Archives » Translated fiction

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’.)

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.)

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