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

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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide