The third of my 2020 Edinburgh International Book Festival posts continues on the International Booker Prize theme with a look at the final two novels on the shortlist. Today we’re off to Mexico to learn more about a book that must have been very close to taking out the prize, a worthy piece for this year’s Women In Translation Month. However, there is a male writer featured today, too, as the final session takes us back in time to a period of confusion and bloodshed in Central Europe – the perfect setting for a cunning, legendary character to strut his stuff. Shall we?
First up today is the session “Sophie Hughes & Fernanda Melchor: Another Mexico”, from Saturday, the 22nd of August, in which Mexican-born Scottish poet Juana Adcock asked writer and translator about the novel Hurricane Season. In a brisk, well-managed talk with no need for an interpreter (Melchor’s English is excellent), we heard of the book’s origins, and how it developed from the idea of a non-fiction work in the vein of In Cold Blood into a work of fiction, partly because (as Melchor admitted) it would simply have been too dangerous for a woman in this part of Mexico to go around poking at old wounds and trying to uncover evidence of horrific crimes. The reason she wanted to write the book in the first place stemmed from her amazement that such events could even happen in modern Mexico, both the crimes and the fact that people still believe in witches.
The writer’s objective in writing Hurricane Season was to put the reader in the skin of the protagonists in an attempt to show why these things happen in her country. When she read the newspaper report of the event the book was based on, she saw only the consequences, and rather than judging those involved from the outset, she wanted to examine this example of femicide and attempt to understand the underlying causes. Once she’d looked further into the events, she realised that everything that happens in the book is because of a lack of love (at which point Hughes praised Melchor for her empathy with the characters).
The next part of the talk focused on the language used in the book. Melchor said that it was a risky decision to construct the chapters from long paragraphs with no breaks, and the same was true for the type of spoken language she adopted for the text. It was chosen both for the poetry she discerned in spoken language, but also for the need for the reader to feel close to the narrators. This violent, at times shocking, language is actually artificial, a blend of standard Mexican Spanish and the local dialect, with a strong central American influence, and Melchor’s approach was similar to that used in A Clockwork Orange. She started slowly with the odd word and gradually added more to the mix, including some invented words, as the reader (hopefully!) became more familiar with the dialect.
Of course, the language caused problems for the translator, too, and Hughes discussed the challenges involved in creating her version of the novel. Her job was to recreate the feel of the original in a new language, with the additional challenges of writing it in British English and later having it edited for the US version in American English (this mix of varieties made it into the final Australian edition I possess, which can make for interesting reading at times…). One feature she commented on was the contrast between the swearing and some fairly high-register language, but her main task was to find a unique voice for each of the narrators, allowing the reader to identify them immediately. While she doesn’t think she had to get under the characters’ skins in the same way Melchor did, she did still have to write the words, and in such a powerful book, that has a massive impact on you…
Link to video of event: https://www.edbookfest.co.uk/the-festival/whats-on/sophie-hughes-fernanda-melchor-another-mexico
The last of the six IBP sessions took place on Monday, the 24th of August, with Daniel Kehlmann and translator Ross Benjamin fronting up for a session called “When History Prefigures Our Own Times”. This one was moderated by writer and critic Stuart Kelly, and as you can tell from the title of the talk, even though the main topic was Kehlmann’s novel Tyll, there was a major focus on contemporary society and how the problems we face today have been around for a lot longer than you might think. Sadly, some parts of this talk were a little unclear, both because of Kelly’s poor Wi-Fi connection and the rain hammering down on his conservatory roof, but Kehlmann and Benjamin were both interesting speakers, so it went well on the whole.
Kehlmann discussed his plan to write a novel about the Thirty Years’ War, a conflict most Anglophone readers would know little about, as he was interested in what he called the pre-Enlightenment mind. He was looking for a guide to this journey and knew that it had to be an outsider, a traveller and an entertainer. At this point he realised that rather than inventing someone, the perfect character already existed, so with a bit of tweaking, Tyll was dragged into the seventeenth century, and the book was born!
In terms of historical accuracy, the writer said that with the story being set so far in the past, he didn’t feel it was always vital to get everything absolutely tight, instead focusing on the feel of details of life at the time (such as clothes, houses, food and daily life). He felt free to play with the characters of real people (as he did with Alexander von Humboldt in his earlier novel Measuring the World), taking liberties such as inventing a violent persona for the Swedish king. In fact, while Germans are obviously more aware of the conflict than English-language readers, that lies less in the details and more in knowing that it was a bad period in the region’s history, so this also gave him a lot of flexibility.
Benjamin chipped in from time to time, replying at one point to Kelly’s question regarding the status, or lack of it, of German as a literary language, a theme that appears in several places in the book. He commented that in many ways German-language literature was very late to get started, and that translation played a large role in this birth, citing the influence, for example, of early translations of William Shakespeare’s work into German. The literary language of the time in German would have been (surprisingly) Italian, so the efforts of the poet Paul Fleming, who appears late in the novel, to write in German were actually fairly daring! Benjamin also commented briefly on issues he faced, such as finding the correct register for Shakespeare’s cameo and converting a couple of jokes into forms English-language readers would appreciate 🙂
Throughout the talk, Kelly repeatedly tried to turn the discussion in a political direction, and while Kehlmann said that he had no intention of commenting on comtemporary events when he wrote the book, recent issues, such as the refugee crisis, meant that the parallels became unavoidable. When pressed, the writer admitted that he did think the UK was becoming more isolationist, and where it was right to be so in avoiding the Thirty Years’ War, he talked about friends today who feel under pressure, made to feel foreign on a daily basis. One very interesting comment, made in regard to a BBC interview he did, was that the broadcaster’s stance of impartiality meant he was warned not to say that he hoped the UK would one day rejoin the EU, which he felt very sad about…
Well, that’s all for this year’s IBP, but I do have one more post to share before I wrap up my Edinburgh experiences, and #WITMonth. Join me next time for a look at two books reflecting different aspects of female life, with discussions on death, birth and breast implants. If that sounds intriguing, then you know what to do – same place, different day 🙂