Go, Went, Gone – Jenny Erpenbeck (Translated by Susan Bernofsky)

GoWentGone

Author Jenny Erpenbeck and translator Susan Bernofsky, took home the last Independent Foreign Fiction Prize (‘IFFP’) in 2015, with “The End of Days”, the award merging with the Man Booker International Prize the following year, with the more well known prize pretty much taking on all of the eligibility criteria of the IFFP. “Go, Went, Gone” is the fifth time Bernofsky has translated Erpenbeck’s work (other titles are “The Old Child and Other Stories”, “The Book of Words”, “Visitation” and “The End of Days”), again resulting in a major prize longlisting.

Our protagonist, Richard, a University Professor, has retired, his wife is deceased, he has no children, how will he spend his newfound spare time?

The novel opens with two epigraphs, the first from Wolfgang Pauli;

God made the bulk; surfaces were invented by the devil.

Hinting that we need to look at what lies beneath. The book starting with various references to items below the surface, firstly a dead man at the bottom of a lake;

The lake is deep, eighteen meters. It’s lovely near the top, but in truth an abyss. All the local residents, including him, now gaze with a certain hesitation at the reeds, at the lake’s mirrorlike surface on windless days. He can see the lake when he sits at his desk. The lake is as beautiful this summer as in any other, but this year there is more to it. As long as the body of the dead man hasn’t been recovered, the lake belongs to him. All summer long – and now it’s almost autumn – the lake has belonged to a dead man. (p10)

Next the story of the subterranean catacombs under the Berlin Alexanderplatz, where people shopped whilst they waited for an appointment at the Town Hall;

Even then, unbeknownst to him, these hollow spaces were there beneath him, only a few yards of earth separating them from his feet. (p12)

An interesting history;

…the rubble-filled vaults beneath Berlin’s Town Hall escaped detection even by the Nazis, who contented themselves with flooding the subway tunnels in the final days of the war. Probably to drown their own people who had fled underground, taking refuge from the Allies’ air raids. There you go again, cutting off your nose to spite your face. (p12)

As Richard visits the Alexanderplatz there is a hunger strike by desperate refugees, he doesn’t notice the protest, it is a metaphorical blind spot, the educated not seeing the plight of the desperate. Here the references to the underground start to flow thick and fast;

Under the earth there is only more earth. What comes after that, no one knows. (p24)

What makes a surface a surface? What separates a surface from what lies below it, what separates it from the air? (p31)

…the earth is more like a garbage heap containing all the ages of history, age after age there in the dark, and all the people of all these ages, their mouths stopped up with dirt, and endless copulation but no womb fertile, and progress is only when the creatures walking the earth know nothing of all these things. (pp20-21)

Meanwhile the narrative remains quite simple, Richard finally awakes from his slumber and befriends a group of African refugees, men who are living in Germany, men who are asking for the right to work but are denied such as their route into German was through Italy so it is in Italy where the “human rights” obligations lie.  A subtle change from the oblique references to the underground and the surfaces then happens, where the topic now becomes “borders”. The obvious reference being the former Berlin Wall, with Richard being a former resident of the East, but there are also numerous other references in relation to the refugee crisis.

At the border between a person’s life and the other life lived by that same person, the transition has to be visible – a transition that, if you look closely enough, is nothing at all. (p39)

Early on this novel uses short meticulously crafted sentences, ones rich in meaning as we explore the surfaces, underground, and borders. The experience requires a measured reading. As the exploration of the uninhabitability of Europe for refugees comes to the fore, and the meshing of the West/East Berlin story with the balance of excesses (food, knowledge, reading, sheer volume of goods) against the bare essentials of those who are eternally wandering, the story becomes murky.

With references to the Iliad, Apollo, Hermes, and Johann Sebastian Bach, the story moves from one theme to another, and then the impersonal approach of our protagonist Richard, a person involved with helping the refugees, but at the same time divested, it all starts to lose its focus.

Clunky sentences, for example, “Just as initially, when the men were still living in the suburbs, he’d considered their cell phones a luxury (though admittedly a luxury of the most modest sort), he also couldn’t understand why each of the refugees required his own transit pass.”, that require re-reading suddenly make this book a bit of a chore.

Whilst exploring grand ideas and the current refugee crisis, this book does question your own fundamental beliefs;

So a border, Richard thinks, can suddenly become visible, it can suddenly appear where a border never used to be: battles fought in recent years on the borders of Libya, or of Morocco or Niger, are now taking place in the middle of Berlin-Spandau. Where before there was only a building, a sidewalk, and everyday Berlin life, a border has suddenly sprouted, growing up quickly and going to seed, unforeseen as illness. (p209)

The title a mish-mash of irregular verbs and highlighting language differences, however it does also have a more pertinent reference in the book;

…it occurs to Richard – it’s occurred to him many times now – that all the men he’s gotten to know here (these “dead men on holiday”) could just as easily be lying at the bottom of the Mediterranean. And conversely all the Germans who were murdered during the so-called Third Reich still inhabit Germany as ghosts, sometimes he even imagines that all these missing people along with their unborn children and the children of their children are walking beside him on the street, on their way to work or to visit friends, they sit invisibly in the cafés, take walks, go shopping, visit parks and the theater. Go, went, gone. The line dividing ghosts and people has always seemed to him thin, he’s not sure why, maybe because as an infant, he himself came so close to going astray in the mayhem of war and slipping down into the realm of the dead. (pp221-222)

Starting with a wonderful premise, themes that could balance nicely against the reality of the current refugee crisis, this book is ultimately disappointing, slipping late into cliché and preaching. It promised a lot but delivered little. A fine writer, but for mine not a book that should be in discussions for this year’s Man Booker International Prize.

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The Impostor – Javier Cercas (translated by Frank Wynne)

Imposter

One of the most obvious artificial devices of the storyteller is the trick of going beneath the surface of the action to obtain a reliable view of a character’s mind and heart.
-Wayne C. Booth “The Rhetoric of Fiction” (p3)

In Javier Cercas’ “The Impostor”, there are really only two characters at play, the author and Enric Marco, a true impostor. The challenge for Javier Cercas is to give the reader a reliable view of his own mind and heart as well as the mind and heart of a man whose claims that he was a prisoner in a Nazi German concentration camp during World War II were exposed in 2005.

I had chosen literature so that I could have a life that was free, happy and authentic whereas actually my life was false, servile and unhappy, that I was a guy who pretended to be a novelist, and succeeded by deceiving and cheating people; in reality I was nothing more than an impostor. (p15)

Of course, we have fringe players who move in and out of the action, for example, people Javier Cercas interviews, the historian, Benito Bermejo who uncovered Enric Marco, however this is essentially a non-fiction fiction about the writer’s struggle to identify the true Enric Marco and the personal struggle that the author goes through wrestling with his own demons, should he write the book we are reading?

Thought and art, I believed, attempt to explore what we are, revealing our endless, ambiguous and contradictory variety, and in doing so, mapping out our nature: Shakespeare or Dostoyevsky, I thought, illuminated every nook and cranny of the moral maze, demonstrate that love can lead to murder or suicide, and succeed in making us feel compassion for psychopaths and bastards; it is its duty, I thought, because the duty of art (or of thought) consists in showing us the complexity of existence in order to make us more complex, in examining the mechanics of evil, so that we may avoid it, and even the mechanics of good, perhaps so we may understand them. (p18)

Using this unique literary device, where we are told the story of Enric and then the investigations into the merits of such, Javier Cercas is presenting a story that works on numerous sub-levels. The nature of truth, the motivation to lie, the creation of false identities, the eternal search for who we really are.

For some time now, psychology has maintained that we can barely live without lying, that man is an animal that lies: life in society demands a measure of falsehood that we call politeness (and which only hypocrites mistake for hypocrisy); Marco horribly exaggerated and distorted this basic human need. In this sense, he is like Don Quixote, or like Emma Bovary, two other great liars who, like Marco, cannot reconcile themselves to the greyness of their real lives and so invent and live out fictitious, heroic lives; in this sense there is something in Marco’s fate that profoundly touches us all, as there is in those of Quixote and Bovary: all of us play a role; all of us are other than we are; in some way, we are Enric Marco. (p41)

The Wayne C. Booth text that I quoted above, goes on to explain the importance of “showing” the reader, not “telling” the reader, I purposely chose the reference to “The Rhetoric of Fiction” as Javier Cercas’s book tells throughout, it is self-described as “a novel without fiction”. Using repetition, with subtle changes, the question of memory is brought into play, what is the truth, what is the essential truth?

Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood” is referenced a number of times and you cannot help but wonder if through the exercise of writing this book, is Javier Cercas damning himself as Truman Capote did?

As well as a character study, following Enric Marco’s life, attempting to understand his motivations to become the great “impostor”, this is also a sociological study, a reflection on Spain pre and post Franco. Post Franco it becomes a nation where everybody has an invented past, surely now Franco has gone everybody was in opposition to him, which means the nation itself is a collective lie.

Personally, I learned a lot about Spanish history, the Civil War, post War dynamics, Spanish politics and the various factions at play, the “non-fiction fiction” really leading me to places I had previously not discovered. I am sure the information I have learned here will be extremely useful with other Spanish works, Antonio Muñoz Molina’s “In The Night Of Time” (translated by Edith Grossman) would have been a much richer read if I had read this book first, I’m wondering if this background will help me with Antonio Muñoz Molina’s latest “Like A Fading Shadow” (translated by Camilo A. Ramirez).

The book can play as an overly long lecture about a character and his motivations, and therefore the emotional connection is lost. Here is a character who you couldn’t care for, he is not an anti-hero, simply a manipulator who looked after himself, a Narcissist. Where is the interest in learning about this leading character, he is not the ideal candidate for a starring role.

Calling into question the fad that became “historical memory”, the fact that it actually was included in Spanish Law and then became a marketing tool, Javier Cercas expertly points out the absurdity of “historical memory”:

This is how things were, at least in the early stages of our relationship: Marco both wanted and did not want me to write about him and therefore he wanted and did not want to talk to me. Or to put it more clearly: Marco wanted me to write the book that he would have wanted to read, the book that he needed, the book that would finally rehabilitate him. (p323)

Here I need to point out one error in the book that really played on my mind. This error not only appears on page 129, I am also stunned that it appears in the official blurbs for the book (check Book Depository or Goodreads – this is a direct quote from the blurb);

By the time he is unmasked in Austria in 2005 on the eve of the seventieth anniversary of the liberation of the camp

In 2005 it was the SIXTEITH Anniversary of the liberation of the camp, and I can assure you, this is no minor error. When you are reading a book that is questioning historical truths, when it talks about stories containing mistakes and inaccuracies on purpose to put you off the scent, I thought for some time that this error was put there on purpose. This was playing on my mind so much I have had someone check the Spanish version to see if it said 60th or 70th, and the original text says “60th anniversary” so it is either a translation or editing error. The Spanish for “sixty” is “sesenta” for “seventy” it is “setenta”, one letter difference, but when talking about a significant historical date, ten years is a decent error. The date of the liberation of Nazi concentration camps are significant in world history. Put simply, this error is lazy.

Add to this a number of typo’s, or translation errors;

P267 “an magnificent actor”
P305 “as part of a homage” (everything else is English so why suddenly the Americanisation here?)

To name just two. I would also like to draw your attention to these few sentences;

I am looking at a photograph of one of the annual reunions of former prisoners of Flossenbűrg. The picture shows all the survivors who were still alive when the reunion took place, or all the survivors who were still alive and could or wished to attend. (pp265-6)

What garbled nonsense? We are looking at a photo, there are no dead people, no need to tell us they’re alive, and in attendance, overstated, simply not required.

I must admit I really struggled with this book, although presenting important historical reflections and using a unique style and manner to bring a story to life, the errors and the repetitiveness started to wear a little thin.

“Like I said, the duty of the novelist is to get people to believe that everything he says is true, even though it is a lie. For God’s sake, do I have to repeat what Gorgias said four hundred years before Christ? ‘Poetry [that is to say fiction, in this case the novel] is a deception, wherein he who deceives is more honest that he who does not deceive, and he who is deceived is wiser than he who is not deceived.’ It’s all there. Do you understand now? I don’t have anything more to add.” (p354)

If the mandate of the Man Booker International Prize is to award the best translation of the year, then I have to say this book should be not make the shortlist. With the massive glaring error that I have pointed out (one the publisher is using to publicise the book!!!) it cannot be celebrated as the best book of the year, unless mediocre, average, sloppy work is to be rewarded.

Interesting and educational but overly long, this isn’t one for my “top six” translated books of 2017. I’m sure the official judges, and possibly the Shadow Jury, will disagree.

2018 Man Booker International Prize Longlist

Flights

I am no longer a Shadow Jury member for the Man Booker International Prize (‘MBIP’).

For the last four years I have been a member of the Shadow Jury, or more specifically the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize (‘IFFP’) Shadow Jury for two years until it merged with the new incarnation of the Man Booker International Prize, which was originally bi-annually and for a body of work, not a single book.. For numerous reasons, I decided that in 2018 I would no longer take part in Shadow Jury duties. During those four years, I  read and reviewed fifty-six longlisted titles (the IFFP had longlists of fifteen titles, the MBIP a longlist of thirteen), the thought of cramming in another thirteen titles within the next two months did not appeal.

With David Grossman winning in 2017 for “A Horse Walks Into A Bar” (translated by Jessica Cohen), I felt the award was catering for the “average”, something safe, something that would sell and not prove too difficult for many readers. Of course a “jury” structure also tends towards the average, and although I understand the wisdom of crowds, I am also a believer that when you trend towards an average, the end result is simply that…average.

As regular visitors here would also notice, in recent times I have been leaning towards more weighty, difficult texts, whilst several titles on the MBIP longlist may meet my reading tastes I didn’t want to be forced a reading list of books that may not appeal and of course the pressing timelines. There are other more private reasons for my withdrawal from the Shadow Jury, but they are simply that…private.

Of course, that decision doesn’t mean I am not interested in translated fiction, nor the prize itself, and having a look at the longlist for the 2018 MBIP there are a few books I am sure I will visit, read and review.

Here is the longlist of thirteen titles, chosen by Chair Lisa Appignanesi, and Judges Michael Hofmann, Hari Kunzru, Tim Martin and Helen Oyeyemi. Presented in alphabetical order by Author surname and including (Nationality), Translator, Title, (Publisher)

 

  • Laurent Binet (France), Sam Taylor, “The 7th Function of Language” (Harvill Secker)
  • Javier Cercas (Spain), Frank Wynne, “The Impostor” (MacLehose Press)
  • Virginie Despentes (France), Frank Wynne, “Vernon Subutex 1” (MacLehose Press)
  • Jenny Erpenbeck (Germany), Susan Bernofsky, “Go, Went, Gone” (Portobello Books)
  • Han Kang (South Korea), Deborah Smith, “The White Book” (Portobello Books)
  • Ariana Harwicz (Argentina), Sarah Moses & Carolina Orloff, “Die, My Love” (Charco Press)
  • László Krasznahorkai (Hungary), John Batki, Ottilie Mulzet & George Szirtes, “The World Goes On” (Tuskar Rock Press)
  • Antonio Muñoz Molina (Spain), Camilo A. Ramirez, “Like a Fading Shadow” (Tuskar Rock Press)
  • Christoph Ransmayr (Austria), Simon Pare, “The Flying Mountain” (Seagull Books)
  • Ahmed Saadawi (Iraq), Jonathan Wright, “Frankenstein in Baghdad” (Oneworld)
  • Olga Tokarczuk (Poland), Jennifer Croft, “Flights” (Fitzcarraldo Editions)
  • Wu Ming-Yi (Taiwan), Darryl Sterk, “The Stolen Bicycle” (Text Publishing)
  • Gabriela Ybarra (Spain), Natasha Wimmer, “The Dinner Guest” (Harvill Secker)

 

I am pleased that Jennifer Croft’s translation of Olga Tokarczuk’s “Flights” made the long list, a book I thoroughly enjoyed when I read it last year, from a writer/translator combination that I keep tabs on, and I am eagerly awaiting the massive “The Books of Jakub”  (the title may be slightly different in English once translated), apparently coming from Fitzcarraldo Editions in coming years.

I have Laurent Binet’s and Ariana Harwicz’s books on my shelves and am always interested in László Krasznahorkai’s works as well as books published by Seagull Books, which means Christoph Ransmayr’s novel will probably make its way onto my reading list. However, in 2018 there is no pressure on to read thirteen books within a month, I’ll (maybe) get to them at my leisure. Good luck to the new Shadow Jury, may their reading be informed and their discussions robust.