It’s All Greek, French or Norwegian to Me

There’s a figure that crops up again and again whenever the subject of foreign fiction is discussed. It’s cited as an indictment of British ignorance, insularity and lack of sophistication. It’s three per cent. It’s claimed only three per cent or so of fiction published in Britain is in translation, as opposed to about one-third of the titles in Germany. People (especially German publishers and aggrieved German writers) love to refer to that figure, overlooking the fact that German publishers have little choice in the matter, because anything written outside the Reich isn’t going to be written in German.

That’s also why the Finns, the Dutch, the Greeks and others so boastfully cosmopolitan translate so much: what else can they do, unless they want to ignore the outside world?

Granted, few British publishers can decipher a menu in a foreign language (and even then the menu would have to be in French or German), but they do have a choice of manuscripts from the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, the Caribbean, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Singapore etc. That’s a lot of manuscripts to choose from, a lot of manuscripts that you can read for yourself without having to take the word of a would-be translator, academic or drinking partner at the Frankfurt Book Fair and a lot of manuscripts that are without the cost of a translator. Also you can be sure the author will have enough English to work the promo circuit if necessary.

(Illustration by Björn Rune Lie)

My guess is the three per cent figure isn’t far off the mark, but no one in the business I’ve quizzed about this has been able to give me a source (though there is a good website in the US that calls itself “Three Per Cent” which evangelises about fiction in translation). So, when I was asked to be a judge for this year’s Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, I was very much looking forward to the reading on the basis that fierce natural selection would have ensured the admission of the most seductive.

One of the first lessons you learn (or should learn) as a writer or as a literary judge is that there is this thing called taste. Someone may dislike your book or disagree with your judgment because they are ignorant or stupid, but it may be simply that their taste is different. Otherness exists and is highly desirable, because it would be very dull if we had nothing to argue about.

The other important lesson I learned when I was a judge for the Man Booker Prize is that there are hardly any bad books. Truly terrible, execrable, throw the book out of the window or rip it up so no other human might accidentally have the distressing experience of reading it: books like that are exceedingly rare. 

What you do get a lot of is blanks. A nondescript work that you forget before you read it. Someone vaguely intelligent and articulate has made some effort to write something which contains some characters and some events and one or two well-considered adjectives…and someone has published it. In a strange way, these vanilla tomes are more annoying than the bad books, because at least dreadful books have some character or get a rise out of you.

But you mustn’t forget that some of the books that are see-through for you are mirage-rich for others. Taste.

However, with the gate so strait for foreign fiction, I hoped the reading would be more satisfying. I was wrong. The same phenomenon of mediocrity lurks in translation. There were one or two stinkers. I’d like to highlight Jacques Roubaud’s The Loop as a splendid portion of puréed nonsense. Not only because it’s drivel, but because it’s drivel that couldn’t possibly interest anyone but gullible Americans in out-of-the-way universities who haven’t got the message that Paris is no longer the literary capital of the world and who don’t understand that just because you belong to Oulipo (Ouvroir de littérature potentielle, which is roughly translated as “workshop of potential literature”), doesn’t mean you have any talent or that the incomprehensible poppycock you churn out is avant-garde (in itself a rather quaint, amusing, old-fashioned notion like the penny-farthing). It’s curious how the hotness hops about. 

You rarely get outstanding writers in isolation, they do tend to come in packs, and periods of glory never last that long for one nation. Virgil-Horace-Ovid, Shakespeare-Marlowe-Jonson-Bacon, Dostoevsky-Tolstoy-Chekhov-Turgenev, Céline-Sartre-Camus-Beckett.

So how have the nations fared? On the strength of my reading for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, as well as the Best European Fiction 2010 that I had to review, there are now two nationalities I will avoid at all costs: the Norwegians and the Austrians.

The Norwegian entries aren’t that disgraceful, in fact you will find some cracking passages in the vast, steppe-like expanses of novels such as The Discoverer by Jan Kjaerstad or The Beatles by Lars Saabye Christensen. The problem is that they are 30 or 40 pages away from each other. Condemn me as a shameless hedonist, but I rather like something worth reading on every page. If these novels were cut in length by half, or even two-thirds they’d be remarkable, but editing is the writer’s job, not the reader’s. Let me make special mention of Ketil Bjornstad whose To Music, to his credit, eschews the gigantism of his compatriots and whose descriptions of piano competitions are superb (he’s a concert pianist). However, I have to be honest: the trauma of Kjaerstad and Christensen has been such that if I see the words Norway or Norwegian on a book jacket in the future, I won’t pick it up. My apologies to the more succinct writers in Oslo.

The Austrians’ output seems so feeble and sickly that I feel concerned and I have the urge to send them a food parcel with hearty vittles (and I do know that Elfriede Jelinek won the Nobel Prize). Anyone who’s browsed in a French bookshop over the last decade will have also noticed how, with few exceptions such as the satanic effusions of Michel Houellebecq, the novel has been reduced to emaciated volumes about Parisian divorces and philosophers moving flats, and that many of the younger writers such as Beigbeder pepper their work liberally with English (to the point where those of us who bothered to learn French feel it was a wasted effort).

Thus, it wasn’t so surprising that an American, Jonathan Littell, should have won the Prix Goncourt. His novel The Kindly Ones is of a scale and density that’s rare in French publishing, and they must have been overwhelmed with gratitude that someone had taken an interest in their language. The industry and the research that must have gone into producing this 984-page novel of Nazi barbarity during the Second World War, chiefly on the Eastern Front where the atrocities really flourished, is quite frightening.

The details are minute and unrelenting. I certainly agree that Littell deserves recognition because this sort of uncommon energy is really beyond the call of duty. It’s as if he’s trying to knock Tolstoy off his perch. But, while the history is marched through the pages with a ruthless efficiency, the novel part of this novel, for me, doesn’t stand up so well. I find a narrator who masturbates to the Martian novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs, while inserting objects into his anus, hard to take seriously (and no great surprise that Littell also scooped the Literary Review‘s Bad Sex Prize).

It’s significant that the group that comes out best are the crime writers because even if many of them aren’t especially talented, the convention, in the crime world, that you need characters, a story and events stands them in good stead. This is a convention that many of the “literary” authors ignore at their peril. The contemporary German novels I’ve read in the last few years haven’t impressed me much, but Petra Hammesfahr’s The Lie was blissfully removed from much of the aggressively arty posing of Deutsch letters. Apart from its far-fetched initial premise, that a woman bumps into her double, a double so perfect she can fool her husband, the story is extremely clever, twisty and elegantly written. High-class crime, like P. D. James.

The Russian writer Boris Akunin’s creation Erast Fandorin, a man as perspicacious as Sherlock Holmes, as unkillable as James Bond and as fisty and tao as Bruce Lee, is a preposterous figure from the norms of pulp fiction or comics, but Akunin pulls it off brilliantly. The screen version can’t be far off. Several volumes of his adventures have reached the English language, and I can endorse The Coronation, the story of a royal kidnapping set around the coronation of the last Tsar Nicholas II. The Coronation is both a ripping yarn and an intriguing insight into the milieu of the Romanovs. I challenge you to guess the true identity of the supervillain.

One wonders whether Japanese literature is really as wacky as the stuff that’s delivered to us, or whether that’s what the publishers think will sell. Is life in Japan as outlandish as the two Murakamis would have us believe? Is it all about torture and kinky sex as the pen of Yasutaka Tsutsui would suggest? I can’t help feeling there probably are novels about dejected teachers rolling cigarettes in provincial schools or little old ladies fighting planning applications, but no one bothers to translate them.

As for the masters of Asia, I was very annoyed that Ma Jian’s Beijing Coma didn’t win the Foreign Fiction Prize last year-it was one of the most substantial novels I’ve read for a long time and made Solzhenitsyn’s condemnation of Stalinism look like a vicarage tea party. There were very few Chinese submissions this year, but Yu Hua’s Brothers covers China’s recent history, the transition from Maoist lunacy to cut-throat mercantilism, roughly the same period Ma Jian tackled. Yu Hua still lives in China (unlike the intermittently banned Ma Jian who’s now with us in London) and perhaps because of this, his work lacks the pure brutality of Jian’s chronicle. But he does serve up a picaresque romp à la Tom Jones.

There were many books for which I had great hopes. One of the things a novel can do very well is to fashion a window into another world, to provide travel without the inconvenience of travel. 

The Guatemalan Marco Antonio Flores’s Comrades could have educated the reader about the civil war and turmoil in his country, but didn’t. I blame James Joyce and the belated arrival of Modernism in Central America. Similarly, Shahriar Mandanipour’s Censoring An Iranian Love Story could have provided a fleeting flavour of current life in Iran, but he was struck down by what might be post-modernism and is certainly a case of overcleverness. The Lebanese writer and former PLO-er Elias Khoury’s novel Yalo works well in sections and does contain powerful vignettes from Lebanon’s violent past, but Khoury too, succumbs to a desire to be too clever as we get multiple versions of Yalo’s confession (note to writers-if you have a really strong story, just tell it).

And, finally, there were some pleasant discoveries. The two most exciting finds for me were the young Italian writer Pietro Grossi (whose short story collection Fists was a delight) and The Madman of Freedom Square (another short story collection) by an Iraqi refugee Hassan Blasim. Blasim’s writing about the fate of Iraq and fleeing Iraqis radiates with the energy of stories that need to be told, rather than the competence of work that is often done for contractual fulfillment. I can’t say I’m surprised that both are published by small, independent publishers: Pushkin (who have a highly admirable record on foreign fiction, even if they do translate a see-through French novel or two) and the feisty Manchester-based Comma Press.

I’m curious to hear what the other judges think. Taste.

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