Tag Archive | translation

Popular Music from Vittula – Mikael Niemi

popularmusicI didn’t get this book – at all. Everyone from the New York Times to Entertainment Weekly waxed poetic about its beauty and prose that “buzzes with wonder, fearlessness and ecstatic ignorance.” Um. I didn’t get it.

Translated from the Swedish, Popular Music from Vittula is a “novel” that actually seems more like a memoir  – or a series of loosely connected short stories –  because if there was a narrative thread here, I wasn’t seeing it.

The main character and narrator is Matti and we meet him as an adult “in a fix in the Thorong La Pass” (which is on Mount Annapurna, Nepal) where  he finds himself 17, 765 feet above sea level, with his lips stuck to  a Tibetan prayer plaque. I am sure what happens next is meant to be comical but, sadly, I didn’t laugh. And I didn’t laugh at any of the other crazy escapades Matti finds himself embroiled in from the age of five straight through to his teenage years.

Matti and his friend, Niila, meet at the neighbourhood playground and their friendship is cemented during a nose-picking session. The rest of this story traces their frienship, particularly their love for music, for the next decade or so.  Their otherwise straightforward lives are touched by elements of magical realism. (Did these two five year olds really manage to get on a plane and fly all the way to Frankfurt?)

Matti’s story dips in and out of his life, giving the reader a chance to experience the first time he ever heard Elvis Presley sing (in his sister’s bedroom), the first time he goes to school, his first kiss. I wish I could say that the book was more than the sum of its parts, but for me I just didn’t get it.

The Last Night I Spent With You by Mayra Montero

The Last Night I Spent With You is a slim volume, only 115 pages. Translated from the Spanish, Montero’s novel tells the story of Celia and Fernando – a middle-aged couple on a cruise. Their only daughter has just been married and Fernando’s friend, Bermudez, has sagely offered this advice: “women lose their inhibitions on ships.”

Actually, it seems as though everyone does.

Both Fernando and Celia are trying to come to terms with suddenly being cut loose from the strings that tied them to their daughter and each other. Fernando, too, seems to be experiencing a bit of a midlife crisis: death is looming. As their ship sails and docks, Fernando falls into an affair with Julieta, a middle-aged passenger.  For her part, Celia reminisces about an affair she’d had several years ago, when she’d been taking care of her ailing father.

Everything about this voyage is sexually charged in a way, one gathers, things haven’t been for several years between this married couple.

At last we were alone, it was true, after almost twenty-three years of winters and vacations, springs and birthdays, when Elena had been the axis of our lives. Elena growing up, becoming pretty, becoming taller than Celia, much more slender, infinitely more flirtatious. Our daughter Elena.

The Last Night I Spent With You is graphic and the writing is – despite it being a translation – good. The characters are selfish and often  behave inappropriately. It’s hard to say what they are searching for. It’s even harder to say whether, by the novel’s end, they’ve found it.

Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson

Out Stealing Horses has been on my tbr list for ages, so I was happy when it was chosen as the December read for my book club. I was also surprised because the woman who chose generally dislikes translations and this novel was translated from the original Norwegian. Anyway, I settled in and finished the book (one of the few in the group who actually did) and even after discussing it – I am not sure how I feel about the book.

The story concerns 67 year old Trond Sander who is living in isolation after the death of his second wife. The novel moves seamlessly between Trond’s every day concerns (getting his driveway plowed and stacking wood) and his memories of his youth. The summer he was 15 he and his father had left Trond’s mother and sister in Oslo and come to a cottage quike like the one Trond is currently inhabiting. It was there that Trond’s world was knocked off-kilter – not only by a tragedy that occurred in his friend Jon’s family, but also by events in his own life.

It took my a while to settle into this book. It’s a quiet novel and while the writing is quite powerful (particularly Pettersen’s descriptions of the natural world), I found the long sentences strangely difficult…too many commas or something. Still, I eventually stopped wanting to add full stops and gave myself over to Trond’s remarkable childhood recollections.

I’m not sure this book will appeal to everyone and so it’s not one that I can whole-heartedly recommend. That said – I do think it achieves something quite remarkable. As Trond’s story unfolds we learn a universal truth – sometimes there are no satisfactory explanations for life’s mysteries.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery

Several months ago Muriel Barbery’s novel The Elegance of the Hedgehog was chosen as the book for the bookstore reading group I lead. We have a sort of willy nilly way of choosing our books and this novel ended up on the top of the heap. When we came together to discuss it a month later, other than the woman who had thrown it into the pile, no one else had finished the book- including me. I got about halfway through…and I just really didn’t like the book at all. So imagine my dismay when the novel was chosen by my longstanding book club as our first novel for our new reading year! I had no choice but to finish the book.

So, I started again. And strangely, this time around, I didn’t find the book so grating. That’s not to say that I found it all that plausible, either. Still, I did manage to get through it.

Barbery’s novel tells the story of Renee, a concierge at an elegant apartment building in Paris.

I am short, ugly and plump, I have bunions on my feet and, if I am to credit early mornings of self-inflicted disgust, the breath of a mammoth. I did not go to college, I have always been poor, discreet and insignificant. (19)

Renee has, despite what she considers her considerable flaws, a deep and abiding love for literature, art and music. Seriously, the novel opens with a rumination on Marx – which is perhaps the reason why I didn’t groove to the novel straight away the first time around: I know nothing about Marx.

Paloma lives in the building with her parents and older sister. At twelve, Paloma is already sick of the world and everyone in it.

My parents are rich, my family is rich and my sister and I are, therefore rich….Despite all that, despite all this good fortune and all this wealth, I have known for a long time that the final destination is the goldfish bowl. How do I know? Well, the fact is that I am very intelligent. Exceptionally intelligent. (23)

The Elegance of the Hedgehog is about appearances. Renee is forever fearful about giving away her love of the finer things; after all, she’s just a concierge. Paloma,  is keeping a journal of profound thoughts and plotting her own death. And then into their lives comes a Japanese gentleman named Kakuro Ozu. He sees straight through these women, into their very heart of hearts and changes them in ways they might have never imagined.

This novel was a sensation in France. As with any translation, it’s important to remember that you are not reading it in its original form; something is bound to be lost in the translation no matter how good it is.

I have a feeling that when we discuss this novel tomorrow night, most everyone will have loved it. I didn’t love it (in fact I didn’t like the ending at all!), but I did see the novel’s charms- even though I often found the novel pretentious (all these mini-lessons on art and literature) and perhaps just a tad contrived.