Tag Archives: Fiction in Translation

June by Gerbrand Bakker (transl. David Colmer): Deceptively simple

JuneThis is my first Gerbrand Bakker. I’ve been aware of a good deal of interest and acclaim around his books for a while but somehow hadn’t got around to him. With its title and glorious blue-skied cover promising summer it seemed appropriate to pick up his new novel on one of the several miserably cold, wet and windy days that began our own June in the UK. It’s set largely on a Saturday in a small Dutch village but at its centre is Queen Julianna’s visit on June 17th 1969 nearly forty years before, a day of celebration which turned into tragedy.

It opens with the Queen reflecting on the many places she’s visited, the inappropriateness of a shrimp buffet at 10 a.m. and her irritation with the civil servant detailed to look after her not to mention the artist constantly sketching her in preparation for sculpting a bust. Just as she’s about to leave, ceremonial duty discharged, a young woman arrives clutching her two-year-old daughter. The Queen greets her, lightly touching the child’s cheek. Later that day an accident will leave the little girl’s family bereft. The rest of Bakker’s novel follows another sweltering June day largely through the Kaan family, beginning with Anna, the two-year-old’s mother – now a grandmother – who has regularly taken herself off to the straw loft on the rundown family farm since 1969, ignoring all attempts to talk her down. The latest trigger is her golden wedding anniversary celebration, a family trip to the zoo which proved to be far from an unalloyed joy.

There are no fancy descriptive passages littered with similes and metaphors in Bakker’s writing: it’s clean and plain but richly evocative for all that. His narrative shifts smoothly from character to character, unfolding events through internal monologues filled with memories interwoven with prosaic observations on family life and the state of the farm, the most effective of which is five-year-old Dieke’s with her questions teasing out what happened to her aunt. Small details slip in through these different points of view coalescing into a picture of that other June day. There’s a great deal of quiet humour underlying the heartache – the poor old dog is thrown into the ditch by just about every member of the family to cool him down, each of them thinking that they’re the only one who’s done it, while the Queen reflects ’I am sixty years old… …For more that twenty years I have been sitting in my official capacity on lavatories like this. How long can anyone bear it?’ How long indeed! I gather from Twitter that June’s reception has not been entirely positive but as it’s my first Bakker I’ve nothing to compare it with: suffice to say it won’t be my last. Compliments to the translator, too – my bet is that it’s harder to translate plain and – apparently – simple prose while retaining its subtlety than it is to produce a flowery interpretation but David Colmer pulls it off beautifully.

Ashes in My Mouth, Sand in My Shoes by Per Petterson (transl. Don Bartlett): Growing up in 1960s Norway

Cover imageThose who’ve read and enjoyed Per Petterson’s Out Stealing Horses may be pleased to hear that his 1987 debut has been translated into English for the first time. Petterson is a master of the less is more writing style that I so admire and Don Bartlett has proved adept at keeping to the spirit of that in his translation – no mean feat for a man who also translates the wordy Karl Ove Knausgaard’s books.

Ashes in My Mouth, Sand in My Shoes is told from the point of view of young Arvid Jansen who some readers may have already met as a grown up in I Curse the River of Time. In the early 1960s Arvid and his family live in a working class Oslo suburb. His parents fight, his uncle has social aspirations but remains at a conveyor belt making toothbrushes soon to be joined by Arvid’s father, money is tight and drink a well-worn escape. I’ve seen it described as a short story collection but for me it read like a vividly episodic novella. Arvid has nightmares in which a tightly wrapped duvet becomes a nest of writhing snakes. He suddenly becomes aware of time passing and decides to stop the living room clock with disastrous consequences. He finds a way into a treasure trove of comics stored in a barn gaining the respect of the older boys and the nickname Death Diver. The Cuban Missile crisis looms large keeping him silent for four days. Along the way, idolisation of his father turns to a realisation of his fallibility and weaknesses. In clear, vibrant prose Petterson captures the world seen through the eyes of a young boy growing up into adolescence leaving me wanting to get my hands on a copy of I Curse the River of Time to find out what kind of 37-year-old Arvid turns out to be. Written with humour and great clarity, it’s a short but strikingly memorable read.

If your appetite’s been whetted for more fiction in translation I’d recommend a visit to Stu Allen’s blog. He’s a man who knows what he’s talking about.