Ross Benjamin on Kevin Vennemann's Close to Jedenew
Ross, tell us about the book . . .
It’s an account of a pogrom against a Jewish family by their neighbors, who had been their longtime friends, in a fictitious village called Jedenew near the Polish-Lithuanian border during the German invasion. This horrific incident is recounted in the first-person plural — “we” — and the group of characters indicated by this pronoun expands and contracts at various points, but the point-of-view of these passages is aligned with a single female protagonist who remains nameless. During the onslaught, she and her sister Anna hide in their unfinished treehouse in the woods, where they witness the destruction of their home. Having lost their loved ones, they recall the events of their truncated childhood and especially stories that have been told to them by their father and their older brother. Different voices, tales, and memories interweave as the narrative moves forward and backward in time, the scenes and speakers often shifting unexpectedly in the middle of a sentence. The novel never departs from the present tense, even when this means violating grammatical convention. The effect is a sense of simultaneity that heightens the harrowing loss at the heart of the novel.
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You’ve kept the very difficult grammatical structure (all present tense, confusing sentence structure) more or less untouched, as far as I can tell. Were you tempted to take a more interventionist approach? If not, why not?
I felt strongly that the exclusive use of the present tense was an essential feature of the novel, so I was never tempted to alter it. Even when German grammar would usually require another tense, whether past, future, or indirect discourse, the novelist stayed in the present, and if this was at times awkward in the original, the awkwardness was clearly a deliberate effect. So I reproduced this to the best of my abilities in the translation. Of course, this posed a challenge. Overall, I had the impression that the German language was more conducive to Vennemann’s technique than English, for both the historical present and the ability to refer to future events in the present tense are available, conventional options in German more often than in English. So at times something that was only somewhat jarring in the original would be more intensely jarring in English. But I thought this still reflected the author’s aesthetic better than to restore grammatical fluidity and familiarity would have. Though I tried to keep the level of estrangement close to that of the original, at times some degree of enhanced awkwardness in the English version was inescapable. But since the device was used as a grammatical Verfremdungseffekt in the German version, this felt justified. As for the complexity of the syntax, some degree of confusion is endemic to the novel. Again, such intricate, long sentences are less unusual in German than in English, but my rationale for retaining them was similar to my approach to tense. The labyrinthine nature of the sentences in the original was intentionally disorienting, and to efface this by composing more easily readable sentences would have been to dispense with a key aspect of the experience of this novel.