Tuesday, 26 February 2008

The Crime Shoe Horn

As Lawrence Venuti points out in an interview on Words without Borders, English-language publishing has embraced foreign crime writing. So monolingual readers can enjoy the delights of Henning Mankell, Fred Vargas and numerous others I can't think of the names of - thus proving people wrong who claim nobody wants to read translations...

Venuti writes:

"This genre is especially fascinating because anglophone readers are likely to regard it as originating in English literary traditions (although there’s a concurrent French tradition as well). As a result, what happens to it abroad can make a difference when it comes back home, can signal a cultural difference for anglophone readers (something that is not amiss in a translation, but crucial, insofar as translation traffics in the foreign). And the fact is that readers are appreciating foreign crime novels against the native ones, partly because they know little or nothing about possible traditions of the genre in the foreign cultures..."

So, if I understand him rightly, Venuti is saying that crime fiction might be a shoe-horn for slipping foreignness into English-language reading habits. We all know what to expect from a detective story and that makes them comforting to read, so we swallow the bitter pill of the book being set in Stockholm or Bogotá and written slightly differently down with the sugar of the genre. At least I think that's what he's saying.

German crime fiction hasn't made all that much of a dent in the British consciousness yet, I suspect. Ingrid Noll and Friedrich Glauser are both high-ranking German crime writers available in English. And the top bestseller Tannöd will be out under the title
The Murder Village in June of this year (Quercus). I didn't enjoy it but it's very good. And it won tons of awards, as has the writer's second book. And she's sold half a million copies and knocked Harry Potter off the top of the pops.

Instead of that, I'm going to tell you about a German crime book I
did like. It's called Aussortiert by Titus Keller, and you can find a really negative review of it here. Someone really didn't like it. But I did. I'm a sucker for anything set in Berlin, and this is set in Berlin. I loved the attention to detail in the settings - the grungy bits of Berlin with drug dealers and prostitutes. And they get bumped off, and the fucked-up detective has to find out whodunnit. But you probably guessed that - that's because you're familiar with the genre you know.

Anyway, I liked the overtly moralising contrasts between rich and poor, I liked the characters, I even enjoyed the allegedly wooden dialogue. And I liked the end that turns the genre on its head. I liked the fact that the publisher didn't reveal who Titus Keller really is - apparently it's a pseudonym for the writer Helmut Krausser, who I haven't read. But I do appreciate the criticism that a lot of people wouldn't have read it if it weren't for the tagline "famous author writing incognito". Because that's probably what made me buy it, too. I don't regret it though.

But I'm no expert on crime writing, although I enjoy reading it. For excellent reviews go to International Noir.

So here's to translated crime fiction as the shoe-horn for foreignising our reading habits. Long may she reign!

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