Thursday, 14 January 2010

Kristof Magnusson: Das war ich nicht

Full disclosure: I once translated something by Kristof Magnusson for the Goethe Institute. And then a while later I met him and told him so, and he was very nice and friendly. Then I didn’t see him for about two years until I was at a party where I didn’t know anyone. And he actually remembered my name without being prompted. Which kind of made my night, believe me. There’s a scene in Das war ich nicht where a translator meets the writer whose complete works she’s translated. And he thinks she’s someone else. What does that tell us about Kristof Magnusson?

So here’s the deal: a German banker on a Chicago trading floor. A German literary translator who’s had enough of her friends’ latte lifestyles. And a legendary American author trying to get over a severe case of writer’s block. Writer disappears, translator panics and flies to Chicago to track him down. Writer struck by inspiration by photo of trader in paper. Follows said banker to coffee shop. Translator meets banker in coffee shop while stalking writer with intent to help. Banker lovestruck, takes heady risks with subprime mortgage lender options. Translator not interested in banker but needs money and craves attention. Writer obsessed by banker and realises it’s a full-blown crush. And so we have our love triangle.

Have you spotted the reason why everybody’s raving about the book? Magnusson really went out there and researched banking practices, and the result is a great lesson in behavioural finance. Jasper Lüdemann ends up causing financial havoc, and the rollercoaster ride as he does so is genuinely thrilling. We get fantastic explanations of how the stock market works, illustrated with examples of oysters and petrol. I actually understood every word of it. And we also get the dog-eat-dog atmosphere on the trading room floor. Because nobody actually likes Jasper – his only friends are online chess partners and his colleagues ignore his Facebook messages.

Then there’s Henry LaMarck, a quietly camp, aging writer who told the world he’d be writing a literary blockbuster about 9/11 – and then never got past the research. Shaken by the prospect of a second Pulitzer Prize, Henry ducks out of his own party and goes into hiding. Once he’s located Jasper he goes on the offensive, hoping to finally write something, anything. But he’s troubled by the fact that no one seems to be looking for him. Until a rather crazed-looking woman keeps cropping up everywhere he goes – the publishers must have sent her!

That woman is Meike Urbanski though, his German translator. And let me tell you, her character is brilliantly drawn. I happen to know a couple of translators, and they’re an odd breed. Nit-pickers, know-it-alls, socially incompetent, permanently broke, and incapable of performing the simplest of domestic tasks. Meike is all this and more: she’s also obsessed with Henry LaMarck’s writing and spots even the tiniest logical or factual mistake as she translates it. And of course when the manuscript isn’t forthcoming she fears for her income and jumps on a plane, convinced she can find the author in Chicago.

I don’t want to reveal much more of the plot, as it’s the twists and turns that make the novel so entertaining. Suffice to say it ends up in near-catastrophe and a happy ending for all. And somehow everything is somebody else’s fault – hence the title, which translates as ‘It Wasn’t Me.’ What I particularly enjoyed was the subtle-ish meta-levels – the way things happen in the story that reflect LaMarck’s major novel, and why they do so. The way Meike discovers a Chicago she only knew from Henry’s books and finds it wanting. The way Magnusson describes her correcting street names and details of the city in her translations – just as I’m imagining a translator poring over Magnusson’s descriptions of Chicago (and perhaps he was too as he wrote it, being a translator from Icelandic himself).

It’s a fast-paced, cleverly crafted, genuinely funny and enjoyable read. Buy it, read it, buy the rights, translate it. You know you want to. Oh, and you can read a sample here (in German).


britta said...

In real life, of course, the literary translator wouldn't have the money to fly to Chicago...

kjd said...

No no, there's an explanation for that.

britta said...

All the better. I'm gonna buy that book and you're to blame.