Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Translators' Centres: One Down, One To Go

The news has been out for a while now but there's been surprisingly little fuss: due to cuts in public funding for culture under Germany's conservative-liberal coalition, there won't be a Translators' Centre at the next Frankfurt Book Fair. The cuts also affect the Goethe Institut's various translation funding programmes to the tune of 7%, so watch out for fewer books being translated out of German in the years to come.

The Translators' Centre was a wonderful invention, organised by Antje te Brake (who knows how to shake a leg on the dancefloor) in conjunction with the two professional organisations for translators in Germany, the BDÜ and the VdÜ. It was a place to meet colleagues and relax in a relatively calm atmosphere, it offered translators a stage of their own, it displayed a wonderful range of translated titles, it was a place where prizes were awarded and contacts were made. And although the Book Fair says translation-related events will still take place in the International Centre, I know I won't be the only person to miss it.

Bucking the trend though, London's come through this year: its new Literary Translation Centre will "bring together the publishing and translation communities to stimulate, inspire and raise the profile of literary translation in the UK," with a modest programme of events (but the London Book Fair is more modest than Frankfurt all round, and that's not all a bad thing). Top-notch movers and shakers like Anne McLean, David Constantine, Amanda Hopkinson and EJ Van Lanen will talk about the ins and outs of translation, bringing foreign literature to Britain and the US and why on earth it all matters.

I can't go.

Friday, 26 March 2010

Writers on the Pitch (and on the Pull)

Despite my weakness for testosterone-soaked writing, I'm not a huge football fan (that's soccer to you, septic tanks*). So the European Writers' Cup wasn't really on my radar. But it is now.

It sounds more like fantasy football of a slightly twisted kind: Patrick Neate versus Thomas Brussig, Stefano Sardo versus Robert Menasse, Peter Zilahy versus Tommy Olofsson. But no, it's the real deal - eight teams of hot-blooded writers from England, Germany, Italy, Austria, Hungary, Sweden and newcomer Turkey are meeting up at the end of April in Unna, Germany, for the Ruhr-Lit Cup 2010.

My favourite thing about it is that the games are flanked by readings by the players - on the subjects of football and luuurve. And to uphold that fine tradition of bad puns in sports writing, they have the excruciating titles of "Literature on the Pitch" and "Literature on the Pull".

All of which confronts me with my personal equivalent to Norman Tebbit's "cricket test" - whether to support England, Germany - or the reigning champions Sweden?

*This is Cockney rhyming slang. I'm reliably informed that despite my faith in humanity, not everyone in the world understands what it means. Sorry about that.

Thursday, 25 March 2010

PEN, PEN, PEN, they've done it again.

PEN, in case you don't know, stands for Poets, Essayists, Novelists, and it's "the world’s oldest international literary and human rights organization". They campaign on and support writers in prison and in exile, they have a writers for peace committee, they organise readings and events - and in some countries they also promote international literature in translation and support translators.

A lovely long trawl through their various websites is an absolute joy. How about a fascinating conversation in letters between two eminent translators out of German, Anthea Bell and Doris Orgel? On what makes them passionate about their work, their young lives, the technicalities of translating for children or leaving things out. All dotted with book recommendations and investigations into language. Miss it at your peril!

The PEN American Center also provides some wonderful resources for translators, including a model contract, a list of publishers not allergic to translations, advice on negotiating - plus essays, poems, fiction and a whole series of conversations like the one above.

And then there are the festivals. Excuse me while I weep, but I can't make it to either of the two fantastic events series coming up in London and New York.

The first is Free the Word! on London's South Bank from 14 to 18 April, featuring what's commonly known as a stellar line-up of writers and translators (nobody writing in German is on the bill this time around, but hey! I believe there are some other languages out there). Maureen Freely, Daniel Hahn, Blake Morrison, Deon Meyer, Maya Jaggi... check it out on their site. I've been to a couple of their events in the past and was always impressed by the talent on show and the audience participation.

For the more Germanically-minded and Stateside-situated, there's the PEN World Voices Festival in New York from 26 April to 2 May. On the German front, catch my two faves Alina Bronski (Broken Glass Park, trans. Tim Mohr) and Thomas Pletzinger (Funeral of a Dog, forthcoming, trans. Ross Benjamin) along with Peter Schneider, the Austrians Martin Pollock and Klemens Renolder and the Swiss Peter Stamm. Plus translators out of German Susan Bernofsky and Michael Hofmann - and of course a whole host of writers from other places.

And please, please - enjoy it all for me too.

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Donal's Eye View: berlinleipzigrevisited

A friend, fellow translator, writer, blogger and participant in the Angry Sheep translators' mega-event - the one and only Donal McLaughlin - is recording his impressions of the workshop and the Leipzig Book Fair at berlinleipzigrevisited. It looks a dash more coherent than my version.

Monday, 22 March 2010

Things I Did Last Week (Part 2 - Leipzig)

So after three full days of fun at the Literary Colloquium, all 60 of us got to go to the Leipzig Book Fair. The others took a bus and stayed at hotels miles away from anywhere, but I went for the luxury version and booked a train ticket and my secret apartment right at the heart of town. Christian Hansen, nominated for the translators' prize at the fair for his version of Bolano's 2666, kept me amused on the train and we had a nice view of the curly top of Ingo Schulze's head over in the first-class carriage.

And then I arrived and dived into the scrum. The first day always seems a little calmer, with fewer pudgy teenagers dressed as cartoon characters clogging up the aisles. I'm actually a big fan of the cosplayers at Leipzig - unlike one writer I talked to, who advocated violence against them. I love their enthusiasm, especially against the backdrop of all those jaded publishing professionals at the book fair. Day one was Clemens Meyer day, with the man himself promoting his new book Gewalten everywhere you looked. I saw him interviewed by big-cheese Ijoma Mangold, and was later told I rolled my eyes. Some of the questions seemed to indicate that the interviewer hadn't read the book as carefully as he might have done, but perhaps I was reading too much into it.

Otherwise lots of Hey, how are you!?-ing and Long time no see!-ing and air kissing (although I don't actually do that except with a particular auntie of mine - I'm more of a hugger, with or without back-pats. If I back-pat you that's an attempt to diffuse the hug slightly, just so you know). And translators everywhere you looked, and men in big black clunky glasses even more so. Can glasses be clunky? I think so. And all the women in boots of all descriptions, I don't think I saw a single pair of shoes.

And then I let readings be readings and books be books and bagged a seat for the awards ceremony and launched into a long girly chat that was a breath of fresh air. The VIPs arrived in dribs and drabs and I felt my usual resentment that they were inside the rope and I was outside, but hey, it made as good as no difference, what with all the translators hanging outside the rope. Oh, the awards? First the head of the jury held a speech defending their nomination of Hegemann's Axolotl Roadkill - yes, it's still good stuff, people, and they can nominate whoever they like, for God's sake, no matter what Günter Grass says about it. And then Ulrich Blumenbach won the translation prize for Infinite Jest, and Ulrich Rauff won the non-fiction award for Kreis ohne Meister about that nasty elitist Stefan George's posthumous influence. And there was a big nonplussed sigh as Georg Klein won the fiction prize for Roman unserer Kindheit. How utterly unsexy, we all thought, a book about growing up in West Germany. By a man who later crowed that he has no problem using the word "N*ger", and some of his best friends are Africans. What year was this again? And then after a brief longing look on my part we all donned our sunglasses and marched out of there to do tourist stuff in town.

And on Thursday night the Lange Leipziger Lesenacht, with slightly more breathing space than usual for some reason, which was surely nothing to do with the line-up. A brief hello to a less than shy organiser hiding in a remote corner of the Moritzbastei - celebrating daddyhood in a Godfather-like outfit. And then up to the Oberkeller to bag seats for the delights to come, expertly moderated by Michael Hametner. Kristof Magnusson was on fine form, such a sweetie and going all out for his punchlines, in contrast to Roman Graf whose book is apparently hilarious but nobody was laughing. And then a surreal story brilliantly read by Christiane Neudecker, against which Leif Randt didn't have a hope in hell with his lacklustre performance. Ulrike Almut Sandig I thought was great, a tight story well presented, although there were discontented mutterings afterwards - but what do they know? And then the man of the moment was back, bowling people over with his knockout story "German Amok". The audience reaction was a sight to behold, confusion giving way to laughter giving way to shock and then nervous relief.

Afterwards drinks and schmoozing (in the English sense) and I found out what editors do all day long and I stayed up just that bit too late because we were waiting for a camera crew and the man of the moment was getting more and more irritated by the minute and the likelihood of the live broadcast going wrong rose exponentially with every beer. But then it didn't and we bitched about journalists and all went home happy, except I may have inadvertently insulted the Godfather because I can't take my drink.

Friday more tired Hellos and a podium discussion on German literature in the ROW, something I've sat through too often to enjoy now even though a few good points were made and there was a little optimism to be heard amidst all the comments on funding and pay. I may have seen some people from Litaffin on the escalator, but maybe not - they weren't wearing their badges and mine was positioned quite tactfully by that point. New media star Leander Wattig gave a presentation on social media in publishing, which was pitched too low to be of any interest so we gave up after five minutes and bitched about his suit. And then I sat down in the Mairisch booth and everyone I know in the whole world walked past and I dragged them in and introduced them to Finn-Ole Heinrich, who I love even though he's much too young for that facial hair. And he was sweet and I pretended to know something about writing, which I regret slightly now. More clunky black glasses, at one point everyone but me was wearing the things, and the world span round slightly for lack of sleep.

On to my one business appointment of the fair, with a refreshing drink of fat Coke (you can't get thin Coke at the fair for love nor money, thank God it's only once a year) and a lovely chat and a nice quick transition from Sie to Du. Why are rights people such delightfully optimistic types? Presumably they'd commit suicide otherwise. And so to bed, to gather my strength for the evening's entertainment.

Starting with Czech oddball and sudden tee-totalist Jachym Topol, inexpertly moderated by some big editor who had to leave halfway through and couldn't cope with Topol's sense of humour. Then on to a riotous translators' reception, where we got to see big boss Oliver Zille's black eye close up but didn't find out how he got it. And the wine flowed freely and there were meatballs with cheese on top, every vegan's nightmare, and everyone loved each other and ignored the fact that the toilets were up a dark flight of stairs and last year's venue was much posher - but this year there were just too many of us, what can you do?

Off to the Young Publishers' Party with my posse of lovely English girls - but they were all far too sensible and didn't want to dance and didn't want to pour beer down their gullets until the early hours making small talk to strangers in clunky black glasses either. So it was just me and the lads, and they didn't want to dance either, but they did want to drink and make small talk so that was OK. And then it seemed easier to go home to my secret apartment at the heart of town than make the long trip to the toilet again, despite the revealing view into the gents' that taught us never to eat peanuts at the bar because men don't wash their hands afterwards. But you know when it's three in the morning and it takes hours to leave, and then you're standing outside drunkenly and along comes some critic and accuses you of rolling your eyes and then you re-ignite an old argument about translators' royalties and manage to actually win merely by dint of being less drunk and pretending you're really offended and just going to leave at any moment? And then some editor says why don't we all have another beer and make up and some writer wants to suggest to the critic that he really should review his latest book, and the critic pretends to get it muddled up with another book, or maybe he really does get it muddled up, and so you end up staying until four in the morning? Well, that happened.

So Saturday was all a bit of a blur, until the evening back in Berlin, when the 60 translators met up again for the final session of free food and drink and schmoozing with writers. And I had my annual life counselling session with one lady writer from Neukölln and my annual dose of admiration from an older lady writer not from Neukölln, whom I promised to adopt if she dyed her hair blonde. And then I got a taxi home and slept for what felt like 48 hours.

Things I Did Last Week (Part 1)

Last week was a tad busy. I had the privilege of taking part in a huge meet-up of 60 translators out of German at Berlin's Literary Colloquium. And that meant input morning to night. We had writers talking to us and reading for us: Katja Lange-Müller, David Wagner, Dirk Kurbjuweit, Abbas Khider, Maria Cecilia Barbetta, Marion Poschmann, Monika Rinck, Lutz Seiler, Sibylle Lewitscharoff. Plus evening readings by Wilhelm Genazino and Arno Geiger and an international poetry slam. We had critics and experts filling us in on recent developments: Burkhard Müller, Stephan Speicher and Christian Hansen. There were people there to tell us about funding and grants and travel programmes and foreign rights - notably the incredibly impressive Petra Hardt from Suhrkamp Verlag, who really reconciled me with the place after my previous unpleasant encounter. And a certain blogger held a rather nervous presentation about German literature on the internet - not quite the fifth estate over here.

What was most impressive, though, was meeting all the fellow translators from around the world. What do translators from Iran and Brazil have in common? A hell of a lot, actually, despite all the differences in their working conditions. It's always marvellous to talk to other translators with a passion for literature, and the event was hugely fruitful. This time there was a good sprinkling of translators into English from Britain and the States - and how wonderful it was to exchange tips and passions and gossip and feel the mutual support that doesn't - I think - go without saying in other professions.

I think we all came out of it exhausted but inspired, and I for one have a lot of new plans up my sleeve - especially for a new collaborative blog in German, specifically on translation. If you happen to translate into or out of German, I urge you to apply for a place on one of the LCB's various workshops. The wonderful and dedicated people there will make it worth your while.

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

On Being a Lady Blogger

Berlin-based poet and blogger Annina Luzie Schmidt has started a new site promoting her fellow female bloggers. The idea being that plenty of women and girls blog, but they don't always have a very high profile - perhaps because their readership is too small, their subject matter is considered too frivolous, they don't publicise themselves aggressively – or there's a male conspiracy going on out there to keep us in the chained to the cooker making beans on toast for tea.

The project is called GIRLS CAN BLOG - and Annina's started a series of interviews with girls who, yes, you guessed it, blog. Her latest victim is a grown woman who writes about German books in English, out of sheer literary evangelism. Ever wondered what makes me sit down and share all these things with you? Find out here. I just wish I hadn't used the word "stuff" quite so frequently.

Sunday, 14 March 2010

Angry Sheep

I may not be blogging much this week, as I'm one of 60 translators out of German enjoying input galore at Berlin's beautiful Literary Colloquium. From critics to writers to publishers to other translators, there's a fantastic programme designed all around German-language literature. All under the name of Angry Sheep, after Katja Lange-Müller's really rather excellent novel Böse Schafe, which has been translated into eight languages so far (not English yet!). In fact the author herself gave us a warm welcoming speech, complete with translation-themed joke, this evening.

All 60 of us will also be descending on the Leipzig Book Fair en masse as of Thursday. So expect to hear enraged bleating in Arabic, Turkish, Slovenian, Italian, Portuguese, Czech, Chinese, English – pretty much any language actually – as we angry sheep spread out all over the fair. Plus, you can catch us all in the flesh in Vortragsraum 10 on Friday morning to find out about the state of play for German literature in translation.

Friday, 12 March 2010

Mystery Translator Revealed*

So I'd threatened to storm the reading in my balaclava in defence of the poor uncredited translator of Tobias Rapp's Lost and Sound. You remember, right? After all that verbal radicalism I could hardly back down. And so I found myself outside a smoky room full of hipster ex-pats at an event about techno culture.

Armed with my placards and megaphone and with my getaway car parked outside, I battled my way in, shouting "Credit the translator! Credit the translator!" Distracted from the clubbing experts' panel discussion on professionalism and selling out, drugs and music and glitter makeup, all heads turned my way. "Is there a translator in the house? Stand up for your rights, fellow ferryman of words!"

A slight cough came from the back of the room, where a young man dressed in black was shifting in his seat. I blazed him with the beam of my maglight: "Was it you? Was it you who supplied this sparkling translation? Then stand up, man, and take your rightful place on the podium!" The crowds parted, their murmur gradually building up to a cheer, stomping their feet and clapping in admiration. And the man inched his way forward, slowed down by all the hands patting his back and arms thrown around him, until the audience finally hoisted him up and passed him above their heads on a surf-ride to the stage.

Yes, this was the man: Paul Sabin, the translator of Tobias Rapp's ode to Berlin's techno culture. And at last he was given his rightful recognition as co-creator of a work of art. His was the glory, this was his moment. May there be many more.

*This description may vary slightly from actual events. But it'd have been boring to write that he was on the podium to start with and has been nagging the publishers/record company to put his name on the website for a while now. Maybe they'll get the picture some time soon.

Franck and Schami Battle It Out

The longlist for this year's Independent Foreign Fiction Prize is out, and features two German books: Julia Franck's awkwardly titled The Blind Side of the Heart (Die Mittagsfrau) and Rafik Schami's similarly groanworthy The Dark Side of Love (Die dunkle Seite der Liebe). Both translated by Anthea Bell, one about difficult mothers in Germany pre-WWII, the other about forbidden love in Syria.

Judge Boyd Tonkin points out that there were fewer translated books this year as publishing crawled into its shell over the recession - and the fact that Bell and the Arabic translator Humphrey Davies are both on the list twice suggests that younger translators may be bearing the brunt, with people less likely to take a risk on less established translators.

Anyway, my blind heart's behind Julia Franck, as I loved her book - a great story, well told.

Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Looking Forward to La-La-Leipzig

My regular readers will be yawning already, because there comes a time every year when I just can't hold back. The sun's actually shining, the people of Berlin are actually smiling - and I've just booked my ticket to Leipzig from a woman in a stained Deutsche Bahn waistcoat. I even managed to coax a reluctant grimace out of her with my infectious enthusiasm.

Yes! It's nearly time for the lovely, the luscious, the luxuriously leisurely Leipzig Book Fair (I really think the letter L is utterly sexy). It's like no book fair you've ever been to, O English-speaking readers, for it is there for us, the readers. There are events and readings from morning to night, around the city itself and at the fair, which is bigger than London but smaller than Frankfurt and friendlier than both rolled into one.

And there's a prize too (see my brief run-down of the nominees). I have made it a tradition to stand just outside the official seated area at the awards ceremony, seeing as the publishing world has yet to acknowledge my infinite importance by inviting me in, and rejoice along with the great and the good of German writing. This year, Publishing Perspectives tells us, mere mortals got to express an opinion on who ought to win the fiction prize, and plumped for Lutz Seiler with his short story collection Die Zeitwaage. You can also bet on the outcome, or at least I think you can, at a site called Hubdub. There too, Seiler is tied with Jan Faktor to win.

Just in advance, I have to say I've met Lutz Seiler twice, but I was rather intoxicated on the one occasion. He was very nice but he probably won't remember me if you ask him. Anyway I was rather underwhelmed by the story I heard him read from the book, "Turksib", which did however win him the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize. We shall see who really does win.

Did I mention I'm looking forward to it?

Monday, 8 March 2010

Lost and Sound Miraculously Translated

A while back I reviewed Tobias Rapp's book Lost and Sound, an enjoyable and well-written book about Berlin's techno clubs and the way cheap flights have internationalised the party-going public. It's caused a bit of a stir all round Europe, with reviews cropping up in the oddest of places, and you can read an interview in English at Exberliner, who are also holding a reading in Berlin this coming Thursday.

The author had told me it might well be translated into English, and now it really has been. Fittingly enough, the English version has been brought out by a record company, Innervisions. And it looks like the book-lover's version of a coloured vinyl special pressing: a limited edition hand printed with numbers one to 500 on the inside, smart cloth binding, four-colour inner covers, you name it.

One tiny detail, however, is missing, both on the website and below this excerpt elsewhere. Can you guess what it is yet?

That's right. They're not telling us who translated it. 288 pages of hard graft uncredited. I hope I'll hear back after my polite enquiry earlier today - in which case I'll let you know. But right now I'm sorely tempted to turn up at that reading waving placards and shouting through a megaphone.

Friday, 5 March 2010

Ulrike Draesner: Vorliebe

There’s something about prose written by poets that seems to get every translator’s pulse racing. Ralf Rothmann springs to mind immediately, but there are other examples. It always seems so densely written, every word so laden with meaning, and often with its own rhythm that many writers don’t even aspire to. And what if that poet writing prose is also a translator? Frankly, she can’t put a foot wrong.

And Ulrike Draesner doesn’t. Vorliebe is the first of her novels I’ve read, although I’ve enjoyed her poetry in the past. In fact, you can read various Draesner poems at the wonderful lyrikline website, translated into English by Catherine Hales, Iain Galbraith, Richard Dove and Andrew Shields. Delightful, aren’t they? She herself has translated Shakespeare, Gertrude Stein and others.

But here we have a novel, a book in which nothing much happens. The main character is another physicist: Harriet, also known as Jet, and occasionally as “Hay” for her white-blonde hair. Her common-law husband is Ashley, a British engineer. And then she becomes re-entangled with Peter Olvaeus, her Vorliebe or past love. Who’s a Protestant priest twenty years her senior, with a wife and son. That’s pretty much the extent of the plot, really.

Harriet met Olvaeus at the age of sixteen and fell for him big-time. So Draesner gives us some teeth-clenching moments from that teenage crush, beautifully rendered. And then she sees him again after Ashley has mown down his wife in a car accident. Here’s that moment, just scraping by on the right side of kitsch:

It was as if Harriet were falling into a huge travel bag.
She slid through iridescent material, closing up around her like a dress the instant she touched it. Airy light, bright red rubbed over her outstretched hands, tiny beads trembled on sleeves that embraced her wrists, she admired the flora and fauna of finest embroidery, the lilac of a feather
boa, the dark gleaming microfibre enclosing her legs, touched a crackling bustier with hooks like stars.

I hope that gives you an idea. Because as you might have guessed, the lure of the novel – for me – is in the language. And when at times Draesner goes too far, Harriet brings her back down to earth with a scientific bump.

There are other aspects I loved, though. Ashley is a great character, a tight-lipped Brit constantly wondering at the oddities of life in Berlin and the German language. True to British form, he is perfectly aware of Harriet’s affair but refuses to mention it. The sections about Harriet’s job at a research institute are brilliantly cynical, and the philosophical aspects of the physicist-priest combination come across well. Plus the riveting eroticism.

The structure is fun too. Draesner skips back and forth in Harriet’s life story, each section beginning with part of Jet’s application to become an astronaut. And while I did say nothing much happens, that’s not entirely true. There’s a definite development towards a sudden end, with the final lines encompassing the entire story in a graceful arc:

23.6 light years away from the earth, you could see her and Peter now by the TV tower. NOW. You just had to catch the right ray of light.

Thursday, 4 March 2010

KAfKA in Neukölln

For those who don't know, Neukölln is Berlin's dirty little secret. Ten years or so ago the press discovered the borough and drummed up a scandal: It's grubby, full of poor people and immigrants and violence lies in wait at every street corner. In the meantime, of course, gentrification has set in and you can now buy home-made organic cake and original artworks in between the bookmakers and pawn shops.

But those stubborn poor people just aren't going away. Which is why the local council launched the KAfKA initiative.

Posters in shop windows proudly proclaim: "KAfKA - I'm joining in!" Cue double-take. What exactly are these shopkeepers joining in with? Are they distributing free reading material to the downtrodden masses? Are they offering to guide the great unwashed through the labyrinth of unjust job centre bureaucracy? Are they metamorphosing into beetles?

Er, no. It appears they're refusing to sell alcohol to minors. In this case, KAfKA stands for "Kein Alkohol für Kinder Aktion" - the No Alcohol for Children Campaign. Financed mainly by the job centre, long-term unemployed people go out onto the mean streets of Neukölln to gently remind shopkeepers that it's actually illegal to sell alcohol to children. Not to mention unhealthy and immoral. And then they get a nice poster to warn off those bad kids. My extensive research tells me, however, that the project is at threat, with its funding cut. But maybe it's been rescued at the last minute, as I've recently seen the posters outside of Neukölln too.

Even more extensive research reveals that Franz Kafka himself would have approved of the project. Two quotes on the matter:

My peers, lately, have found companionship through means of intoxication - it makes them sociable. I, however, cannot force myself to use drugs to cheat on my loneliness - it is all that I have - and when the drugs and alcohol dissipate, will be all that my peers have as well.

Of course I do not drink alcohol, coffee or tea and usually don't eat any chocolate.

Apparently he was an outspoken opponent of alcohol abuse in Czech society. And just imagine the horror of Kafka's writing if he'd been drunk at the time. Or eating chocolate.

Wednesday, 3 March 2010

Juli Zeh: Dark Matter / In Free Fall

The most striking thing about this translation – although not necessarily an unusual phenomenon – is that the title is completely different to the original. In German, Juli Zeh’s third novel is named Schilf after its detective character. Meaning literally ‘reeds’, the word is fabulously misleading. Whereas Dark Matter takes us in a very different direction, pointing us at the two physicists who open the book and instantly suggesting a thriller. In the States, meanwhile, it’s coming out as In Free Fall.

I started reading the book as a precisely observed story of two claustrophobically close friends who have chosen different directions in life. Sebastian is married and has settled for a staid career teaching physics at a provincial university and defending a near-dead theory in his free time. While Oskar is a high-flying bohemian looking for the physics to end all physics in Geneva. Zeh treats us to their tense conversations, always presenting the science and philosophy in comprehensible portions. It’s a beautifully unhurried opening, a whole forty pages dedicated to dinner with Sebastian’s family.

And then – Juli Zeh turns up the pressure. Sebastian is at the end of his tether, a dead black cat by the side of the road an all too clear indication that something has gone badly wrong. His son has been kidnapped and he is told, “Dabbeling must go”. So he kills a man.

And then? That’s when the book started to disappoint me. From then on, the camera zooms away from the desperate Sebastian and into the police station. Yes, the characters are beautifully done, a valkyrie of a detective by the name of Rita Skura and the shambling and once eponymous Schilf as far from classic whodunit fodder as you can imagine. Yes, they solve the crime almost by accident and we find out more about their inner and private lives than about their criminological methods. And yes, we get something like closure at the end.

But I was simply more interested in the two physicists than I was in the crime. I didn’t want Dark Matter to be a crime novel. I wanted to read about Oskar and Sebastian and resented any time devoted to Schilf and his ex-pupil Skura. I wanted to see whose theory would win out, who would gain the moral upper hand in their fascinating relationship. And although we do get all this at some point, Juli Zeh makes us wait.

Christine Lo’s translation certainly reflects the very high register of the original, which is not always to my taste. In Zeh’s world there are no butterfly collectors, only lepidopterists, and in Lo’s translation all the pigeons are doves, no doubt fittingly enough. But I did love all the birds and wildlife dotted through the story, a nice gimmick that adds Hitchcockian depth to the narrative.

So it’s a not really crime novel that is too much of a crime novel – probably what’s called “intelligent crime writing” and similar to her debut Eagles and Angels, also available in English. Exploring guilt and innocence and all that. You can catch Juli Zeh in conversation with crime writer David Guttridge at the book’s launch at the London Goethe Institut on 11 March.

Monday, 1 March 2010

Fallada and Walser Fuel the Passion

The Brits and the Americans do love a good dead white German or Swiss man. Right now, according to a tantalisingly vague press release in trade mag Buchreport, Hans Fallada is cleaning up in the UK. His Alone in Berlin (trans. Michael Hofmann) apparently sold 60,000 copies in a few weeks - almost unheard of for a translated title. It just goes to show what passionate marketing and a good story can do. Based on the real-life couple Elise and Otto Hampel, the book paints a less glamorous picture of anti-Nazi resistance than many readers may be familiar with. And the catchy British title is certainly a little more optimistic than the original Jeder stirbt für sich allein.

As Britain goes Fallada-crazy, Swiss dead guy Robert Walser is making waves in the States. As I've mentioned before, Susan Bernofsky's translation The Tanners is nominated for Best Translated Book - and you can listen to her reading and talking at the Center for the Art of Translation at the excellent Two Words blog.

Interestingly enough, the two writers have one other thing in common. Both have inspired paintings by Billy Childish: "Robert Walser dies in the snow" and "The Drinker".