By Sarah Gear
This is a book about power. The power of speaking a second language, the power of governments to control this. The power to persuade. But it is also about humanism, and the links that languages create between people.
Vehicle reads like a self-erasing research project. A collection of documents, recollections and imagined meetings that explore racism, colonialism, ecological disaster, sexism, conservatism the greed of capitalism, the question of memory, and the value of academia [. . .] all wrapped up in a bow of translation theory.
The novel is essentially a microhistory of a fictitious translator named Hester Heller. Translation nerds will recognise Jeremy Munday’s theory about translation histories; microhistories that are constructed from translator papers, meetings, letters, and diaries, just as they are presented in Vehicle.
This microhistory is self-negating, and ultimately rendered inaccessible by the end of the novel. The evidence on which it is based slowly vanishes throughout the narrative. By the end, the corroborating documentation is all but erased. The only proof that any of it happened is trapped inside a language that everyone has forgotten how to speak.
Vehicle is set, predominantly, in 2050 at a time when the Nation (which must be the UK), has isolated itself from the Mainland of Europe. In the Nation, it is illegal to learn foreign languages and the world is entirely analogue. There is no internet, there are no phones, and everyone communicates by telegram.
Hester Heller is a singer with the eponymous band Vehicle, and translator extraordinaire. At the time we meet her, she is being sent on a secret mission by the government of the Nation to find out how the Mainland plans to deal with the ‘Isletese Situation’.
The Islets are an archipelago of islands that float around the world. In 1959, after years of exploitation by large companies, they asked everyone to leave (an event known as the Banishment) and requested that the world forgets them. In 2000, the Islets suffer an ecological disaster caused by exploitative firms from both the Nation and the Mainland. The Isletese break cover and request help through various methods. The most poetic of these is the many green bottles that wash up on the beaches of the Nation, containing a call for help.
If this sounds confusing, it is. That’s because as we read, we are piecing this microhistory together alongside a group of researchers. We base what we know on archival material has all been gathered by these researchers while they have been sequestered in a library, working on projects they have been instructed to keep secret from one another. When their work is almost complete, they learn that the government plans to erase the information they locate, and so they flee, taking as many of the discovered documents as possible.
As the researchers speed off in their getaway van, they realise that they have all been investigating the same event, the ‘Isletese Disaster’ of 2000, and they all hold different pieces of the puzzle. They read aloud letters and translations from the archives as they escape in the back of a van. Whole board meetings are recited from memory. Some events are imagined based on the researchers’ educated guesses.
As time passes, more and more meetings and conversations are invented because every time they stop, more documents vanish from the van, or their pockets are quietly picked. The researchers’ thoughts even seem to vanish from their heads. A fact they accept without alarm.
The Nation, who we imagine erased these documents, is highly conservative. Their mantra is to work hard to keep things the same as they have always been: “Keep the world your parents know and love! Do it for them! The steady course!”
Retrograde attitudes towards women abound, as does entrenched racism against the Isletese. Among many other things, Vehicle is a study of colonisation. The Islets have been appropriated by the rest of the world, plundered for their natural resources, and then abandoned. Vehicle is also a study of xenophobia; ‘others’ are feared, change is bad, and speaking foreign languages renders you suspect. This is made all the more obvious by Hester’s ability to speak so many, which both places her under suspicion, and makes her a valuable spy.
In this atmosphere, translation is tantamount to treachery. Hester gains agency and independence by speaking different languages and translating from them as she sees fit. The political role that translation can play is highlighted by both Hester’s and her father’s translations of Isletese refugee, Freiveru Alma’s, diary. Without their intervention, Freiveru’s story would otherwise not be heard in the Nation.
The translators’ partisan motives(the side they have taken) are illustrated by parallel translations of the same source text. We are invited to consider the translator’s influence, comparing Hester’s literal approach to her father’s romanticisation. We are also aware that Hester, who translates all of the interviews she conducts in the Mainland as she carries out her secret mission, is in full control of the information she takes home. No one can verify what she finds – a fact that is later used against her.
While the insular Nation wants to resist helping the Isletese, who are falling into the sea as their respective islands flip over or disintegrate, the majority of the multilingual Mainland want to help. The most poignant, pro-immigration statement, is discovered in the archives as part of an exhibition by artist Rita X:
There is a possibility that the Isletese will completely change the Nation as we know it, become friends and family and neighbour, make space for themselves, spread out, be seen and heard on every street, ask for food, and shelter, request school places and medical assistance – SO BE IT.”
It is impossible not to love a book that offers such tolerance and acceptance as one of its core hopes. Defined by its interrogation of translation, the value it places on languages, and the satirical eye it casts over the UK’s isolationist tendencies, Vehicle is an absurd, wonderful, thought-provoking novel about power, politics, and identity.
About our contributor
Sarah Gear is a PhD student at the University of Exeter. She studied Russian and French at Glasgow, has a Masters in Translation Studies, and currently researches the influence of politics on translations of contemporary Russian fiction into English. (Twit: @sgear23)