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Attack in the Library introduced by Mike Phillips

Mike Phillips, editor of the Profusion Crime Series, introduces a classic of Romanian crime fiction and explains what is so special about this translation

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George Arion’s Attack in the Library is the first Romanian crime fiction which can be compared, in its structure, style and content with the work of his contemporaries in the West during the ’80s. Attack is, therefore, a major classic of the genre in Eastern Europe, and Arion’s achievement has to be measured in the context of the literary and social environment of 1983 when the book was published.

After several decades dominated by a totalitarian regime, Romanian literature was, at the time, still deeply influenced by traditional European forms, for example, folk orientated epic poetry, the 19th century novel, and lyric verse. On the other side of the coin, Party taste for contemporary fiction ran to stirring tales about officials defusing plots against the state, or stories about young graduates raising production and defeating corruption on far flung collective farms. Domestic crime fiction was almost universally despised, partly because it was based on these officially sanctioned narratives, usually blending them together in a style which was mostly a feeble imitation of the British “Golden Age”, exemplified by such novelists as Agatha Christie.

In contrast, George Arion, a journalist, was committed to writing about the world around him, while struggling with the restrictions imposed by the state. According to his own account, he began Attack as the result of a bet he made with a colleague. He finished the book years later, during the period of sick leave he wangled every January, in order to avoid having to write a eulogy on the birthdays of the Ceaușescus, who were both born in that month.

Attack’s long gestation, therefore, highlighted the two issues which dictate the shape and style of the book. Arion had to evade censorship or punishment, while at the same time expressing his frustration about having to remain silent in the face of official corruption and oppression.

The result is a complex assembly of techniques, designed both to be read as an entertainment, and as a pointed satire on the social and political environment. Arion sets out to achieve this by adopting the persona, or the mask, as he would say, of a joker, and he produces a voice riddled with the humour and the down to earth language of the street, the hotel bars, and the restaurants of his native Bucharest. His hero, Mladin, shares all the faults and virtues of the man in the street. He is deeply attached to the peasant roots of his native popular culture, while mocking, at every opportunity, their exploitation by the regime. He is attracted to the popular cultures of the West, while ridiculing many of the values they enshrine. He shares the frustration and deprivation of his fellow citizens, while joking about their eccentricities. He rages against the bureaucracy of the state, while relishing its absurdities.

The humorous tone, however, masks a deeper irony, which is the key to the book’s purpose. His jokes, often schoolboyish, bawdy and laced with double-entendres, are invariably the crust of a sandwich in which the filling is a barbed and angry comment on freedom of speech, dictatorship, and the role of the state in inhibiting the self-expression and the development of Romanian society.

It is not uncommon in the present day to read novels or academic treatises pointing out the faults of the communist regimes in Eastern Europe. The tone of Arion’s novel, however, is still rare, partly because it was written on the spot, within the framework of danger and oppression it describes; partly because the qualities and the experience he brings to it are rooted in the same time and place.

On the other hand, Attack is not a full-on anti-government polemic. It is not a tome about the virtues of capitalism. It is not a tract about suffering and rebellion. It hints at all of these, but reading Attack offers you a more complete, a more detailed, a more engaged sense than any of these forms, about how an entire people lived their daily lives in circumstances with whose repressiveness they had learnt to live.

Arion makes his hero Mladin share some of the qualities of the good soldier Schweik, posing as a committed and righteous citizen, who just happens to love eating, drinking and sex, freewheeling among and between the intrusive regulations laid down by the state. When Arion reproduces conversations in the streets and the factories, however, it not only becomes very clear what kind of state and what kind of city we’re in, the narrative also imbeds the reader in the experience in a way that is unrivalled in most fiction writing about the East European regimes.

Equally important about Arion’s Attack is his challenge to the literary and artistic establishment, often frozen in a posture of sycophancy before the power of the state. Arion makes no bones about mocking the great literary traditions with which state orthodoxy confronts him. He is unafraid to admit that his origins as a writer and commentator come from his street-wise experience rather than from a classical education or from the discipline of ingesting Marxist teachings. Instead, his rhetoric is one of mockery, so well deployed that, while the censors cut much of his commentary, they finally allowed the clown to talk, under the impression that what remained was harmless. Reading Attack now, it’s hard to believe that they could have made such a mistake. Everything is grist to Arion’s comic mill. The petty bureaucracy of the city, the pretentiousness of the nomenclatura, even the stylistic hypocrisies of his fellow writers and artists. Attack in the Library was, in its time, a bomb shell which remains relevant and subversive to this day.

Note on translation: the voice of the author

This is Arion’s first translation into English, a translation which sets out not only to retain the Rabelaisian tone of Arion’s original, but also to transmit the authentic timbre of his authorial voice.

In his own language the riddling, sometimes farcical, note of the author’s address to his readers is immediately apparent and wickedly transgressive. The title, for instance, Attack in the Library, is actually a lampoon on a clichéd form, the English country house mystery, which had emerged from a peaceful country, where the citizens’ rights were well regulated and guaranteed by law. It was the polar opposite of the environment in which Arion was writing, a fact on which members of the public could not fail to reflect, every time they saw the cover of the book.

This offered a pointer to some of the difficulties of translating Arion. His use of words is not merely a way of delivering a narrative; the kind of language he uses, is, in itself, a running commentary on the events and characters in the book. So the idiom which emerges is deliberately and carefully placed to reflect various kinds of social change, and it bubbles with asides to the reader, mangled proverbs, rural and traditional metaphors, Latin survivals, scientific theory and pastiches of Marxist rhetoric. To translate the elements of this expressionistic farrago purely in terms familiar to English speaking readers, to make it ‘sound English’, would have been to filter the perceptions of a Romanian through the linguistic history of an American or an Englishman. The process would, in turn, also deny us the opportunity to experience the authentic tang of Arion’s thoughts and feelings.

Conventional translators have traditionally struggled to achieve the opposite effect, tending to locate, in English or American usage, equivalents for an author’s idiomatic practices. This is, in any case, part of a network of strategies, designed to avoid the fundamental error of producing sentences which ‘translate’ the literal meanings of words, while making no sense to an English reader.

Nevertheless, the attempt to create fluent English versions, all too often results in bland, characterless texts in which the relationship of the language to specific cultures and circumstances is completely lost. This raises another, different issue, to do with the English language itself. The characteristics of English present problems, but more importantly, they present enormous opportunities for the translator from a European language. Typically other languages find themselves forced into an approximation of some of the dynamics of the English language. In the same sort of process, migrants from all over the world have had a significant impact on particular aspects of European linguistic practices. To speak of a kebab, or a chicken tikka, or a curry wurst is absolutely common place in European capitals. In demotic speech, for example, one might talk about going to “un fast food” for “un type kebab”. In much the same way, the penetration of English as a source, not only of vocabulary, but also of concepts and imagery, is indisputable.

On the other side of the coin, this process can operate in reverse, because of the porous and (to a large extent) uncontrollable nature of English usage, together with the wide spread existence of European roots in English grammar and vocabulary. It is now a daily occurrence for conferences, meetings, reports, debates to be held in English, wherever they may happen to be – Valencia, Riga, Frankfurt, Budapest or Brussels. Anything, in fact, in which Europeans want to signal internationalism, tends to be conducted in English.

The consequence is that an interesting and specific variety of English (Euro-English?) has begun to emerge throughout Europe. Its diverse branches tend, fascinatingly, to draw on specific linguistic features of specific nations. Certain English words, indeed, have entered a broad variety of languages. You may find people using a word like ‘exact’ or ‘precise’ to mean the same things anywhere in Europe. Bump into another person in the supermarket in Helsinki, and they are likely to say ‘sorry’, and so on, and so on.

This is a process which furnishes administrators, artists, educationalists, activists and politicians throughout Europe with an essential tool for communicating with each other, but they bring with them their native idioms and concepts which become part of the way they speak and write English. That is to say a European-English has begun to develop, which sounds and feels different to the English spoken by the English or by the Americans, or indeed by the Nigerians or the Malaysians.

On the other hand, translating European languages has, by convention, been an issue of transposing European idioms and concepts into our familiar English words and expressions; but this is a practice which, inevitably, loses a major part of the national linguistic identity with which Europeans have been investing their own version and versions of English. Communicating the sheer richness of autochthonous speech therefore benefits enormously from an approach which takes advantage of the way that Europeans, in this case Romanians, interject their own linguistic arrangements into the business of speaking English. As one discovers every day, in the new Europe it is perfectly possible to speak and write English, grammatically and fluently, while still sounding like a German or an Italian, and still bringing those native values into a discourse which enriches, rather than enfeebles the translation.

In the case of Attack in the Library the important issue was not only to translate Arion’s words into English, but also to retain the flavour of his personality and the intention with which he addressed his audience – the author’s voice, an issue of crucial importance.

Mike Phillips