Hearts in Translation
My brain needed a break from the various travails (which sounds much better than “I am being slack”) so I picked up my next review book. It’s a memoir, which is not something I would pick up, on the whole, but Alexa (the public relations person for InBooks) thought it was a good match for me and clever PR people have sent me some amazing books, so I agreed. I’m glad I agreed for Alexa was quite right, but the book is difficult. In a way, though, it’s not the book I want to write about, it’s me. My people. Who just happen to be in the book.
My mother’s friend always says that it’s a Jewish thing: if you haven’t found you’re related to someone then you haven’t talked to the person long enough. I keep finding different relatives in this novel. I found my uncle. I also found elderly friends: it was as if I was meeting them in their youth. Yet, in reality, I’ve never met anyone mentioned in Yudit Kiss’s The Summer My Father Died.
The book worries me because it shows that Australia is far closer to Europe than I had realised. Europe is emotionally close. Its history is our history. Its troubles are our troubles. Kiss’s story is a combination of bits of stories of so many people I know. In real life, I only know one person who may or may not be related to the family Kiss describes. In my emotional reality, I know them all.
And yet I am not of that background. My ancestry is from further east and further west. My family is not so far leftwing (only bits of it) and we were in Australia long before the Holocaust and suffered only echoes. (Arnold Zable chronicled those echoes in Jewels and Ashes.) It’s all very different to Kiss’s story.
This is the strength of a memoir written in a language other than English and then translated. It is written for the culture that has brought it into life, and so it has resonances that make the sum far more than the parts. The style isn’t perfect, but the meaning is clear. The language can be overwritten and points belaboured, but the emotional truths are strong and inevitable. The fact that I kept thinking of family and friends who need to read it for it was about them and their lives and their cousins and the cousins they never had says this. The fact that I could see me and mine in this memoir, even though me and mine are a world away and from different backgrounds says even more.
The Summer My Father Died is a memoir. In it, Kiss attempts to reconcile the impossibilities of her family and her family’s history. They are vast impossibilities for her family suffered through being Jewish and suffered through being Communist. Some of it survived. The story is not in the suffering (although the suffering is always there, even at times it should not be: “I can’t see you any more,” says a close friend “for my new husband can’t stand the smell of your Jewish genes.”) it’s in how each person handles it. Kiss demonstrates over and again that the millions of lives that were taken through Shoah were not extermination, but plain old-fashioned murder. She shows us how rich and individual those lives were. How some people escaped and how her father buried the past so deep because the hurt was too great.
Millions of stories. Millions of tales. Kiss tells us just a few. She doesn’t focus on the persecutors or on wrongs done. She’s not interested in morals, but in people. We learn about the lives of human beings. This is what genocide is, the sheer number of individual and interesting lives that are snuffed out: it is the loss of those human lives and their richness and their daftness. The world is a smaller place for the survivors and an even smaller place for others, who will never know who we have lost. This is why I see so many people I know: Kiss tells the story of one Hungarian family, but it’s about all of us.
This memoir and its people tell a tale that is deeply emotional, as it should be. Families split and destroyed by the Holocaust are difficult enough, but families that also destroy themselves and then hide the destruction under the carpet until the next generation comes along, that’s a pain of a very different sort.
What made this book so strong was, as I have said, not the language. It was the subject: the family and its stories. Kiss turned the individual into the universal through focussing on small lives. I couldn’t let my reading end with it, therefore, for I had been sent a little novel, also in translation and published by the same press. I had to know … what?
I wanted to know about small people. Sjón’s The Whispering Muse gives me that, in fiction form. This little novel carries many of the same truths as The Summer My Father Died. They’re no less palatable, but the recounting is a lot more graceful.
It begins as if the world is mundane and the people in it are full, for the narrator tells us at great length of his theories about fish consumption and how he promulgates them. The narrator is that wonderful thing, the person you never want to meet in real life but who filters story through his consciousness, changing it into something ultimately very strange. He has no real idea what he’s doing. As a person, he’s ultimately a small one, and so, when he suffers a sea change, he doesn’t turn into something rich and strange but into a slightly modified version of himself.
Small lives hide big secrets in this novel, too, and the reality is a wondrous one. It’s presented so pragmatically, however, that the wonder is filtered. That filter loves fish above story and loves self above almost anything else. The Whispering Muse tells of the strange, but celebrates (ironically) the small and known and how we keep the world to a size we can understand. The memoir explores the big and unknown. Yet, ultimately, they examine the same subjects: the size of human understanding and its limits.
The novel has language on its side. I don’t know if the relationship of Icelandic to English is easier to communicate than the relationship of Hungarian to English, or if the translator captures the spirit of the writing better, or if Sjón is simply a better writer, or if all three have their roles to play, but the style of The Whispering Muse is quietly compelling. It builds slowly. It doesn’t overwhelm. Small things become important, from how often fish is eaten to the nature of a small piece of wood. The way the lyrical and the mundane contrast and interweave is wonderful.
People I knew in one book: stories I knew in another. By the end of both readings, however, both books had turned my preconceptions inside out.