Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Not lost in translation

European Short Stories: Bjarte Breiteig & Thijs de Boer, Tuesday 18th October, 6pm, International Anthony Burgess Foundation

Words by Nick Garrard.

Tonight’s event brings a cosmopolitan air to the red brick walls of the Burgess Foundation. Not only are we graced with two rising stars of European literature but, as they read their chosen pieces in their mother tongues, live English translations are streamed on a projector screen behind them. Rather than being a distraction, this makes for a curiously immersive experience, sidestepping the aridity which can sometimes haunt live readings and offering a respectful nod to the authors’ particular languages. As each of tonight’s readers picks their way through their words, there’s a curious pleasure in tracing their progress and reflecting on the way each un-translated phrase echoes or diverges from its English equivalent.

In the post-reading Q&A, both authors refute the idea of a "single European style". There are too many cultures, they say: there are no "European stories", just stories, diverse enough in themselves. As a definition this hardly seems necessary – the samples we hear from their two collections prove there are stirringly different talents abroad on the continent.

Thijs de Boer goes first. A young, exceptionally tall writer from Holland, he cut his teeth as an architecture student. Perhaps I make too much of this as it’s the last detail I pluck from his biography before it’s whisked off the screen, but it seems to me that his writing is aptly preoccupied with ideas of space and alienation. The first of his two pieces describes a grotesque retirement home where dwarves skip maniacally down the corridors and the elderly sit upright in bed and hum to themselves without break. It’s an inventive bit of descriptive prose and puts me in mind of Kafka or the Modernist excesses of Bruno Schulz. There’s a rather more contemporary vein of black humour curling through his words too, as in his second piece, Ketamine, in which two drug-addled brothers lose their mother’s gravestone to a bad hand of cards. And to think, the Dutch seemed like such an easygoing lot.

Bjarte Breiteig is at the other end of the spectrum. His writing is spare and controlled and more than a little brutal. He cites Hemingway and Carver as key influences, along with a rash of Nordic countrymen whose names unfortunately zip past my ignorant ears. He reads just one piece, titled You Best Run. It’s the story of a young couple and the escalating cruelty of their curdled relationship. Here, the streamed translation works well, each new page bringing a fresh act of viciousness. The audience is clearly gripped and it’s a pleasing relief in the Q&A afterwards when Breiteig reveals himself to be as bright eyed and chirpy as his characters are tortured and withdrawn. "I used to write nice people," he says, "my first collection was all about them." The audience resolves as one to check.

My favourite quote of the night comes – appropriately – as the conclusion draws near. Jim Hinks of Comma Press, chairing the discussion, asks Breiteig about the endings of his stories. Why does he choose to leave them so unresolved? Breiteig thinks for a moment then smiles.

"Well," he says, "if you have a closed ending then you give people closure." He laughs, a little too convincingly.

Nick Garrard lives and works in Manchester. You can follow him on Twitter @havershambler.

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