We’re into the home stretch now . . . Through next Friday we’ll be highlighting a book-a-day from the 25-title Best Translated Book of 2008 fiction longlist, leading up to the announcement of the 10 finalists. Click here for all previous write-ups.
Detective Story by Imre Kertesz, translated from the Hungarian by Tim Wilkinson. (Hungary, Knopf)
This is one of two Kertesz titles that could’ve made this year’s Best Translated Book fiction longlist, the other being The Pathseeker, which was released by Melville House shortly after Detective Story came out from Knopf. (Ironically, these two books were originally published in one volume in Hungary.)
I have to say that it’s pretty heartening when a Nobel Prize-winning author leaves
a big the biggest publisher for an indie press, and in a way it’s too bad that both books didn’t make our list.
Eurozine has a very informative essay by Tim Wilkinson about both of these books.
Detective Story is a novel set in Latin America and written by Anotonio Martens, a former member of the “Corps” (an organization like the KGB, SS, etc.) who has been jailed for his involvement in the murder of Federigo and Enrique Salinas. This novel is Martens’s chance to tell his side of the story and how this murder came about.
It’s a tight, interesting story that, as Michael Orthofer alludes to is greatly disturbing for its universality.
I don’t want to give away too much, but the real power of this book comes from the reader knowing that Federigo and Enrique are innocent, while reading a firsthand account of how the Corps formed their beliefs and what they decided to do about their suspicions.
Another disturbing aspect of this book is the casual way members of the Corps talked about torture devices. This section involves a statue on Marens’s colleague’s desk:
It consisted of a base on which stood two uprights ending in forks. Resting on the forks was a rod, which in turn supported a tiny human figure in such a way that it passed between the bent knees and the wrists handcuffed together behind the knees. A devastating contraption, no two ways about it. Diaz glowered at it.
“What on earth is that?” he asked.
“That? It’s a Boger swing,” Rodriguez responded with great affection.
“Boger?” Diaz fussed. “What do you mean, Boger?”
“That’s the name of the fellow who invented it,” Rodriguez explained. [. . .]
“This bit here”—Rodriguez traced a small circle over it with his finger—“is freed up. You can do with him what you will.” He looked up at Diaz and grinned. I might as well not have been there—which is just as well as I probably only would have stuttered. That reflects badly on a person. “Or else,” Rodriguez continued, “you can squat down here, by his mug, and ask him whatever you want to know.” [. . .]
“What in the blue blazes do you need it for?” [Diaz] inquired in a fatherly tone. “We’ve got every sort of plaything. All you have to do is press a button, and it switches on an electric current. That’s what they use the world over these days: clean and convenient. Isn’t that enough for you?”
Kertesz is one of three Nobel Prize winners on the longlist (Saramago and Laxness being the others), and his Nobel acceptance speech is available online and worth taking a look at. I’ll end here with an interesting, and somewhat relevant quote:
It is often said of me – some intend it as a compliment, others as a complaint – that I write about a single subject: the Holocaust. I have no quarrel with that. Why shouldn’t I accept, with certain qualifications, the place assigned to me on the shelves of libraries? Which writer today is not a writer of the Holocaust? One does not have to choose the Holocaust as one’s subject to detect the broken voice that has dominated modern European art for decades. I will go so far as to say that I know of no genuine work of art that does not reflect this break. It is as if, after a night of terrible dreams, one looked around the world, defeated, helpless.
Joshua Cohen has a long review of both Kertesz books that have come out so far this year: Detective Story and The Pathseeker.
(Before going any further, I think it’s worth pointing out that Cohen rivals Three Percent fave Ben Lytal in the sheer number of literary translations he reviews.)
Cohen has mixed feelings about both books (but prefers The Pathseeker, calling it “the less surprising but ultimately more impressive fiction”), and about the quality of the translations.
But what I find most interesting is this:
I would like to say two words about the business and translation of books. One: Knopf — the American publishing house that has published more Nobel Prize-winner works than any other — has published Detective Story and is marketing it as a novel. And, Melville House — a small press based in Brooklyn — has published The Pathseeker as the debut of a series called “The Contemporary Art of the Novella.” It should be noted that in this instance, the novella is longer and more complex than the novel, which has been called what it’s not if only to help with its sales. Such are the hopes of multinational publishing. That Kertész has chosen to publish independently is laudable; Knopf was unwilling for reasons that were undoubtedly economic, or foolish.
There’s also a great quote from Kertesz about the first translations of his books (Fateless and Kaddish for a Child Not Born—is there a reason it’s not “for an Unborn Child”?) that were published by Northwestern some years back:
“I really tried to protest against the first translations, but I found complete rejection. The publisher was not willing to do new translations. It was a really bad feeling. It was as if you had a very sane character who has a rendezvous with the reader and the person who shows up is basically a real jerk, with a stammer, bad breath and a foul mouth.”
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