due to Álfgrímur’s particular circumstances? “At Brekkukot every word was precious, even the little words.”

The book is set at a time when change is coming to the country yet still before Iceland had gained independence from Denmark. The prickly relationship between the island and its then ruler is alluded to often in unflattering mentions of the Danish king and brought into sharper focus by the sentence, “The only insult that can really rile an Icelander is to be called a Dane.” And Icelanders had apparently always considered what the Pope said about religious faith laughable.

A lot of the novel is taken up with the saga of Garðar Hólm, of Hríngjarabær, close to Berkkukot. He is apparently the only world-renowned Icelander, a singer, known to crowned heads and the Pope. His returns to the island are eagerly awaited, promoted in the newspaper, the Ísafold, but often found to be only rumour or called off at the last minute. Yet he makes unheralded appearances in Reykjavík and the odd visit to Brekkukot. He and Álfgrímur strike up a relationship of sorts, especially after Álfgrímur is employed by Pastor Jóhann as a singer at funerals and learns of the concept of the one pure note. On one occasion he and Álfgrímur even exchange footwear. Yet Álfgrímur notes Garðar Hólm’s rather dressed down appearance. The singer is said to be unmarried (a very minor sub-plot has the daughter of the owner of Gúðmúndsen’s Store – an institution in Reykjavík – hankering after him) but there are also tales of a woman with two children in a hut in Jutland. Garðar Hólm exerts a large influence on Álfgrímur. In one of their conversations, he tells Álfgrímur in relation to wealth that, “The man who is worth anything never gets a jewel,” in another that in encyclopaedias, “murderers, particularly multiple murderers, command much more space than the greatest geniuses and men of intellect.” There are heavy allusions to the possibility that Garðar Hólm’s fame is nothing of the sort and is a sort of trick pulled off by Gúðmúndsen to bolster Icelanders’ thoughts of themselves.

Perhaps it is Álfgrímur’s almost naïve acceptance of things but there is in all this a dislocation almost like that encountered when reading fiction by South American writers. It can’t though be said to be magic realism because the writing is resolutely realistic throughout. There are things undoubtedly lost in translation and others that perhaps only Icelanders could fully understand. But the point of reading translated fiction is to help expand your view of the world. Laxness’s writing fulfils that function very well.

Pedant’s corner:- “the kind of audience he attracted there were” (the kind of audience… was,) “for a long rime now” (a long time, I think,) “‘And for that reason she does not want you not to drown in the Soga Stream’” (omit that second ‘not’,) galoshes (galoshes, x 2,) “a horde of fat men comes running over waving cheque books and hire him” (plus points for ‘comes’ but it then also ought to be ‘hires’.)

Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov

Penguin, 1991, 236 p, plus xviii p Introductory essay by Mary McCarthy and 12 p Index.

 Pale Fire   cover

On the face of it an exploration of the last work of a recently murdered US poet, John Shade of Wordsmith College, New Wye, Appalachia, with a foreword by the narrator, Charles Kinbote, the poem itself and the narrator’s commentary on it, Pale Fire (that poem’s title as well as this novel’s) is actually something else again. Or several things again.

The foreword gives the narrator’s account of how the poem was written (on eighty index cards) and how he came to be in charge of both its editing and publication but also provides hints of the shifting ground the text in front of the reader embodies. Kinbote’s relationship with Shade and his wife Sybil (names here tend to the symbolic,) is not particularly friendly; Kinbote comes across as something of a stalker and voyeur. Other academics’ doubts about the poem or its significance are dismissed as nonsense. Kinbote slips in references to his origins in the country of Zembla and his translations of previous Shade poems into Zemblan. That Kinbote lives in a house rented from a Professor Goldsworth – also of Wordsmith College – rings bells to a Spoonerist (compare Wordsworth and Goldsmith, noted poets.) In this section Kinbote suggests his commentary ought to be read before Shade’s poem. Perhaps I should have taken that advice but I doubt it makes much difference. The book seemed to read perfectly well in the printed order and the poem is comprehensible enough on its own in any case.

The poem itself, in four Cantos of two different lengths but symmetrical overall, amounting to 999 lines – each an iambic pentameter – is comprised of rhyming couplets but never at any time reduces to doggerel. Kinbote asserts the poem is actually 1000 lines long, as its first was also to be its last but was never written down. (For the symmetry, it would have to be.)

The meat of the book is in the commentary, though, where Kinbote’s conviction that he supplied Shade with the idea for his poem with his reminiscences of Zembla becomes increasingly hard to credit, mixed up as it is with his potted history of Zembla and its last king, Charles the Beloved, its revolution and the king’s unlikely escape though an underground passage used by his grandfather for illicit liaisons with an actress in the theatre where she performed. Kinbote parallels the writing of the poem to and with the journey from Zembla to the US of Jakob Gradus, a gunman hired by the new Zemblan regime’s secret police to kill the king. Gradus is also known as Jacques d’Argus, Jacques Derges and Jack Grey. This last is the name Shade’s killer, an escapee from a lunatic asylum, gave to the police. Through it all Kinbote, whose name is more likely Botkin, a refugee from Zembla teaching in the Russian Department at Wordsmith’s, gradually reveals his true identity as that last king (or, at least, of his belief in that identity) and that he was the intended target of the gunman. But even his account of the shooting is suspect, as the two witnesses, Gradus and a gardener who intervened to restrain him, recall things differently in later statements to the police. Nabokov is not only presenting us with an unreliable narrator but also an unreliable commentator.

Perhaps I ought to mention that at one point Kinbote relays to us Shade’s disquisition on the use of the word “coloured” to refer to “negroes.”

Mary McCarthy’s essay calls the book, “a Jack-in-the-box, a Fabergé egg, a clockwork toy, a chess problem, an infernal machine, a trap to catch reviewers, a cat and mouse game, a do-it-yourself kit.” It is all of these and more. Pale Fire is an astonishing feat of construction. An intellectual maze, a hall of distorting mirrors, but still utterly readable. A portrait of an unhinged mind convinced it is entirely rational, a fillip to those who delight in the use of such words as pudibundity, fatidic and inenubilable (even if they have to look them up.) Food for the mind, if not quite the heart.

Pedant’s corner:- In the Introductory essay; Gradus’ (Gradus’s.) For some of the others I wasn’t sure these were real typos or indications that Kinbote was deranged: sleezy (sleazy,) “another boy, another boy” (why the repetition?) “the harmonies hiving in the man” (hiving?) Keats’ (Keats’s,) momento (memento,) demolishment (demolition, but this was in dialogue,) John Slade (Shade,) sprung (sprang,) “harebreath escapes” (hairsbreadth escapes,) confusely (confusedly,) hoplessness (hopelessness,) Ukranian (Ukrainian,) remindful (reminiscent,) ginko (ginkgo.)

The Little Town Where Time Stood Still by Bohumil Hrabal

Abacus, 2011, 173 p, plus x p Introduction by Josef Škvorecký. Translated from the Czech, Mĕstečko, kde se zastavil čas (A Small Town Where Time Has Stopped,) by James Naughton.

 The Little Town Where Time Stood Still cover

It makes sense to publish this story in the same volume as Cutting it Short since it carries on the story of Francin Czilágová and his cousin Uncle Pepin from that tale.

The Little Town Where Time Stood Still has an odd narrative, though, since it starts being narrated by the son of Francin and Anna, describing how, inspired by the tattoos of the working men at the Bridge Inn (where the patrons are much amused by tales of the local priest Dean Spurný lifting his maids up to the ceiling by the leg of the chair they’re sitting on so that their skirts flap round their cheeks) he wished to have a tattoo of a small boat. Mr Alois obliges him but when he finally sees his tattoo it is of a stark naked mermaid. Thereafter the narrator’s own life is as if forgotten and the novel reverts to the life story of his father, Francin, and Uncle Pepin.

By now Francin has swapped his Orion motor-bike for a Škoda 430 car, which, despite it never going wrong, unlike the Orion, he still takes apart every weekend to see why it works so well. Pepin is still riddled with nostalgia for the old Empire and for the pair, “time was slowly standing still while another time, of different people, was out there full of its own élan and new energy and endeavour.”

Details of everyday life fill the pages while wider events take place more or less off stage. The Second World War is almost an incidental occurrence, impinging little on the town even though Pepin gets into a confrontation with Mr Friedrich, in his Reichs uniform, over whether Austrian or German soldiers would win, Pepin insistent that, “Austrian soliders will ever be victorious,” with an almost pantomime exchange of “wills” and “won’ts” kept up between them over the years afterwards. The arrival of Soviet troops is marked by Pepin being involved in a dancing competition with them.

When the brewery is taken over by the workers they agree Francin had been good to them – unlike the chairman – but they explain that made his behaviour worse as it had served to reconcile them to the old regime. The way the brewery is managed from then on is viewed by the text with a critical eye (not the sort of thing to endear Hrabal to the authorities that were) as Francin and Uncle Pepin carry on seeing the world in the same old way. The progress that wasn’t is all but an irrelevance to them as they continue to live in their minds in a town where time stood still.

Except it didn’t. Pepin becomes bed-ridden, and Francin realises, “what a benefit it was for an old person to be able to do things for himself, not to be dependent on people” and on watching a cemetery being torn up that, despite some resistance, “they had succeeded, they had to succeed, in tearing those old times out of the ground.”

Once again the text is sprinkled with Scottish terms; Hogmanay, ploutering, and wee (for small.)

Pedant’s corner:- vicarage (is this the correct word for a priest’s house?) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech, “ammonium” (ammonium carbonate I should think, ie smelling salts,) missus’ (missus’s,) galop (gallop,) bandoleer (bandolier.)

Cutting It Short by Bohumil Hrabal

In The Little Town Where Time Stood Still, Abacus, 2011, 134 p. Translated from the Czech, Postřižiny (Cutting,) by James Naughton.

 The Little Town Where Time Stood Still cover

From the sixty-metre chimney of the limited-liability municipal brewery it is obvious that the small town where this short novel is set is situated on an island in the Elbe. The story is narrated by Anna Czilágová, (born Kalovice, in Moravia.) Her husband, Francin, manages the brewery and loves order and regularity. They are somewhat ill-matched as Anna loves chance and the unexpected. Francin constantly complains that the ways she does things are not suitable for a decent woman. Only when she is sick can he feel that she needs him as much as he needs her. He owns an Orion motor-bike, which very rarely survives an outing without breaking down and which he sequentially invites every man in the town to help him service (which takes hours) so that they avoid his eye thereafter.

Uncle Pepin, actually Francin’s cousin, descends on the couple one day to stay for a week or so but never leaves. In his spare time he frequents only drinking establishments which have ladies’ service. He is a hit with the ladies, or likes to think he is. Nostalgic for the old Empire, Pepin’s recurring phrase is, “a soldier of Austria can never be defeated.”

Anna’s golden hair (which is always lifted out of the way by the local shopkeepers as she mounts her bicycle to keep it from tangling in the wheels,) which she had to avoid treading on on the way up, flies out like a beacon in the wind, where she sits having scaled the brewery chimney with Uncle Pepin, watching the fire brigade called out to rescue them from their perch, as those below thought they were engaged in a suicide attempt. This is only one of the scenes which have a magical realist feel, but there is also a layering of everyday detail, as when Anna helps the local butcher to make sausages, or she consumes cream horns (in an unsuitable unlady-like manner, of course.)

The new fashion comes to the town with the advent of wireless, soldiers bringing in the apparatus, allowing everyone in turn access to an earpiece with the sound, but thinner, stretched out, of a brass band playing Kolíne, Kolíne all the way from Prague. In the build-up to the book’s final significant event various things get cut short, the brewery chairman’s horse’s mane and tail, Anna’s skirt, her dog’s tail.

A curiosity is that the story is partly translated into Scots. At first, because the words appeared in Pepin’s speech, I wondered if this was an attempt to represent a regional Czech accent but then Scots words (doucely, spale, wame) cropped up in the main text. (The translator was brought up in Edinburgh.)

Pedant’s corner:- “the dynamo pumping the …… where the light bulbs shine, the dynamo starts to” (dynamo was probably repeated in the original Czech but its repeat is superfluous,) maw (it’s a stomach, not a mouth.) “‘Direktion!’” (why use the German spelling?) pelargonias (pelargoniums. If, in any case, the word had a Greek plural it would be pelargonia,) Jesus’ (Jesus’s,) “hundred of barrels” (‘hundreds’.)

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