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Datura (Or A Delusion We All See) by Leena Krohn, trans. Anna Volmari & J. Robert Tupasela

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Our narrator works as an editor and writer for a magazine specialising in bringing oddities to light. Her mysterious publisher sends her exploring through a city that becomes by degrees ever stranger. From a sunrise of automated cars working in silent precision to a possible vampire, she discovers that people are both odder and more ordinary than they might seem. Especially if you’re earing datura seeds. Especially when the legendary Voynich Manuscript is involved.
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Leena Krohn is a writer the VanderMeers, through their small Cheeky Frawg publishing imprint, seem to be working hard to bring into more prominence among Anglophone readers of the Weird; they brought out Datura in 2013, and have since released a Complete Fiction volume. I decided to start with the slimmer option…

Datura is a very strange book, although for readers familiar with publications like Fortean Times, it is perhaps a little less strange that for those less familiar; after all, the fictional New Anomalist magazine of the novel bears more than a passing resemblance to the fabled Fortean Times and its quest to catalogue and publicise the weirder reaches of humanity. What makes Krohn’s novel slightly weirder, though, is that it is largely a collection of meta-articles; pieces about the writing of pieces for the New Anomalist, so we don’t learn much about the subjects themselves so much as how our narrator felt about them, an interesting twist.

That leads to a slightly disjointed feel about the book, though. Datura very obviously has something of a through-line, of the disintegration of reality around the narrator and the way her reality has separated out from that of the rest of us, and a lack of clarity as to where those divides are. However, the way that throughline is constructed is in a series of snapshots; there’s little linking each of the short episodes, although some things do carry through and a couple of characters appear multiple times, but on the whole there’s no sense of chronology to the episodes and the book as a whole.

Oddly, that doesn’t detract from the strangeness of the whole experience. Krohn presents each of these weird encounters, real or delusional, without judgement, and without enough framework around them to really separate out which is which; Datura is, in that sense, a fascinating exercise in breaking down the barriers of the real. That Krohn also mixes real fringe groups, such as Otherkin and kinksters, with wilder fringe science ideas that also have a hold, and with actual delusions such as slipping into other realities, and never makes it clear which are which necessarily, really adds to the slightly unreal and disjointed feel of the book.

Most of the episodes are hung onto a single character with whom our nameless narrator is interacting, and one of the greatest strengths of Datura is the brief thumbnail sketches which come out of these encounters. Every character pops off the page in a believable and real manner, with a whole interior life implied by their brief appearances; interactions with the narrator imply a lot about their life beyond their interactions with representatives of the New Anomalist, and the way the world receives them and their ideas. Indeed, having someone so determinedly not fringe as the narrator of Datura really throws the ideas of the other characters into highlight, and works to make the strange things that happen to her even stranger by her mundane, albeit confused, reactions.

In the end, Datura is a brilliant book, although I remain a bit on the fence about the level of disjointedness of it; Leena Krohn really has created a marvellous work of the Weird here.

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Amatka by Karin Tidbeck, trans. Karin Tidbeck

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Vanja, an information assistant, is sent from her home city of Essre to the austere, wintry colony of Amatka with an assignment to collect intelligence for the government. Immediately she feels that something strange is going on: people act oddly in Amatka, and citizens are monitored for signs of subversion.

Intending to stay just a short while, Vanja falls in love with her housemate, Nina, and prolongs her visit. But when she stumbles on evidence of a growing threat to the colony, and a cover-up by its administration, she embarks on an investigation that puts her at tremendous risk.

In Karin Tidbeck’s world, everyone is suspect, no one is safe, and nothing—not even language, nor the very fabric of reality—can be taken for granted. Amatka is a beguiling and wholly original novel about freedom, love, and artistic creation by a captivating new voice.
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Karin Tidbeck first came to my attention through Cheeky Frawg’s publication of Jagganath a few years back; it feels like even then we were all waiting for a novel by this multitalented multilinguist who translates her own fiction from Swedish into English, including this novel. So perhaps it is no surprise that Amatka is such a linguistically involved novel…

Amatka is on the surface of it a novel in the tradition of Ursula Le Guin mixed with a good dash of George Orwell; The Dispossessed meets 1984. At the start, it seems like a fictionalised version of the Soviet Union with a dash of the Weird, with its intrusive government presence, communist and communal system, dismal dreariness, spartan tendencies, and general bureaucratic and depersonalising approach. Tidbeck sets us up to expect one kind of novel, very much in the mode of 1984, where love as resistance leads to a more generalised resistance against an unjust authority; but Amatka goes in a different direction, with its weirder elements.

Those weirder elements are also present almost from the very start, with the labelling of everything; it’s implied that in the world of Amatka, naming things helps them or forces them to keep their form. It’s an interesting concept on the face of it, and that’s before Tidbeck goes further with the idea, playing with it and pushing it to weird and strange places. Tidbeck uses Amatka to play with, and literalise, the ideas of form and function as defined by language, and reality being what we describe it as; there are fantastic unspoken parts of the book about the way poetry versus prose describe things, and fiction versus fact, that are really interesting and could have been almost a whole novel in themselves.

Amatka is an entry in a long discussion in fiction about dystopia and the way strictures are enforced on society. Tidbeck builds her Soviet-reminiscent setting before explaining at all why it is necessary or how it came about; we see everything from the perspective of Vanja, and her status in society, which influences our reactions to everything, for reasons which only become clear as the book continues. Amatka plays with the necessity of the strictures of oppression, requiring the reader to ask whether freedom is worth the price, in this context, of that freedom, or whether order is worth the cost of order; there aren’t easy answers here.

The characters of Amatka are the weak link here. While Vanja’s outsider status and feeling of being a universal outsider is well written, and her doubts and anguish at the oppression of the communes well conveyed, the rest of the cast have a tendency to feel a bit flat, like ciphers or game-pieces moved into place for the sake of the plot and the sake of Vanja rather than people in their own right. Nina comes closest to breaking this pattern, and Tidbeck conveys her various conflicts between ideology and personal relationships very well, although at times, especially when they’re most strongly opposed, it can feel a little forced.

In the end, despite the weakness of characterisation, Amatka is an absolute masterpiece of a novel, and Tidbeck’s writing and ideas spark off the page and engage the reader wholly. An intellectual, literary piece of brilliance.

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Kingdom Cons by Yuri Herrera trans. Lisa Dillman

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In the court of the King, everyone knows their place. But as the Artist wins hearts and egos with his ballads, uncomfortable truths emerge that shake the Kingdom to its core. Part surreal fable and part crime romance, this prize-winning novel from Yuri Herrera questions the price of keeping your integrity in a world ruled by patronage and power.
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Kingdom Cons is Yuri Herrera’s third novella with And Other Stories, and his third in the peculiarly Mexican genre known as narcoliterature; whereas Transmigration of Bodies is a postapocalyptic plague-ridden story, and Signs Preceding the End of the World a more traditional people-smuggling story, Kingdom Cons is a story itself about narcoliterature, and taking the form of a more mythic story, with Arthurian resonances.

Kingdom Cons doesn’t have characters, it has roles; it has members of the Court of the King(pin). The only character whose name we ever learn, the Artist, Lobo, is our viewpoint character, and we only see his name before he’s drawn into the orbit of the King; after that, he becomes the Artist, to join the Jeweller, the King, the Traitor, the Gringo, the Journalist, and so on. Each person has a kind of nebulous property; they are defined by their role, but also exist beyond it to some extent, such that the Artist especially has both a life revolving around the King, and a life in defiance of that life. Indeed, Herrera recalls Arthurian legend with the role of the Artist especially, as he echoes Lancelot, right through to the end of the novella’s story.

If the characters aren’t exactly fleshed out, and defined largely by their roles, those roles are incredibly vivid. Kingdom Cons doesn’t go into a detailed discussion of the King’s cross-border drugs empire, but it does give a vague picture of the kind of grime of that criminal enterprise, of the compromises made with other criminals, of the complicity of the authorities on both sides of the border, of the way that it impacts the lives of those in the orbit of the King and manipulates their lives into strange, near-mythic things utterly unlike those on the outside. Herrera doesn’t glamourise this life, but doesn’t pretend it doesn’t have upsides either; it’s an interesting balance to strike, and one done with great skill.

A theme throughout the novel, largely drawn from Herrera’s focus on the Artist as protagonist, is about the way stories about the drugs trade mythologise it. Kingdom Cons is a story about narcoliterature as well as being a piece of narcoliterature; the importance of face, the importance of image, are central to the story, and Herrera is very aware of what stories can do, in terms of giving or stealing away power from someone. The way Kingdom Cons engages with those questions, and the concommitant responsibilities or lack thereof, of artists is a fascinating discussion that is held by playing out different options for the Artist, and by following through the various possible consequences of different kinds of choice.

If Kingdom Cons has a drawback, it’s the treatment of women. In part influenced by the macho culture of Mexico, women are valued only for their sex appeal; every woman we meet, with the exception of the Witch, is a sexual partner or a potential sexual partner, and they are judged by their worth as such. Herrera doesn’t really give any of them any characterisation; he comes closest with the Commoner, but even she barely has a character or motivation, and her actions with regards to the Artist seem peculiarly undirected and motiveless.

It’s impossible to discuss Kingdom Cons without discussing the language. Between Herrera and Dillman, this is a really interesting novel; the whole thing is told in one breath, essentially, with a couple of seeming asides which move outside the immediate orbit of the Artist into a wider view or a more purely philosophical approach, and these are beautifully rendered in prose that Dillman translates with a crystal clarity. Similarly, Dillman translates the poetry and lyrics of Herrera’s novella into English with a deft hand, and presumably retains their original feel; even when Herrera is using onomatopoeia or phonetic renderings of words, Dillman conveys both their meaning and that they are translated rather than the direct words, an incredible balancing act.

Kingdom Cons may be a slim volume, but it’s a fascinating, thoughtful one. Be prepared to fall into Herrera’s myth and not fall out.

Disclaimer: This review was based on an ARC received from the publisher, And Other Stories.

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A Horse Walks Into A Bar by David Grossman, trans. Jessica Cohen

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The setting is a comedy club in a small Israeli town. An audience that has come expecting an evening of amusement instead sees a comedian falling apart on stage; an act of disintegration, a man crumbling, as a matter of choice, before their eyes. They could get up and leave, or boo and whistle and drive him from the stage, if they were not so drawn to glimpse his personal hell. Dovaleh G, a veteran stand-up comic – charming, erratic, repellent – exposes a wound he has been living with for years: a fateful and gruesome choice he had to make between the two people who were dearest to him.

A Horse Walks into a Bar is a shocking and breathtaking read. Betrayals between lovers, the treachery of friends, guilt demanding redress. Flaying alive both himself and the people watching him, Dovaleh G provokes both revulsion and empathy from an audience that doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry – and all this in the presence of a former childhood friend who is trying to understand why he’s been summoned to this performance.
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I picked this book up the day after it won the Man Booker International Prize for David Grossman (and of course, Jessica Cohen, the translator); A Horse Walks Into A Bar suggested something dark and comic, and fantastically well written, given the acclaim of the prize.

That’s not what this is. A Horse Walks Into A Bar has a seemingly simple plot: we’re being narrated to by a member of the audience about a stand-up gig. He’s not comfortable at this gig, it isn’t his crowd, and he’s dogged by the tragedy of losing his wife a few years back and his job a little more recently than that. That undercurrent of grief is rendered stronger and more poignant by the subject of the stand-up’s set, and the fact that said stand-up is a friend of the narrator. The big problem with all this, though, is that this isn’t the novel we’re told to expect by Grossman’s opening.

A stand-up set has to be funny above all else; however it achieves that, it has to be funny and engaging. In retelling a stand-up set, A Horse Walks Into A Bar needed to grab the audience’s attention from the start, like the comic bounding onto the stage at the end of the introduction and telling a great joke. Instead, in something that will become a motif of the book, it’s a slightly shambolic opening, completely missing the chance at humour. Grossman’s book isn’t really about a comedy set: it’s about a man standing on stage and, interspersed with jokes, telling his tragedy. The opening very much embraces the unfunny failing, the shambolic element of this, but it doesn’t situate it as anything; it reads as Grossman attempting to write a good set and failing, rather than successfully writing a bad one.

Once the reader gets passed the opening and into the real meat of the novel, though, A Horse Walks Into A Bar improves – as, indeed, does its humour. Grossman slowly peels back the layers of artifice of both his narrator, a childhood friend of the comic, and of Dovaleh G., the comic himself; each reveals themself to the audience, whether of the set or of the book, and shows their vulnerability. The tragic presence of our narrator, and the tragic past of Dovaleh, are slowly exposed, and the links between them made clear; it’s a fascinating and deep, thoughtful, and empathetic piece of writing that really does cut to the heart of grief and loss and self-blame.

It’s also as the novel goes on that the humour of it improves; not so much of Dovaleh’s set, but of A Horse Walks Into A Bar itself. The way the narrator interjects into Dovaleh’s set, his commentary on the audience and the audience’s reaction to the comic, and even some of the jokes Dovaleh tells (without telling them necessarily as jokes) all lighten the mood expertly: this is a deeply dark novel, and a bleak one, but with a strain of black humour to leaven it.

I’m not sure I agree with the judges of the Man Booker International that A Horse Walks Into A Bar was the best book on their shortlist, but will admit that Grossman’s novel does reward a persistent reader: if you get past the faltering, clumsy start, there’s something deeply human to behold.

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Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin trans. Megan McDowell

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A young woman named Amanda lies dying in a rural hospital clinic. A boy named David sits beside her. She’s not his mother. He’s not her child. Together, they tell a haunting story of broken souls, toxins, and the power and desperation of family.

Fever Dream is a nightmare come to life, a ghost story for the real world, a love story and a cautionary tale. One of the freshest new voices to come out of the Spanish language and translated into English for the first time, Samanta Schweblin creates an aura of strange psychological menace and otherworldly reality in this absorbing, unsettling, taut novel.
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Fever Dream crossed my radar thanks to being longlisted for the Man Booker International and for the intriguing start of its blurb; that first sentence really grabbed me, the way a good blurb ought to, and made me wonder what followed.

What follows is aptly titled, something of a fever dream of a narrative. Schweblin’s novella is a punctuated stream of consciousness, somewhere between monologue and conversation, as Amanda talks to David, occasionally being focused or redirected by the child; Fever Dream is entirely dialogue, but with nested dialogue as well, as Amanda recalls what brought her to this hospital bed speaking to David. It’s a style that has its problems – there are no good stopping points, so these 150 pages are best read in a single sitting – but the pacing really drives the reader on through the story.

The story of Fever Dream is like much of the best supernatural fiction: unclear whether it is in fact supernatural at all. Schweblin slowly adds further elements of the supernatural, the strange, the weird to the narrative, inserting them one at a time, rather than building a world in which these things are normal; and all those possibly supernatural elements could be purely natural, depending on our interpretation of them, and of events – Schweblin’s narrator(s) don’t allow us to really find that out, especially as both are, in their own ways, unreliable. What starts as a simple holiday that ended in tragedy (we know, after all, that Amanda is deathly ill from the start) becomes increasingly strange and off-kilter, and even small details that seem perfectly normal have inflated significance – the reader’s role in Fever Dream is partly to decide which of those inflations are because of the unreliability of the narrators, and which are actually the world; but also to try to read between the lines and see what is unsaid.

Fever Dream‘s prose is dreamlike and strange; the interjections from David, and exchanges about the present, change how we react to what we just read about the past, and what we’re about to read. Credit here must also go to McDowell, who translates the prose in a way that feels naturalistic; I don’t know the Spanish version, but the English version has a fantastic flow to it, a really pull. Individual phrases recur and are used to increasing poignancy in the novella, as they take on extra layers of significance as they’re referred to in the past or come up time and again in the present; this deploying of repetition as a motif really makes the whole thing feel, again, rather disconnected from reality, in a positive and powerful way.

The setting of Fever Dream furthers this sense of disconnection; Schweblin separates out what’s happening from the rest of the world by very rarely referencing it, rarely referencing what’s happening or even what happened outside the tight geography of the immediate, nonspecific area of the novel. It’s an interesting technique; a little more specificity and detail might have been nice, but on the other hand, the everyplace setting also feeds into the unreal and dreamlike atmosphere of the story in its own way.

Fever Dream is a strong novella; it could perhaps do with being a little shorter or more easily paused, but that’s a small criticism of this strange, creepy experience that Schweblin has created and McDowell has excellently translated.

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Blood of Angels by Johanna Sinisalo (trans. Lola Rogers)

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The phenomenon of colony-collapse disorder, the sudden mass disappearance of bees, has become so widespread that much of the world although not, as yet, Finland is facing agricultural and ecological disaster.

Amateur beekeeper Orvo, devastated by the recent death of his eco-warrior son, finds two of his hives deserted and begins to fear that the epidemic has reached Scandinavia. Then, in the attic of the old barn, he makes a mystical and frightening discovery: a pathway to a parallel world. Is it a hallucination stimulated by sorrow and loss or is it something very real and connected with the bees disappearance? His research teaches him that in practically every culture bees are viewed as half-supernatural messengers that can travel between worlds and are associated with resurrection and the afterlife. He begins to wonder if this portal could reunite him with his dead son and whether he can himself escape the ecological meltdown of this world.

The Blood of Angels reworks the Orpheus myth while analysing modern man’s need to deny his mortality and raise himself above the rest of nature, to compare himself to the angels but at what price?
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Sinisalo’s writing, and her approach to nature, have been remarked upon as precursors to the approach to the weird taken by Jeff VanderMeer in Area X; having read this novel, that seems to do both a disservice, as they are doing profoundly different things with the environment, but there is no doubt that Blood of Angels has some of the same concerns as Area X, and some of the same presentations.

The similarity is in the understanding of the numinous in nature; Blood of Angels has a reverence and respect for nature throughout its pages, especially bees. It consistently mystifies and weirds nature, makes it strange, barely relatable to humanity; Sinisalo highlights the differences between how we live and nature, how we divorce ourselves from nature, and especially death. It’s a fascinating take on the kind of weird written by Algernon Blackwood, but whereas his sympathy was with man, making nature horrific, Sinisalo makes man horrific, alienates us from ourselves and civilisation, and making nature numinous but also truer, somehow.

It’s intensified by the animal rights theme that comes up in excerpts from the blog of animal rights activist Eero, son of our protagonist Orvo, which emphasises both the similarities and differences between humans and animals, arguing for equal rights from the position of similar-but-different approaches to man and beast. Blood of Angels uses the blog excellently; Sinisalo not only has entries, but comments, and entries coming off comments to previous entries, making it feel like a truly organic blog, the sort of political blog that has sprung up on the internet, with the kind of brashness and rudeness from both blogger and commenters that we have become inured to. It has an interested effect in a novel, shocking the reader with the violence of internet rhetoric, as if a novel should be a more genteel place, as if that vitriol should not infiltrate its pages; but the more traditional chapters of Blood of Angels can also contain that same vitriol and yet it feels totally normal, an interesting comparison.

Sinisalo’s work should not just be analysed on a political level, however, but also on its merits as a novel. Blood of Angels manages one of the most impressive feats I have seen in a novel, that of making a fully fleshed-out character who only appears in the occasional, brief comment on a blog; this is how Tirsu, especially, is manifested, a very real presence in the novel even while never actually appearing in person, and having so few lines dedicated to them. Pupa is similarly clearly portrayed, appearing only in Orvo’s memories, and Ari, who appears only briefly in the whole novel, is very clearly characterised as the money-hungry grubby businessman who will sacrifice anything for profit. It’s an interesting cast in that regard; characters fall on one side or the other of the ethics/profit line, with Orvo straddling it in his roles as undertaker and beekeper. Sinisalo keeps the balance excellently, and through character interactions Blood of Angels challenges orthodoxies on both sides, a difficult trick; yet Sinisalo keeps it meaningful and orthodoxies reveal as much about characters as they do about politics.

The blurb describes this as an Orphic retelling, and spoils a central aspect of the plot that Sinisalo semi-conceals for much of the novel, the death of Eero; Blood of Angels has one particularly Orphic passage, but otherwise is about the process of grieving, of the painful emotional coming to terms with death, and of how this can fail. Rather than being about an attempt to retrieve one’s love for oneself, the loss is concealed for much of the novel, there but not known, some strange cloud hanging over Orvo; when revealed it changes everything that has gone before, and Sinisalo’s concealment makes an awful lot of sense and proves a very interesting piece of character-work.

Blood of Angels is truly a stunning novel of nature, and a strange and numinous work; Johanna Sinisalo has produced a wonderful text here, that I’ll readily recommend.

White by Marie Darrieussecq (trans Ian Monk

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It is 2015, and the first permanent European base in Antarctica is taking shape. Edmée, the only woman on the station, works to secure radio communication with the outside world. She’s all too aware that she’s the focus of constant scrutiny – and it’s not just from the mend at the base.

A beautifully atmospheric novel of ghosts and love and memory at the end of the world, White is an outstanding achievement from an extraordinary writer.
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White is a fascinating novel about survival in a hostile, sterile environment, about closed communities, about alien landscapes… situating these all on Earth.

This makes Darrieussecq an unusual writer in an SF context; White takes place simultaneously to an attempt to establish a permanent Mars base, has conract with NASA employees engaged in that effort… and yet is barely interested in it, except as an occasional comparitor for the utterly hostile environment of the book. White is interested in the idea of a terrestrial landscape as hostile to life as that of Mars: the far, frozen South. Antarctica is, of course, famously sterile and lifeless, with conditions inimical even to extremophiles and as unchanging as the face of Mars; so the two missions running in parallel make for an interesting comparison, as Darrieussecq draws out.

The plot is relatively simple; really, it’s a love story, of Edmée, the radio technician, and Peter, the heating engineer; White has its core in these two characters, in their pasts leading them to the White Project, in their connections as disconnected souls whose links to their cultures and countries are superficial and shallow (Edmée as an immigrant, Peter as a refugee), in their attraction. This could work horrendously in some hands, and Darrieussecq is hardly entirely successful in portraying the refugee experience; but at the same time, the grounding of their physical isolation in Antarctica in an emotional isolation beforehand is carried off really well. That the rest of the cast are barely characters hardly matters; they’re as much backdrop against which the romance can play out as Antarctica itself is.

There is, however, one other character we must mention, and that is the narrator. White is a very odd book in this regard; the narrator is, or the narrators are, the collective spirits of explorers, travellers and others who have been pioneers pushing the boundaries of human knowledge. Hence Scott and Amundsen and their teams are here, as ghostly presences, not only in the narrative as figures of Antarctic discovery and tragedy, but also as spirits who take an active role in the narrative; that is, the ghostly narrators at times are Scott, are Amundsen, are their companions or their animals, or are explorers from completely different parts of the world.

This narratorial voice has a huge impact on White, inevitably; and a somewhat strange one. It means we move in and out of the specifics of the characters to a more general discussion of the Antarctic; we’re both connected to and yet also dispassionate about the events of the novel, drive them and simply observe them. It gets especially interesting at times when characters are in highly emotional states, as this seems to be when the dissociation is greatest, with strange, evocative, semi-abstract descriptions which talk around, rather than directly about, the emotional states of the principal actors. This also gives White one of the strangest sex scenes you are ever likely to read…

White is one of those strange, beautiful little books that are amazing blends of the literary and the genre; perhaps Darrieussecq at times disappears too far into some of her conceits, but they’re conceits that deserve a little disappearance!