Pereira Maintains: a gem of a novel in translation

I did some reading this past week on character vs plot driven fiction, inspired by the comments section of The Guardian’s very interesting podcast on editing. There’s a fair bit of writing on this topic out there in case you are interested in the details. It also made me wonder where I stand on this issue.

I’ve always been drawn to the quality of the language itself in books. It’s not so much about what you write but about how you write it, and in the majority of the cases this overlaps with the characteristics of character driven fiction. I’ve also jotted down some thoughts on what I think makes for interesting books hereAntonio Tabucchi‘s Pereira Maintains (Canongate 2010) is definitely fiction of the character driven kind. This is a book in which nothing much, and a whole lot, happens at the same time—and that is a fantastic combination.

9781782116318

Pereira Maintains takes place in Lisbon, and I can’t not mention I’ve just booked a holiday to go there myself at the end of September, hooray! I bought this book a while back and forgot where it’s set, but surely it was providence that guided my hand to this slim (only 195 pages) copy in my bookshelf… Tabucchi’s protagonist is the editor of the culture section at the Lisboa newspaper, the veteran journalist Dr Pereira. In the impossibly hot summer of 1938, in the midst of translating French short stories for the paper, talking to a photograph of his dead wife, repeatedly eating an omelette aux fins herbes with a lemonade at his regular place, and taking seaweed baths to alleviate his heart trouble, his uncomplicated life becomes entangled with that of a troubled young man, Monteiro Rossi. Continue reading

Advertisements

Sex, lies, and curly wigs

It’s in itself quite remarkable that a book of of nearly 700 pages leaves such a small mark on the reader’s memory. Sadly, this is the case with An Instance of the Fingerpost by Iain Pears (1997, Vintage).

220px-aninstanceofthefingerpostThe premise is promising: a story that takes place in my current home town Oxford in the 1660s and involves “lust, betrayal, secrets, and murder”. The same events are recounted from four different perspectives by four different characters: Venetian gentleman and ‘physick’ enthusiast Marco da Cola, Oxford student Jack Prestcott, mathematician John Wallis, and historian Anthony Wood. The Italian has arrived in England to sort out a family business in London that’s in a spot of trouble—or so he says. His true interest lies with physick, a mixture of physics, chemistry, and medicine, and he soon finds himself in the learned but ill-mannered company of Oxford academics, including John Wallis, John Locke, and Robert Boyle. Jack Prestcott is a troubled young man on a mission to clear his father’s name, tarnished in a plot to restore monarchy during the English Interregnum (1652–1659), with the help of an Irish faith-healer, whatever the cost—or so he says. Continue reading

Death in a cold climate

I’ll be honest: I love book cover art. LOVE it.

Unless I’m buying a classic, a great cover can well be the decisive factor in choosing a book  – and even in the case of a classic, if several editions with different covers exist, I always buy the one I like the most.

So. Andrey Kurkov‘s Death and the Penguin (1996, Vintage Books). Spotted in an independent book shop in Chelsea. Amazing yellow cover (I also happen to love yellow). Imaginative use of the penguin figure. Front cover tagline:

In today’s Ukraine, all that stands between one man and murder by the mafia is a penguin

Must buy!

penguincover

Vintage cover (source: http://bit.ly/1H16kLv)

The reader is promised a “tragicomic masterpiece” and “chilling black comedy”. There’s quite possible something wrong with me and my reading of the book, but despite the absurd figure of the penguin and many of the book’s similarly absurd events failed to, well, amuse me. Not a bad read at all, no. But comic? Not so much.

The book begins in Ukraine’s capital Kiev with the aspiring writer of fiction, Viktor Zolotaryov, living quite frankly a boring, unaccomplished life* with his pet penguin Misha, who he’d rescued from a local zoo giving away animals it could no longer care for. Viktor’s short stories aren’t a success with Igor Lvovitch, the editor in chief of Capital News, but he finally finds his niche when given the task to write speculative obituaries, i.e. obituaries of notable people who haven’t yet died, for Lvovitch’s paper. Using the pseudonym A Group of Friends, his obelisks certainly have a style of their own:

Much against his will, the departed acquiesced in the murder of his younger brother, the latter having chanced upon a list of shareholders of an as yet unprivatized washing-machine factory. However, the monument erected by the deceased in memory of his brother has become a veritable adornment of the cemetery. Often life makes it necessary to kill, while the death of someone close makes it necessary to live on regardless… Everything in this world is united by virtue of blood.

The editor in chief loves it, and a success story is born. Or at least until the people Viktor has written obituaries on begin to die – naturally or unnaturally – and he is forced to attend their funerals with Misha the penguin in tow, or else…!

I did quite like the book, although it wasn’t funny as I’d hoped. It was certainly a dramatic change in scenery from The Talented Mr Ripley‘s Italy. One of the qualities I actually enjoyed the most about Death and the Penguin was the depiction of the harsh, long, snowy winter, so similar to that of my native Finland. Another highlight is of course Misha the penguin, itself (or himself?) a figure of loneliness and depression:

A little later, the penguin emerged from behind the dark-green settee, and sauntered towards the half-open living-room door. En route he paused by the sleeping girl, gazed thoughtfully at her, then continued on into the corridor. Pushing the next door open, he proceeded to the kitchen.

Sitting asleep in his mater’s place, head resting on the table, was a strange man.

For several minutes the penguin considered him, standing motionless by the door, then turned about and retraced his steps.

I might read Death and the Penguin‘s sequel, Penguin Lost, just to find out what happens to Misha.

 

 

The book is written in a laconic style and in short chapters that are quick to read. Throughout the book I expected something really exciting and scary to happen. I hope it’s not too much of a spoiler if I say that nothing did, or at least nothing exciting enough for me.

It’s possible some of the humour and excitement of the original was literally lost in translation. I’d say I’m very familiar with reading translated fiction – my mother tongue is Finnish after all, which means that before university I would have read most foreign books as translations. In fact, one of the most recent translated books I read in Finnish was Tolstoy‘s Anna Karenina. Perhaps it was a matter of excellent translation, but while reading it I never stopped and noticed I wasn’t reading the book in the original language.

George Bird‘s translation of Death and the Penguin however… felt a bit empty somehow. Lacking in content and colour. I found myself thinking I wish I could’ve read another translation of it for the sake of comparison. Sadly, this option was not available, so it’s impossible to know whether this feeling of lacking was a feature of Kurkov’s original text or something that happened in translation. I do appreciate that Kurkov writes in a laconic style, but I feel this was a question of more than just that.

I don’t want to sound too disappointed or as if I didn’t like and enjoy the book at all. I did enjoy it. For me, it just wasn’t what I would have expected. Still, I’d raise a glass of Finlandia vodka to Viktor, Misha, and Andrey.

*Distinct similarities with Auster‘s City of Glasswithout the penguin of course!

 

Death and the Penguin reviews

The Guardian
The New York Times

Kurkov talks about his book on the BBC World Book Club 

 

andrey-kurkov-007Andrey Yuryevich Kurkov (1961-) is a Ukrainian novelist and an independent thinker who writes in Russian. He is the author of 18 novels, 7 books for children, and about 20 documentary, fiction and TV movie scripts.

(Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Andrey_Kurkov

 

 

 

(featured image source: http://bit.ly/1ESGYSK)

 

In Need of Literary Surgery – A Review on The English Patient

I really wanted to enjoy, even love, Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient (1992). I’d seen the film version, directed by Anthony Minghella and released in 1996, some years previously and found it visually stunning. Hoping to explore the plot and the characters in more depth, I grabbed the book with high expectations.

Man meets married woman, they fall in love, jealous husband tries to kill both and ultimately succeeds. Girl meets mysterious boy, they fall in love, boy gets upset over a nuclear bomb and leaves. Throw in some morphine, a thief, dismantling bombs, Italian landscape and a lot of desert sand and you get The English Patient.

The story uses different time levels and flashbacks for added richness that I generally found to be working well, even though the pacing could at times have been slightly faster. Despite the plot being so exciting and dramatic, Ondaatje seems to have wanted to focus on building a lingering atmosphere in which the emphasis is on characters and language rather than the action.

At best, that descriptive, impressionistic language is a delight to read because it manages to evoke fresh ideas and imagery. At worst, it succeeds in nothing but being repetitive, boring and pretentious. Unfortunately The English Patient is more of the latter: uninspired and tedious, the language resembles that of a diligent creative writing student aiming high but failing to produce anything of much interest outside the classroom.

The best passages in an altogether disappointing book I found to be halfway through the story where the desert explorations were described. It really is quite telling that these passages consist of facts rather than Ondaatje’s fiction. Some books actually work much better filmed, and The English Patient is one of them.