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Guest Post: translating the Great War….

 Will Firth, one of a handful of experienced literary translators from BCS (Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian) opens the window on his       present project – a translation of one of Serbia’s best-selling books in recent years – The Great War by Aleksandar Gatalica.

”I feel almost privileged to be translating The Great War (Veliki rat) by the Serbian writer Aleksandar Gatalica because it really is a most entertaining   and moving book written with a convincing blend of styles and imagery. It is hardly surprising that it won the Serbian novel-of-the-year award (NIN nagrada) in 2012.

Over seventy main characters come together in The Great War. Among the historical figures we meet are Manfred von Richthofen (aka The Red  Baron), the flamboyant poet Guillaume Apollinaire, a megalomaniac little corporal in a Bavarian regiment on the Western Front (Adolf Hitler), and the illustrious Mata Hari – one of several spies in the book. These are joined by many characters who are fictional but convincingly portrayed: a Sarajevo  pathologist who finds Archduke Franz Ferdinand and Duchess Sophie on his dissection table in 1914; a failed German artist who is now a zeppelin pilot itching to drop a bomb on Picasso; and an Istanbul spice trader, whose five apprentices are all mobilised and sent to five different frontiers across the unsettled, post-Ottoman territory of Turkey. This is a skilful device which helps sketch the geopolitical dimensions of the war. Many readers will not know that the relatively young Kingdom of Serbia was wiped off the map during WWI. One of the characters is a Serbian commander who repeatedly lies to his freezing, starving men to give them hope and keep them alive on their long retreat through the mountains of Albania; ultimately they reach the Adriatic coast and the relative safety of Corfu, where the officer indulges in a single glass of ouzo – and dies.

The Great War has many elements of a historical novel but is also rooted in the tradition of magic realism. A German submarine captain, for example, is in league with sea monsters; a Turkish policeman of Armenian extraction (something he has successfully repressed) is finally overwhelmed by the spirits of all the Armenians killed in the genocide; a Russian surgeon on the Eastern Front miraculously saves soldiers with bullets in their brains, and the often illiterate muzhiks wake up speaking German; at the same time, students and poets in the Austro-Hungarian army are dying after bloody battles in Serbia, despite the best efforts of a surgeon there (our Sarajevo pathologist). Their souls ‘migrated east (…) along some imponderable transversal, in the invisible barques of the dead, into the split heads of Russian farmworkers’. The Austrian Bolshevik Karl Radek sets off from Zürich, Switzerland, for Russia in March 1917. He is one of the passengers in Lenin’s famous sealed train. On the long journey through war-impoverished Germany, Radek sees the same boy at every railway station: a fair-haired lad with a freckled nose, whom he instantly feels fond of. Pale and emaciated, the boy is either pushing a heavy luggage cart, waiting despondently or leaning on a crutch. And when Radek arrives in troubled Petrograd he can’t believe his eyes: the same boy, it seems, has been sent to meet him.

As well as being fascinating ideas in themselves, these events and links create a web of intersecting fates. The Great War portrays the cataclysm that was WWI from a pan-European perspective and will hopefully help redress Anglophone preoccupation with the Western Front. The author paints a convincing, gripping picture of a continent in agony. It is the end of an age built on a belief in material and technical progress, and the beginning of an uncertain future.

The Great War is due to be published by Istros Books in November 2014. It will make a fascinating read. Although there are some hard nuts to crack, the novel is also a pleasure to translate. I don’t get to say that very often.”

Will Firth, translator

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Love, Adultery and the Communist inheritance: Interview with Cecilia Stefanescu, author of ‘Sun Alley’ and ‘Love Sick’

Cecilia Stefanescu is one of Romania’s leading authors; part of a new generation of writers who grew up under the old regime but have gone on to write and flourish in a new literary culture. She made her debut with the novel Love Sick, which has been published in two editions in Romania and translated into French (Éditions Phébus, 2006).  Love Sick was also been made into a film, directed by Tudor Giurgiu, which has been shown at the Berlin Film Festival, Karlovy Vary, Chicago, and in more than twenty countries. In 2005, alongside eleven other Romanian writers, she took part in the annual Les Belles étrangères event, organised by the Centre National du Livre and the French Ministry of Culture, which was dedicated to Romania that year. She contributes monthly editorials to the Romanian-language edition of Elle magazine and writes for the weekly Romanian-language edition of Le Monde Diplomatique.

Sun Alley‘ is her second novel, and was published in April this year by Istros Books, in a lovely translation by Alexandra Coliban. The novel is a tender mix of childhood first love and the more seedy world of grown-up adultery, seen though the eyes of a twelve-year-old boy with prophetic powers. Set in a Bucharest which belongs more to Eliade that it does to Ceausescu, it seduces and beguiles the reader beautifully, so that only at the end does one understand (or believes one understands), ‘the whole story’.

We asked Cecilia a few questions about her choice of subject matter in both her novels, and to tell us a little bit more how she writes and finds inspiration:

If I understand correctly her first novel Love Sick also took love as a main theme? Can you tell me a bit about Love Sick and how important writing about love is for you? 

 Writing about love is as important as writing about myself, about my fears and expectations. I think all of us, at some levels, lead our lives wondering what our purpose is and fearing about our end. We need to be loved and fear we might not be. In Love Sick, I wanted to depict the world through the eyes of a young woman who fell in love, accidentally with another woman, and distorted her reality in order for her to be happy. I spoke about the post-Ceauşescu era, about the Romanian 90s, a controversial and very difficult period of recent Romanian history. But, it’s true, I don’t touch real historical subjects, I talk about that historical period through a personal experience. I think that’s the only way you can speak about collective events.

Why did you decide to write about love in two novels?

 In Love Sick, I wrote about adolescent love, it was a coming-of- age story. In Sun Alley, it was mature, adulterous love. The end is tragic beacause it can’t be otherwise. I often wondered why, I still can’t find an answer…

 When talking about Romania the first thing that comes to mind is Nicolae Ceaușescu’s regime. For a reader it might be somewhat liberating that this is not straightforward political book, or a book that comments on the former regime and the politics of Romania. Was it a deliberate move for you to move away from that historical baggage? 

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Cecilia Stefanescu presenting ‘Sun Alley’ at this year’s London Book Fair

I carry this historical baggage within me, and unfortunately it exists in the basement of my book even if you say you didn’t see it, which I think is a good thing. But I wanted to write only about me and what’s in my head, because it’s the only honest thing to do. I will answer your other question too, about how I see my own fiction. I see it as a work of archaeology, a work of research. I use a flashlight and, illuminate parts of my brain, while leaving other parts in the shadow. By doing this, I perpetually discover something else about myself. I think a book is not an answer but rather an experience in itself. A journey in the brain and the mind of a person who dares expose themselves. In this case, I am that person.

 Can you give us a potted self-portrait of yourself as a writer?

”I’m the neurotic product of a childhood spent among the ruins of Ceausescu’s Bucharest and that’s why, vacillating between petty fears and some naïve happiness, between the nostalgia of what was at that time a personal paradise and the horror of what I might have turned into but didn’t as time went by, I’ve chosen the shortest route, that of fabulation. Since I don’t exactly like talking loudly or laughing noisily or entering a room full of enthusiastic people and listening to those that like talking a lot and for a handful of other idiosyncrasies, I’ve become a writer. It’s a job that increases your phobias, glorifies your failures and sets in memorable forms the whole mess of time passed.”

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