Novel of the week

Translated Accounts

James Kelman <em>Secker & Warburg, 322pp, £15.99</em>

ISBN 0436274647

The back cover of James Kelman's new novel carries a quote from the Guardian. "One of the most enjoyable writers around," the paper once said of him. The citing of this tribute looks like an act almost of desperation by Secker & Warburg - because Translated Accounts defies any attempt to make it sound like a novel that might be fun to read.

The book contains 54 first-person narratives from an unnamed state that is under military rule. Some chapters tell of acts of oppression or terror; some are dialogues about individual responsibilities within the state; still others appear to be transcriptions of interrogations. Several narrators are probably officers with the "securitys", the agents of state oppression. Others are witnesses of violence or victims of it; they may be separated from their families, and look to the mountains or towns on the coast as places of comparative freedom.

These bare outlines are often all that the reader can discern, because the language of the novel is perplexing: the blurb writer, presumably on the author's advice, tells us that what we are reading may have passed through several processes of editing and translation before being handed over to a state agency. This is a text with very few proper nouns, except for certain names of countries and a reference to Walt Disney films. The language circles and recurs. It contains several versions of phrases, often within the same sentence, as if the editor were aware that the text is adrift of the intended meaning: "My things were in one bag, where was the bag, the bag was under the bed, I had no cupboard, it was for her, all was for her, in her room"; "She did not think so in this place where all were trustworthy, were so to be, but also I knew and so said it to her that there is no place where all are trustworthy, such a place, one other planet from here, where, no place."

Sometimes this technique has a shocking power. Chapter five is an account of one man's efforts to save a baby while the securitys are on the rampage, and is all the more appalling because the document is partially obliterated by computer gobbledegook. The pared-down language can convey a bitter irony, reminiscent of the dark humour of eastern Europe: "shoot this first man, it is better for us also, bus-travellers, better for all, we are a practical people". A military officer, the same narrator reports, shoots the man without hesitation: "These military were not maddened. They are experienced fellows." But more often the effect is deadening, and exasperating. The experiences one looks for in reading - involvement, human sympathy, excitement in language and ideas - are obscured from us by a screen of artful translatorese.

Kelman has been concerned throughout his career with creating a language for the oppressed, the dispossessed and the inarticulate. The Scots dialect in his novels and stories is not naturalistic: it is designed to give a fictional voice to the characters that expresses, but also transcends, the grim circumstances of their lives. In Translated Accounts, he takes this agenda a stage further. The true voices of these characters are for ever lost; only an approximate version survives, through which the remnants of authenticity occasionally glimmer.

When a serious and fine writer such as Kelman produces a difficult work, the contemporary reviews are often unreliable. The obscurity that is daunting and irritating to the first-time reader may come to seem, once a writer's oeuvre is assessed from a broader perspective, a worthwhile challenge. We are told that Kelman has been working on this novel since he won the Booker Prize in 1994 with How Late It Was, How Late; clearly a great deal of thought and endeavour has gone into what appears to be a randomly transcribed text. But he demands greater effort from readers of Translated Accounts than all but a few will be willing to expend.

Nicholas Clee is the editor of the Bookseller

Nicholas Clee, the NS food columnist, is the author of Don’t Sweat the Aubergine: What Works in the Kitchen and Why (Short Books). He is a former editor of The Bookseller, and writes about books for papers including the Times, Guardian, and Times Literary Supplement.

This article first appeared in the 11 June 2001 issue of the New Statesman, There are years of fun to come