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Monday, 15 December 2014

Twelve Days of Translated Fiction - Day Five - My best reads for 2014

I’m now entering the final five of my favourite reads of 2014. As I explained on “Day Ten” I haven’t restricted my favourites to works published in 2014, nor works shortlisted for 2014 awards, I’ve simply drawn up a list of my favourite translated works that I read within the last twelve months.

Satantango was the winner of the USA based 2013 Best Translated Book Award and was Longlisted for the British based Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in the same year (why it didn’t even make the shortlist is possibly the subject of a blog post in itself – I know of a few well known bloggers who felt Chris Barnard’s “Bundu” was wrongfully included on the shortlist at the expense of this work). From the Hungarian and originally released in his native tongue in 1985, this would have been a serious challenge for George Szirtes to translate.

This is novel is an amazing work, split into two sections of six chapters each – and each chapter is a single paragraph, twelve paragraphs in total (but don’t think you got a quick read on your hands, each paragraph runs for 20 or 30 pages. “The First Part” runs from Chapters I through VI, “The Second Part” From Chapters VI through I, is it circular in structure, or is it ∞?

…and suddenly on the twig of an acacia, as in a vision, the progress of spring, summer, fall and winter, as if the whole of time were a frivolous interlude in the much greater spaces of eternity, a brilliant conjuring trick to produce something apparently orderly out of chaos, to establish a vantage point from which chance might begin to look like necessity…

Order from chaos? Desolation? Resurrection? At the core of the novel is a meeting at the bar of this desolate village’s inhabitants, unemployed farmers, ex-mill workers, mothers of “whores”, ex-headmasters, a cripple and the landlord (the Doctor pays a fleeting visit). And why are they meeting? To await the arrival of Irimias, long thought dead (a resurrection?), as he is the only one who can lead them away from this desolate place.

Is this the meeting of the disciples, after the saviour’s rebirth? But this novel is no salvation story, it is the coming of the apocalypse, a dark, dark, bleak and gloomy tale of poverty, boredom, abuse, lust and premature death. But is that what’s really happening?

“Something might have happened.” But what precisely happened, that could only be determined by a maximum joint effort, by hearing ever newer and newer versions of the story, so that there was never anything to do but wait, wait for the truth to assemble itself, as it might at any moment, at which point further details of the event might become clear, though that entailed a super-human effort of concentration recalling in what order the individual incidents comprising the story actually appeared.

Does the “truth assemble itself” as you’re reading this work? Do “further details of the event” become clear? “Super-human effort of concentration”? This is one work which you could read again and again and still discover hidden gens throughout.

Because what did it mean to say that something represented a cross between primitive insensitivity and chillingly inane emptiness in a bottomless pit of unbridled dark?! What sort of crime against language was this foul nest of mixed metaphors?! Where was even the faintest trace of striving for intellectual clarity and precision so natural – allegedly! – to the human spirit?!

Is this Krasznahorkai having a go at editors, even his own style of writing?! A wonderful character portrait of people on the edge of an abyss, will the resurrection send them straight to the depths of hell? Are their plans beyond their drunken dance a way to erase the past?

That rat-faced bastard has ruined me for good.” He knew that by evening, when he had finished packing – because until then nothing else could go in the van apart from the coffin, not next to it, not behind it, not on the seats, anywhere – once he had carefully locked all the doors and windows and was driving to town in his battered old Warszawa, cursing all the while, he wouldn’t be looking back, wouldn’t turn around once, but would vanish as fast as he could and try to wipe all trace of this miserable building from his memory, hoping it would sink from sight, and be entirely covered up, so that not even stray dogs would stop to piss on it; that he would vanish precisely the way the mob from the estate had vanished, vanish without a last look at those moss-covered tiles, the crooked chimney, and the barred windows because, having turned the bend and passed beneath the old sign indicating the name of the estate, feeling elated by their “brilliant future prospects”, they trusted the new would not only replace the old but utterly erase it.

If you want to challenge yourself to a language feast, a novel that is constructed as a drunken tango, side step, forward step, back step, side step, forward step, back step, start all over again, then I would hunt this one down. This is a world where nature has taken control of these hapless worker’s lives.
Another amazing European work in translation, which uses language to meld a picture, a creative work of art on the page, paragraphs that decompose in front of your eyes, yet another challenge to our standard planes of thought, how could I not include this in my list of favourite reads for the year? Of course it raised some persona angst as to where on the list I slotted this work. More debate ahead?

If you are yet to discover the artistic merits of Krasznahorkai and you are up for a challenge this is one to add to your Festive Season reading lists. Don’t think it is a simple sit by the side of a swimming pool and knock it over style read though. Surely a future Nobel Prize winner, just don’t say I didn’t tell you.

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