In Context Magazine in 2003, John OBrien, head of Dalkey, addressed one aspect of literature in translation:
If we try to zero in on the question of how many literary works (any kind of novel, poetry, play) were translated . . . my guess is that, including everything that comes from the smallest of presses and not paying attention to quality or genre, the figure is about 150 works of literature out of the 150,000 books published in the United States. . . Even if we eliminate textbooks, how-to books, et al. from this 150,000 figure, we still are looking at an infinitesimally small percentage of books that come from the 200 or so countries that exist beyond [U.S.] borders. In a quick check of catalogs from Knopf, Norton, Viking, Harcourt, and Farrar, Straus & Giroux, for approximately the past two seasons, there were thirty-one translations of contemporary foreign fiction and poetry. Thirty-one! From the New York houses forever championed as carrying on the noble tradition of serious literary publishing.
In such a marketplace, the literatures of Estonia dont stand much chance of getting published in English, and less of getting read. As part of its mandate, Dalkey Archive Press puts into print, and keeps in print, translated works from all over the world. Things in the Night and Hidden Camera are quirky, readable, and funny novels. Part of the Eastern Europe series, they deal with the place and role of the individual in societies that have struggled, in one case peacefully, in another bloodily, to emerge from decades of oppression. Both novels feature an unnamed male first-person narrator. In Things in the Night, the narrator is a man whose bizarre imagination estranges him from others. In Hidden Camera, it is a man who hides behind proprieties and who fears the perceived, though never seen, Authorities. The first narrator is a type who, in a British or Irish novel, would easily be taken for a charming eccentric; but in a Baltic production, hes not likely to be viewed in any indulgent light. The narrator of Hidden Camera is a timid Clumsy Carp, someone many people resemble at least a few times in their life on those days when everything they do, say, or think is inappropriate or ill-timed.
One notable aspect of Things in the Night is its tone: it mixes wistfulness, autumnal imagery, and a delicately balanced wryness. On the opening page the main narrator says: I announced that I was writing a book on electricity. Of course, people wanted to know immediately what kind of book I had in mind. I said: One in the most general sense of the word. I was met with sympathetic stares, the kind you get if you say you are going to write a novel about Life, which is too broad a concept, or white mice, which is too narrow. I wasnt taken seriously, and people were right, of course, because I didnt have any idea what I really wanted either. Unt has immediately set down how the self-aware narrator regards himself, and how friends perceive him. Readers may be leery of the narrators fascination with electricity, which occupies the first few pages, and wonder if the book is going to go somewhere.
When the narrator feels compelled, out of embarrassment, to write the novel he joked about to friends, he gives his interest in electricity to a character who plans to blow up a power station. The novel is abandoned after a few pages, as is what follows, the tale of a female vampire who wants a baby by the narrator. Both are revisited later in the novel, but not before the narrative has gone on to other things: recollections of life in Estonia from the mid-1950s to 1990, extensive descriptions of cacti and meditations on daily life. Plot is just a low but handy peg on which to hang the important things. The narrator, speaking for the author, says at one point: There has to be life in a novel. Key scenes writ large and grotesque dreams should alternate with lighter city scenes. . .You have to give the reader a chance to breathe. . . And yet: I cant be bothered doing the description.
Unts writing (smoothly translated) is always of a high quality, as in this passage: So the days went by and winter was already approaching, although it did so in its usual way, through darkness and sadness, not exactly surprising anyone, but hardly making them any happier either. Thats a recognisable sentiment, given in familiar words, but the last seven words elevate the passage above the banal. What follows is startling: On 13th December 1981, martial law was declared in Poland. A day later we were summoned to the command post from which Tallinns electricity grid was controlled. That laconic statement suddenly alters the narratives tone, yet remains true to one of the themes which has slowly grown beneath the placid surface: a preoccupation with acts of terrorism, whether committed by an individual or by the state, with which the narrators novel began.
These ideas, various story lines (established by the narrator and minor narrators in shifting time periods) and philosophical conceits are held together by a simple structure: the book is an address to a mysterious woman identified as You, who has her own pages in the book. She appears to be the narrators partner, and he wants to disclose, with fidelity, his shifting moods and obsessions that find expression in fantastic tales-to reveal all, albeit in a quiet way. As in many peoples lives, there are few startling events, but the interior life is lit up with activity, anxiety, pleasure, and this elaborate recollection is told in a prose that is fascinating to read. The afterword is useful and clearly written. Unt, who died in 2005, has been well served by Eric Dickens and by Dalkey.
Things in the Night, which benefits from the efforts of a sympathetic and proficient translator, presents English readers with a fine exemplar of a translated contemporary work that is well worth acquiring. Jeff Bursey
(Books in Canada)
-- Books in Canada