Mascha Dabič, Reibungsverluste (Edition Atelier, 2017)
Nora lives in Vienna and works as Russian interpreter and translator for refugees, many of whom have fled war zones, such as Chechnya. Dabič’s debut novel recounts the everyday of interpreters within the asylum process, and gives insight into the translation process itself: What happens in the interpreter’s brain when she is translating torture stories and acts of violence? How does she live between two worlds and cultures? These musings are woven into Dabič’s prose, reflecting the way in which the translation process affects Nora’s way of thinking.
“She would concentrate on the process of interpreting, this alchemy by which a certain combination of spoken words passes through the auditory canal into her head, to undergo a transformation, ideally involving as little damage and friction loss as possible, and exits through her mouth. The potential damage the channel – in this case Nora’s head – could suffer because of this transaction, was of little importance to anyone. The communication must go smoothly; its ideal is the avoidance of both friction and loss.” (my translation)
Camilla Grudova, The Doll’s Alphabet (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2017)
Grudova tells cruel and often horrific fairy tales with female protagonists. Her mythical-magical fantasy worlds centre around recurring themes such as sewing machines, wax creatures, antiques, tinned food and dolls. They are fantastical, yet believably so – in the tradition of Angela Carter or Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Paired with a simple prose, and often naïve narrators, the stories are the more brutal for it and linger on. (See also Naomi Richard’s full review here).
Rein Raud, The Death of the Perfect Sentence, translated by Matthew Hyde (Vagabond Voices, 2017)
I picked up this novel – with the best title ever! – in “preparation” for a trip to Estonia, and it certainly gave me a better understanding of this young member state of the EU. Set in the last days of the Soviet Union, The Death of the Perfect Sentence is a mix of spy novel and love story. A group of young pro-independence dissidents in Estonia try to smuggle out KGB files via a Russian teacher turned KGB employee, and an ignorant employee who regularly travels to Finland on business. Few of the characters know each other, or know of each other’s existence, yet they are linked by the secret mesh of resistance. In addition, the novel plays with various stylistics, and repeatedly smashes the fourth wall between book and reader, making it an educational, but also quirky and enjoyable read.
This year, spurred on by an eventful year in politics, I was particularly drawn to reading non-fiction, so I couldn’t help adding a few more titles to the list.
2017 was the year the “translator’s memoir” became a genre. Both Kate Briggs’s This Little Art (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2017) and Mireille Gansel’s Translation as Transhumance, translated by Ros Schwartz (Les Fugitives, 2017), are individual translator’s accounts of the way in which their work has shaped their way of thinking. Both also weave together personal memoir and literary anecdotes while reflecting on the importance of translation more generally and the price you have to pay for living between worlds.
Like many other readers (I bought the last copy on the bookshop shelf), I found Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951) of tremendous contemporary relevance. I am reading it one part at a time, hoping to take in all its details this way, though even Part I on Antisemitism already contains an overwhelming amount of observations which ring as true in 2017 as they must have done more than 60 years ago, as if Arendt predicted the rise of the new far right. The Origins of Totalitarianism is likely to give food for thought for years to come.
A companion text is Carolin Emcke’s Gegen den Hass (Against Hate, forthcoming in English with Polity Press), who cites Arendt, though her transparent prose and vivid comparisons are easier to digest. The war zone journalist and philosopher received the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade 2016 for her analyses of the rise of hatred in contemporary societies. She employs different perspectives – of various minorities, religious and social groups – and references literary examples, from Shakespeare to Goethe. The mob spurred on by a single cause, she argues for example, is comparable to A Midsummer Night’s Dream’s
Titania, Queen of the Fairies, who falls in love with donkey-headed Bottom after drinking a love-potion. If asked to cite reasons for loving Bottom, Titania would be able to comply, while the cause of her love is invalid as it is the doing of the potion-maker. Similarly, a person might use the claim that too many single men in a village would constitute a threat for defenceless women as their reason for rejecting a refugee home nearby, while the cause for their antipathy is really stirred-up xenophobia. Emcke makes clear arguments and gives the tortured notion of the term “common sense” new meaning.
 A more comprehensive review of both texts is coming up on the GRB. Watch this space.