Tag Archives: translation

Christa Wolf’s One Day a Year 2001–2011

Christa Wolf, One Day a Year 2001–2011 (2013, translation by Katy Derbyshire, Seagull Books, 2017)

In 1960 the Moscow newspaper Izvestia invited a number of writers, including East German Christa Wolf, to describe one day in their lives, 27 September that year, as precisely as possible. Christa Wolf accepted the invitation and found the project so interesting that she did the same for that date every year for the rest of her life.

She didn’t necessarily intend this writing for publication, but at the turn of the century she decided to compile the 41 pieces into a book, saying in her preface (reprinted at the start of this book):

I see it as a kind of professional obligation to publish them. Our most recent history seems to be at risk of being reduced, even now, to easily manageable formulae. Perhaps messages like these can play a part in keeping opinions on what has happened in flux, re-examining prejudices, dismantling hardened views, recognising our own experiences and gaining more trust in them, allowing unfamiliar circumstances a little closer to ourselves.

That book is a compendium of detailed accounts of a single day for each year, coming very close to the primary classroom concept of a ‘recount’ as opposed to a shaped ‘narrative’, beginning in East Berlin before the Berlin Wall was built, ending long after the unification of Germany, and traversing on the way the massive social and political changes of the 1960s to 90s, as well as huge changes in Wolf’s personal life.

The book I’ve just read is not so much a sequel as an addendum. The German original, titled Ein Tag im Jahr im neuen Jahrhundert (literally One Day a Year in the New Century) was published in 2013, nearly two years after Wolf’s death in December 2011. The changes it charts are not as momentous, at least not on the world stage – at the personal level these pages are overwhelmingly aware of the approach of death – but nor is it as dauntingly huge.

I found the book fascinating. Each day is full of detail: the dream from which Wolf wakens, a list of newspaper headlines, the meals her husband prepares, crime shows on television, her current reading, her current writing project, gossip, calls on her to appear in the media, invitations to gallery openings (most of which go straight to the bin), news from her family (one of her daughters has a birthday on 28 September, so family always looms large), reflections on the big events of the day (German elections seem to happen in September), correspondence. It’s not that all these things are presented as of equal value: Wolf knows that her reflections on, say, the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington DC, will be more interesting to her possible readers (including her future self) than what she had for lunch. But there’s a wonderful sense of the broad sweep of history enmeshed in the minutiae of life as each entry ‘interrogates the bejesus’ out of its day (the phrase is from Phillipa McGuinness’s The Year that Everything Changed, which did for the year 2001 what Wolf does for her days – the link is to my blog post).

I imagine that every reader will find her or his own personal points of connection. Here are some of mine.

On 9/11, the perspective of a former East Berliner stands as something of a challenge these days to those who urge the primacy of ‘western civilisation’:

Why did it seem to me – precisely sixteen days ago it was – as though those two towers were crashing directly into the empty centre of our civilisation, the alleged target of the attack? Everyone appeared to know what our civilisation is. […] So it’s Greek philosophy, the monotheistic religions, the Enlightenment’s belief in reason … And what if they had all lost their effectualness in the Occident under the ‘terror of the economy’ and lived on only as a chimera inside us? And have not more and more people sensed that this civilisation of ours is hollowed out and empty?

(page 11)

(Incidentally, that ‘the Occident’ makes me wish I could read German so I’d know if it was Wolf or the translator Katy Derbyshire who decided to use it rather than the more usual ‘the West’. Given the general ease of the English elsewhere, I’m assuming it was Wolf: she tends to use ‘the West’ to mean West Germany, and Katy Derbyshire has honoured her usage.)

In the period covered by this book, Wolf completed the only other book by her that I’ve read: City of Angels or, The Overcoat of Dr Freud. That book deals in part with a moment in 1985 when it was revealed that she had been an informant for the Stasi – something she had completely forgotten. There are some interesting footnotes to that book – she mentions in passing the difficulty of writing it, of dealing with editorial changes and then, in 2010, readers’ responses. This passage makes me resolve to tell writers when their work means something to me:

Then a quite long, intense letter from a woman from Berlin, prompted by City of Angels, which she calls a ‘captivating and liberating’ text. My books, she writes, have accompanied her for more than half her life (people often tell me that now). She goes on to thank me for staying ‘in this part of the country’ […] I could cite more of this letter, which is typical of a large number of letters I’ve received since City of Angels. More from the East – but not only from there – more women than men, more older than very young people. Testaments of personal concern, which push aside my doubts over whether I ought to have published the book in this form.

(page 145)

The book is probably an example of ‘late style’, as discussed in Edward Said’s On Late Style, a book that failed to impress me much when I read it last year, but which seems to be relevant to almost everything I’ve read since. Like Said’s book, this one was published posthumously. Unlike his, it’s explicit about the writer’s physical condition. This moment from 2007 strikes a chord with me, though the pain in my joints is a trivial shadow of hers:

From the living room window I see a young blonde woman walking past, in a white jacket and black trousers; I watch enviously as she walks without effort, as if that were the most natural thing in the world.

I console myself – when I was her age I could do that too.

(page 110)

The final entry – just two pages of notes she managed to scribble two months before she died – is an extraordinary testimony to her dedication to the life of the mind, and to this task in particular: among the notations about the struggle to find a position for sleeping that won’t be in pain, her medication, difficulties with eating and going to the toilet, she mentions her reading:

I read a few pages of [Estela Canto’s] relationship to Borges, which Ellen sent me. Didn’t know B. was infertile – for mental reasons, not least due to his domineering mother.

(p 149)

In the middle of it all, there’s always something new to learn.

I don’t suppose this book is everyone’s cup of tea, but it makes me glad to belong to species that has included such an individual.

Erich Kästner’s Emil and the Detectives

Erich Kästner and Walter Trier (illustrator), Emil and the Detectives (1929; translation by Eileen Hall 1959; Puffin 1984)

My virtual To-Be-Read pile includes innumerable children’s literature classics. Emil and the Detectives is one of them. I have somehow come to own a copy of it, and it seemed like the perfect read after the rigours of Edward Said’s On Late Style. I knew almost nothing about it. And of course, not being a children’s literature scholar, I still don’t know what its historical claim to fame is, but I did enjoy it, and had a complex enough response that I felt compelled to do a little background reading 

First published in Germany in 1929, it evidently broke new ground by telling a tale set in recognisable current reality, mainly in Berlin, with a mainly realistic story. Emil, who lives with his mother in the tiny village of Neustadt, sets out by train to visit his grandmother and aunt and family in Berlin. His mother gives him the enormous sum of seven pounds (in Eileen Hall’s 1959 translation the money is British), one pound for spending money, the rest to help Grandma out. The money is stolen, and Emil has to catch the thief and retrieve the money. He is helped by an ever expanding gang of Berlin boys, and one girl. It’s not really a spoiler to tell you that they are successful.

The book was a delight to this 71 year old, and the note on my yellowing copy’s opening page is almost certainly accurate:

It is a book everyone reads with pleasure. Forward readers of eight could tackle it, while those in their early teens still enjoy it without wanting to disguise the fact.

The squabbling among the boys, their awe in the presence of the only girl, the presence of a kindly journalist named Mr Kästner, the acknowledgement to the smallest boy whose undramatic contribution to the project was nonetheless heroic, the attention paid throughout to tiny practical details, the evocation of the city of Berlin – nostalgic now but no doubt fresh and new then: so much to love.

The thing that sent me to Wikipedia was this: I became uneasy in the climactic scenes leading up to the villain’s capture. Some of this is described from his point of view:

Mr Grundeis found himself completely surrounded. He looked about in amazement, Boys swarmed round him, all laughing and talking among themselves, jostling each other, yet somehow always keeping up with him, Some of them stared at him so hard that he hardly knew where to look.

Then – whizz – a ball flew past his head. He did not like that, and tried to move more quickly; so did the boys, and he remained surrounded. Then he tried to take them by surprise by turning abruptly to go down a side street, but he could not get through the mass of children which seemed to stream across his path whichever way he turned.

And it goes on. Mr Grundeis threatens to call the police, but the boys call his bluff. And so on, until there’s a violent confrontation in a bank, and the boys convince the tellers and police (who do eventually turn up) that the man is indeed a thief. I can’t be the only one to be made uneasy by this scene of a cheerful mob of adolescent boys harassing a solitary man, especially in late 1920s Berlin. It’s possible that Mr Grundeis has some of the cultural markers for ‘Jew’. He is certainly described in more detail than any other character. He wears a bowler hat, and has ‘a long face, with a small black moustache and a lot of wrinkles around his mouth’. In addition, ‘His ears were thin and stuck out from his head.’

So I was uneasy. I did go to Wikipedia, where I learned that this is the only pre-1945 book by Kästner that wasn’t censored by the Nazis, so I’m reasonably assured that this isn’t deliberate anti-semitism. But I’m putting it out there as a question to people who know more about the history of this book than I do. Does this lovely book about youthful solidarity and power contain a coded version of the antisemitism that Hitler and the Nazis built on? Is it possible for the same story to make one think of the recent school students’ demonstrations for the environment, and in the same moment to remember that boy in Cabaret singing so sweetly, ‘The future belongs to me’? Or am I being hyper-vigilant in this age of assertive identity politics.

David Malouf’s An Open Book

David Malouf, An Open Book (UQP 2018)

Speaking a couple of years ago at a seminar on Poetry and the Sacred at the Catholic University, David Malouf offered a definition of prayer as paying close attention. If one accepts that definition, then An Open Book is full of prayer: attention to the environment, to relationships, to small children playing, to tiny moments, to his own fleeting thoughts and feelings. There’s also close attention to language, in particular the kind of attention that translation demands.

This means that for the reader the book offers many things that make you go hmmm, or ah, and sometimes oof! 

The title, An Open Book, could look like a publisher’s little joke: that is, it’s a kind of label – ‘This is a book.’ But there’s more to it: it makes you think  the sentence, ‘My life is an open book,’ and the book does follow the trajectory of a life’. It pretty much begins with a series entitled ‘Kinderszenen’, German for ‘Scenes from childhood’, and ends with a number of poems about old age and the anticipation of death. It follows in the poet’s footsteps from the Brisbane of his childhood, to London, the village of Campagnatico in Tuscany, Myrtle Street in Chippendale, and back to Brisbane.

One of the childhood poems, ‘The Open Book’, suggests pretty strongly that while the book may be in some way autobiographical, it’s not offering us a writer stripped bare:

My mother could read me, or so she claimed,
like a book.  Fair warning! But I
too was a reader and knew that books

like houses have their secrets. Under the words
even of plain speakers,
echo and pre-echo.

There’s plenty of echo and pre-echo under the mostly plain words of these poems.

I mostly want to talk about translation, but first, just because I love them, I have to quote these lines from one of the ‘death’ poems, ‘Before or After’:

At something more
than fourscore, till the big

surprise kicks in and leaves me
breathless, most
surprises, though not unwelcome,

are small. It is the small,
the muted inconsequential,
at this point that comes closest
to real.

About translation. Malouf’s first collection, Bicycle and other poems (UQP 1970) included a number of translations. I can’t quote from memory, but I remember the pleasure I found in the freshness of  his versions of Horace: one of them mentions the early light glinting off milk churns put out beside a country road, and to me it felt that rural Queensland was being linked to classical Rome; and his translation of ‘carpe diem’ is a small miracle: 

Today's a rose.
Let it blaze in your lapel.

There’s a Horace translation in this book, and a Dante, and the one I want to talk about, ‘La Belle Hélène’, after ‘Sonnet pour Hélène’ by the 16th century French poet Pierre de Ronsard. This is not exactly an obscure poem: I found a website that gives the original French and at least ten translations (here, if you’re interested).

A basic question about any translation is: why? Why this poem? Why include it in a collection of your own poems? Is it a technical exercise? is the translated poem one you love and simply want your readers to know about? Or does it provide a medium for you to express something of your own?

The first thing to say is that ‘La Belle Hélène’ is actually a translation – in contrast to W B Yeats’s also-lovely ‘When You Are Old‘, which takes the original poem as a starting point for a slightly different argument addressed to his own love.

Look at the first lines.

The original:

Quand vous serez bien vieille, au soir, à la chandelle,
Assise auprès du feu, dévidant et filant,
Direz, chantant mes vers, en vous émerveillant :
Ronsard me célébrait du temps que j'étais belle.

Very close literal translation):

When you will be well old, in the evening, by the candle,
Sitting near the fire, dividing and spinning
You will say, singing my verses, being filled with wonder:
Ronsard celebrated me in the time when I was beautiful

David Malouf:

Long years from now, in the fireside hush of midnight,
as you muse by candlelight, you'll pause at your needle
-work and say, 'Years back, when I was a girl,
an impossible sweet sixteen, Ronsard, the poet

you know, once sang my praises, called me 'belle'.

Malouf doesn’t stay close to the words of the original, or use full rhymes, but nor does he hijack the poem for his own purposes. There is evidence everywhere that he has paid close, loving, deeply respectful attention to the original. All the elements are there: the projection well into the future, the fire, the candle, the work, the rhyme scheme (though modernised away from full rhymes). Instead of singing the poet’s verses, the future person drops his name, a rough equivalent in these days when no one sits around a fire singing poetry. Malouf moves the hour of the imagined future scene from the evening to midnight, and introduces the idea of a hush, but the effect is to intensify what’s in the original rather than change it. Interestingly, he does specify the girl’s age, ‘sweet sixteen’, which has a decidedly 20th century feel, and can be seen as part of the project of rescuing the poem from a museum existence.

But she’s not just ‘sweet sixteen’, she’s ‘an impossible sweet sixteen’. And that sounds a note not in the original: one feels that Ronsard is about the same age as the woman he addresses, but this ‘impossible’ comes from a much older person. It seems to be asking how anyone could ever be that young?

And it turns out that the poet as an older person has been subtly woven into the texture of the poem. Where Ronsard’s speaker refers to his future self abstractly as a boneless ghost (fantôme sans os), Malouf’s is more specifically imagined – ‘innocuous’ and ‘esteemed’. It’s slight, but enough to be the difference between a young person and an old one imagining themselves as no longer alive. So the ground has been prepared for when he calls her ‘child’ in the second last line. And that word does a lot of work.

Ronsard’s original is unambiguously a poem of seduction. Malouf’s is something else. Ronsard says the older woman will be ‘regrettant mon amour et votre fier dédain‘ (‘regretting my love and your proud disdain’). There is no reference to Malouf’s speaker’s love:

You'll regret at last what youth 
and youthful pride disdained.

Ronsard’s final injunction – ‘n’attendez à demain; /Cueillez dès aujourd’hui les roses de la vie‘ (‘don’t wait until tomorrow; / Gather today the roses of life’) – is a lover pressing his case. In Malouf’s version, having diverged incrementally from the original, it becomes something else, a warning from age to youth:

child, relent, choose life! Today is a rose
that withers. Pluck it now, and boldly. Beware tomorrow.

Only the single word, ‘relent’, carries a hint that seduction might be on the agenda. Which would be just a bit creepy. But having now read the poem a number of times, I find that element recedes into the shadows, and the poem becomes an impassioned, generous, considered cry to the young not to waste their youth.

Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights and the Book Group

Olga Tokarczuk, Flights (©2007, Translated Jennifer Crofts 2017, Text Publishing 2017)

flights.jpgBefore the meeting: If I hadn’t been reading this for the Book Group, I would have stopped reading at about page 80. As it won the Man Booker International Prize for 2018, it seems that wiser heads see it differently, but to my mind it consisted of fragments of story interspersed with short, mostly banal reflections on aspects of travel. It was like reading excerpts from a notebook, some of them expanded to a degree.

I did keep going, from a sense of duty to the Group and in the hope that some of the fragmentary narratives might be continued later.

On page 83, it turns out, the narrator is in an airport and encounters a lecture being given on Travel Psychology. A quick Duck-Duck-Go search shows that travel psychology is a real thing, but the discipline by that name in this lecture seems to be Olga Tokarczuk’s invention, and the lecture has every appearance of telling the reader how the book works, that is to say, the lecturer is the character some film critics would call Basil Exposition. The foundational idea of travel psychology, he says, is constellationality:

in life […] it is impossible to build a consistent cause-and-effect course of argument or a narrative with events that succeed each other casuistically and follow from each other. … Constellation, not sequencing, carries truth. […] Human life is comprised of situations. There is, of course, a certain inclination towards the repetition of behaviours. This repetition does not, however, mean that we should succumb in our imaginations to the appearance of any sort of consistent whole.

That is, abandon hope of finding a consistent whole, all ye who enter here.

Some of the stories that follow do allow for development and even resolution, particularly one about seventeenth century anatomists, and another about a woman who steps out of her life to become homeless in Moscow for a time. The most frustratingly curtailed story from early in the book does continue to a resolved state in the last section. But in general, though there’s a salient theme to do with the preservation of human bodies for display purposes, the book fulfils that warning not to expect ‘the appearance of any sort of consistent whole’. I’ve got nothing against constellations or constellationality, but I guess I do like a bit of a consistent whole. I did enjoy some moments, but over all, I’m a long way from being a fan of this book. Sorry!

[A pedantic note: As a lazy blogger, I looked online to see if someone else had quoted from that Travel Psychology lecture, planning to cut and paste. As a recovering proofreader I was interested to see how what I found in the Chicago Review of Books differs from the text in my copy of the book, which is what I’ve quoted from above: the review follows US spelling conventions, omits the word ‘Human’, and has ‘made up of’ rather than the incorrect ‘comprised of’. It looks as if the US editors were more rigorous than the ones responsible for the Text Publishing edition. If I was even more obsessive than I am, I’d hunt out a US edition to see if, for instance, it too misspells ‘minuscule’ or if its translation of ‘quaestio oritur‘ [‘the question arises’]  sticks to the correct literal translation or gives the common but erroneous ‘begs the question’ as in my copy.]

After the meeting: We had a good conversation over spaghetti bolognese, just seven of us. Mostly people enjoyed the book more than I did, but I think I’m right in saying that no one absolutely loved it – I had been hoping it would find an unabashed champion who would make me see what I had missed, but it was not to be. One man in particular found a thematic glue to do with the unpredictability of life, but mostly there was a nagging sense of dissatisfaction. What did emerge in the course of the conversation was the range of stories: none of us could remember one of the episodes singled out for mention on the back cover, but we reminded each other of many moments we had enjoyed.

Given that in one way or another, most of the reflections and narratives in Flights are to do with travel, it was appropriate that the conversation moved on to our own travellers’ tales: two of us had independently visited the bogs of Estonia and a festival in Riga, one had seen wonders in Texas and California, and one had had a transformative experience in Arnhem Land.

Czesław Miłosz’s Captive Mind

Czesław Miłosz, The Captive Mind, translated from the Polish by Jane Zielonko (1953, 1981, Penguin Modern Classics 2010)

milosz.jpgThis book was very popular among anti-Communists during the ColdWar, and it’s not hard to see why. It’s a powerful critique of Stalinism. But it’s a long way from attacking Marxism or proclaiming the joys of capitalism.

It’s a classic of 20th century Polish literature, whose author went on to to a long and distinguished careers as a poet, winning the 1980 Nobel Prize in Literature, described in the citation as one ‘who with uncompromising clear-sightedness voices man’s exposed condition in a world of severe conflicts’.

I found the book riveting, not just as a product of its historical moment, though I have come away from it knowing a lot more about the history of Poland in the first half of the 20th century, but for the light it sheds on the way social conditions can inhibit, distort, compromise, undermine, confine, even determine the minds of even the most serious intellectuals. There’s an anatomy of the ways people can pay lip service while holding onto their own beliefs (a phenomenon he calls ‘Ketman’, which includes this:

Just as theologians in periods of strict orthodoxy expressed their views in the rigorous language of the Church, so the writers of the people’s democracies make use of an accepted special style, terminology and linguistic ritual. What is important is not what someone said but what he wanted to say, disguising his thought by removing a comma, inserting an ‘and’, establishing this rather than another sequence in the problems discussed. Unless one has lived there one cannot know how many titanic battles are being fought, how the heroes of Ketman are falling, what this warfare is being waged over. Obviously, people caught up in this daily struggle are rather contemptuous of their compatriot political émigrés. A surgeon cannot consider a butcher his equal in dexterity; just so a Pole, Czech or Hungarian practised in the art of dissimulation smiles when he learns that someone in the emigration has called him a traitor (or a swine) at the very moment when this traitor (or swine) is engaged in a match of philosophical chess on whose outcome the fate of fifteen laboratories or ateliers depends. They do not know how one pays – those abroad do not know/. They do not know what one buys, and at what price.

The bulk of the book is taken up with four heartbreaking case studies of writers/ intellectuals and the prices they paid, either for trying to maintain their integrity within the system or by becoming its agents  – he calls them Alpha, Beta, Lambda and Delta, but Wikipedia identifies them as real people. Though he is sometimes scathing about their choices, he doesn’t see it as a matter of individual morality:

Whoever reads the pubic statements of [these four writers]might say that they sold themselves. The truth is, however, more involved. These men are, more or less consciously, victims of a historic situation. Consciousness does not help them to shed their bonds; on the contrary, it forges them.nAt the very best, it can offer them the delights of Ketman as a consolation. Never before has there been such enslavement through consciousness as in the twentieth century. Even my generation was still taught that reason frees men. … In the people’s democracies, a battle is being waged for mastery over the human spirit.

I found it hard to read this book without deep unease, not just about totalitarianism or the admirable people I have known who were Stalinists back in the day. True, in Australia people aren’t generally sent to labour camps if they criticise the government or depart from the generally accepted mode of conversation. But I found myself thinking of our own government’s recent banning of Chelsea Manning, and of the constant barrage of propaganda for consumerism and individualism generated by our media, of the way there can be night after night of coverage of the terrible drought in new South wales just now with never a mention of climate change.

Die Gedanken sind frei. Thinking is free, but not as free as we like to think.

Elisabeth Åsbrink’s 1947

Elisabeth Åsbrink, 1947: When Now Begins, translated by Fiona Graham (2016, translation 2017)

1947.jpg

I try to assemble the year 1947 into a splintered whole. This is lunacy, but time does not leave me alone.

I have a personal interest in the year 1947: it’s the year when I began. In my early 20s, before there was an Internet to make the task stupidly easy, I spent a little time drawing up a list of big events that happened in that year. I didn’t get much beyond the civil war in China, the new constitution in Japan, the establishment of the 40 hour week in Australia and a list of births and deaths.

Elisabeth Åsbrink’s project of assembling the year ‘into a splintered whole’ is much more ambitious than that, and has produced a hugely readable, enlightening and disturbing book. It progresses through the year, month by month, in tiny sub-chapters. From these splinters a number of narratives emerge. We see the beginnings of the Muslim Brotherhood and a new significance for the term jihad, the rise of new white supremacist nationalism from the ashes of Nazism and Italian Fascism, the consolidation of Soviet domination of eastern Europe, the birth of the United Nations Genocide Convention, the role of the powerful western nations in setting up Israel to be a focus of conflict in its region, the cavalier and callous role of Britain in the partition of  India and Pakistan. A number of personal dramas play out: Simone de Beauvoir and Nelson Algren begin their passionate relationship, and she starts work on The Second Sex; Eric Blair aka George Orwell drafts 1984; Primo Levi, Paul Celan, Thomas Mann, Nelly Sachs shine a literary light on the horrific recent past.

Between June and July is a chapter entitled ‘Days and Death’, 17 pages of the author’s family history, in which her personal connection to the events she narrates becomes clear. It’s a terrible story of loss at the hands of the Nazis and of mysterious, almost miraculous escapes, of resilience and heroism and devastation. 1947 doesn’t seem to play a pivotal role there, but this is where it becomes obvious that the book is much more than an extended and scholarly version of my youthful doodling. It’s not that Åsbrink has set the year 1947 as a structural constraint on her project. There are plenty of excursions into 1947’s past to make its present comprehensible, and into its future to spell out consequences that could not have been known at the time, such as the nakba and the conflict in Kasmir. So the excursion into 200 years of family history is simply – or complexly – another part of the overall attempt to make sense of the world of ‘now’.

Probably every reader will have something from their own private 1947 that didn’t make the cut. I missed the beginnings of the US/Vietnam War and developments in China and Japan, and accept stoically that Australia rates just two passing mentions (though who knew there was an Australian on the UN committee set up to make recommendations on Palestine). And it may be that another writer would have picked a different year to mark ‘when now began’ – 1968 or 1793 perhaps. But this is an extraordinary, accessible book that shines a brilliant light on our times.

Robert Seethaler’s Whole Life

Robert Seethaler, A Whole Life, translated by Charlotte Collins (first published in 2014, translation 2015)

life.jpg

‘You can buy a man’s hours off him, you can steal his days from him, or you can rob him of his whole life, but no one can take away from any man so much as a single moment.’

If this slim book is any guide, I really should read more German fiction. It tells the life story of a simple working man in a mountain village. He has moments of quiet joy, and small achievements, and he stumbles. He is brutally treated in his childhood, is a conscript in World War Two and a prisoner of the Soviets long after the war is over, and has his share of violent tragedy. He keeps his integrity and his dignity, and though it’s true that his life is made up of moments, it’s also true that he has a whole life.

I only know about six words in German, so I can’t comment on the accuracy of the translation. But I can say that it read smoothly and is beautiful English prose. The quote at the top isn’t typical: mostly the book’s characters are pretty inarticulate, but this statement was more or less blurted out by the manager of a construction company when he was hiring the protagonist. It could have been a clunky insertion of a thematic statement, but in Seethaler’s (and Collins’s) hands, it is like a magical realist moment where the character momentarily becomes an oracular figure – without causing a ripple in the flow of the narrative.  And the book is full of such joys.

 

Nos ossos

I had hoped to write about the Moving Hearts Project in London as it happened, but it turns out need recollection time to do that sort of thing, and that sort of time has been in short supply. Other kinds of blogging, including brief notes about my reading and perhaps a little translation, don’t have quite the same needs.

Today we visited the Capela dos Ossos (Chapel of Bones) attached to the Church of São Francisco in Evora, Portugal. The chapel was built in the 17th century, with walls and pillars covered with thousands of human bones, including skulls. It’s beautiful in an inner-city tattoo kind of way, but very creepy, especially when you realise that the bones were dug up from cemeteries connected to the church. The makers, however unthinkingly disrespectful to the graves they robbed, had pious intentions. The chapel is meant as an over-the-top memento mori.

A poem by Padre António da Ascenção Teles, a local parish priest in the mid 19th century, is displayed in the chapel to help us tourists understand the pious intent. (I’ve also included it, in Portuguese, at the end of this post.) It’s a sonnet, so how could I resist having a bash at a version (helped of course, since I don’t speak or read Portuguese, by the literal, non-rhyming English version also on display in the chapel, which you can see here). My title is the message carved in the stone over the entrance to the chapel.

Nos ossos qui aqui estamos pelos vossos esperamos /
We bones who are here are waiting for yours

Where are you rushing to, sightseer?
Stop now. Ignore the guidebook’s patter.
Nothing that’s in there can matter
more than the sight you see right here.

Billions have gone, no longer breathing,
and you’ll end pretty much the same.
Ignore this? That would be a shame.
For every life, death is a key thing.

Shopping, selfies, news with noddies,
tweets of Trump and deeds of Dutton:
who remembers we’re all bodies?

Just look. These walls, though they’re bizarre,
can reset your attention button.
Stop now. Remember what you are.

The original, by Fr. António da Ascenção Teles:

Aonde vais, caminhante, acelerado?
Pára…não prossigas mais avante;
Negócio, não tens mais importante,
Do que este, à tua vista apresentado.

Recorda quantos desta vida têm passado,
Reflecte em que terás fim semelhante,
Que para meditar causa é bastante
Terem todos mais nisto parado.

Pondera, que influido d’essa sorte,
Entre negociações do mundo tantas,
Tão pouco consideras na morte;

Porém, se os olhos aqui levantas,
Pára … porque em negócio deste porte,
Quanto mais tu parares, mais adiantas.

 

The Book Group and Svetlana Alexievich’s Chernobyl Prayer

Svetlana Alexievich, Chernobyl Prayer (1997, trans Anna Gunin & Arch Tait Penguin Classics 2016)

chernobyl.jpegFrom post revolutionary China in Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing back to the Russian Revolution in China Miéville’s October, and now forward to post-Soviet Belarus: the book group has lit on a theme.

Before the meeting:
Knowing that Chernobyl Prayer is essentially a series of monologues about the aftermath of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster, I expected it to be a gruelling read, so I rationed it. I worked out how I would need to read seventeen pages a day to finish the book before the Group met, and set that as a schedule. Of course it didn’t work out like that, but it was a good strategy.

As Studs Terkel’s Working did for working people in the USA, or Wendy Loewenstein’s Weevils in the Flour for the 1930s Depression in Australia, this book provides a platform for scores of witnesses who otherwise would be largely ignored or – as a number of Alexievich’s interviewees tell us – treated as specimens. There are peasants and nuclear physicists, loyal Communists and embittered cynics, ancient women and nine year olds, poets, playwrights and journalists. There’s operatic intensity, fatalistic heroism, jokes that are terrible in both meanings of the word. The cultivated and forested land around Chernobyl is lovingly evoked, along with the invisible horror of nuclear radiation. The monologues that pretty much begin and end the book, each titled ‘A lone human voice’, are long, passionate, heartbreaking stories of love and bereavement, one from the widow of a fireman who was among what we now call the first responders, the other from the widow of a clean-up worker who was conscripted for the job six months later.

Here’s an excerpt from the author’s interview with herself early in the book:

This is not a book on Chernobyl, but on the world of Chernobyl. … what I’m concerned with is what I would call the ‘missing history’, the invisible imprint of our stay on earth and in time. I paint and collect mundane feelings, thoughts and words. I am trying to capture the life of the soul. A day in the life of ordinary people. Here, though, everything was extraordinary: both the event itself and the people, as they settled into the new space. How many times has art rehearsed the apocalypse, offered different technological versions of doomsday? Now, though, we can be assured that life is infinitely more fantastical. … Chernobyl is a mystery that we have yet to unravel. An undeciphered sign. A mystery, perhaps, for the twenty-first century; a challenge for it. What has become clear is that, besides the challenges of Communism, nationalism and nascent religion which we are living with and dealing with, other challenges lie ahead: challenges more fiendish and all-embracing, although still hidden from view. Yet, after Chernobyl, something had cracked open.

I’ve responded to works by other Nobel Prize laureates with a kind of compliant respect, ‘I can see why this person was given the Nobel Prize, and I guess my horizons have been expanded by reading this book.’ In the case of Chernobyl Prayer I am deeply grateful that the Norwegians brought it to my attention (and to the Book Group for prompting me to read it). In illuminating the ‘missing history’ of Chernobyl, it reminds us of the disasters, past and in the making, that we so easily turn our heads away from: Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Maralinga, Fukushima, and the overarching threat of climate change. In this way it is like Maralinga: the An̲angu story by the Yalata Aboriginal Community with Christobel Mattingley, or Yhonnie Scarce’s beautiful and unsettling installation Death Zephyr (click for an image). It would be impossible for a reasonably well informed Australian to read this book, especially the sections dealing with the way political pragmatism trumped the laws of physics, without thinking of the pronouncements on coal from Tony Abbott and his ilk.

The meeting: I hosted the meeting this time. I let people know in advance that I had made an enormous amount of marmalade from our cumquat tree this year. One of the chaps emailed on the weekend, ‘The prospect of marmalade is the only thing getting me through this miserable book!’ Others echoed the sentiment.

It turned out that the conversation was so animated that all thought of marmalade vanished from our minds. It’s a perfect book-club book. There is so much detail that the conversation bounced around from one alarming moment to another, as we reminded each other of what we’d read. We were in awe of the author’s skill in getting such poetry down on the page from her interlocutors’ testimonies.

And now a hasty fourteen lines, written before the group met:

November Verse 3: After reading Svetlana Alexievich’s Chernobyl Prayer
(‘I realise now that terrible things in life happen unspectacularly and naturally‘)
Good Soviets, good peasants trusted
authorities that reassured,
a lifetime’s mental habit rusted
on. To keep that Party Card,
to serve the people, serve the nation,
be not afeared of radiation:
in spring the wood’s still gently green,
roengtens, curies can’t be seen.
We have our own insanity
three decades on: the planet warms,
brings bushfires, catastrophic storms,
but ‘Coal’s good for humanity’
wins votes. With luck in time we’ll learn
so millions more don’t have to burn.

Keigo Higashino’s Salvation of a Saint

Keigo Higashino, Salvation of a Saint (2018, translated by Alexander O Smith, Abacus 2012)

salvationThis is exactly the kind of book I’ve decided not to read any more – the novel equivalent of a run-of-the-mill police detective TV series. But I’d borrowed it from the Book Club, and the cover quoted The Times saying Keigo Higashino is ‘ the Japanese Stieg Larsson’ so I read it.

Evidently it’s part of a series, the second to be translated into English, featuring Tokyo police detective Kusanagi, his retired scientist consultant–friend Professor Yukawa and junior-detective-who-brings-a-woman’s-insight, Utsumi.

It’s pleasant enough, once you get past the very telling writing (as in not showing), like an episode of Jonathan Creek. It pretty much tells you who done it on page 5 before the murder has even happened, and from then on the question is how.

If there’s any wider social observation it’s been lost in translation. I don’t mean that Alexander O Smith has done a bad job. As far as I can tell the translation itself is fine. But if, for example, there are subtle comments about cultural change in modern Japan, they are too subtle to cross the East-West divide. Unless something huge has been lost, the only possible justification for the comparison to Stieg Larsson is that the series is very popular. There is certainly none of Larsson’s politics.

Also: the title doesn’t make sense.

As we say in the Book Club, 2 out of 5.