Frankenstein alert: Diego Marani’s The Interpreter

The Interpreter

It doesn’t reflect well on Marani’s publishers and editors (Text in my copy, but the same blurb is repeated on the Penguin Books Australia site) that there’s a double error in the book’s blurb that describes the interpreter of the title as “Gunther Stauber, head of Translating and Interpreting”. The interpreter is not Gunther Stauber, nor is he head of Translating and Interpreting. It is the narrator who directs the department, and Gunther Stauber is head of the German section. We are never told the interpreter’s name: he is only referred to as “the interpreter” and in fact it’s part of Marani’s whole theme that he has no name, and not even a consistent physical description.

I paused to look at the photographs….In each one he looked like a different man. (20)

A woman obsessed with the interpreter after hearing him simultaneously translate foreign films, writes: You cannot be anyone but Pyotr, the Russian in the film the other evening…Or perhaps you are Snorri, the Viking pirate from last Sunday’s show?…On second thoughts you might be Yamada, the Japanese nihilist…. (63)

 This isn’t just a pedantic quibble: quite apart from the important fact that the interpreter is intended to be nameless and faceless (and yes, he could be any of those three and myriad others), there’s a lengthy interview early in the book between the narrator and Stauber discussing the interpreter’s bizarre behaviour, and a very dramatic encounter between Stauber and the interpreter midway through the book. I wonder if the inattentiveness of the blurb-writer reflects my feeling that Marani is making it up as he goes along.

The Interpreter is the third of three books published in Italian very close together: New Finnish Grammar in 2000, The Last of the Vostyachs in 2002 and this one in 2004. All of them deal with Marani’s fascination with the relationship between languages and individual or cultural identity, with what communication, at its heart, really is, and with the idea that there might be, like the source of the Nile, a universal mother tongue buried deep in all of us under layers and layers of other languages. In this sense all languages can be seen as “translations” of this ur-language. Add the multi-reflecting mirrors of interpretation and translation into other languages and we’re wandering in a Kafkaesque construction. Looking at the three books together, you can see that there is a trajectory: in the first book we have a hero who has no words and no memory, in the second we have a hero who is the last speaker of an ur-language and who ends up finding a sort of audience for this lost language by working on a cruise ship as a curiosity, and in the third we have a person who speaks many languages and is trying to strip himself back to the one universal mother language. I won’t tell you where he ends up, but it’s definitely more of a whimper than a bang.

It was then, with my own eyes and my own ears – I swear to God – that I witnessed the ghastly scene of that man’s metamorphosis, one in which all the awful power of creation was at work, says the narrator of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (38).  Am I being fanciful to see echoes of Frankenstein in this book?

The interpreter becomes a monster and leaves a trail of wreckage behind him just as Frankenstein’s monster does.   And he draws the narrator into this mad rampage. Very briefly, the story deals with an interpreter who begins to behave weirdly, babbling meaningless words or snatches of the wrong languages when translating, and progressing from that to producing long series of clicks, whistles, groans and rumblings instead of words. Challenged, he claims to be working his way towards the ancient language of Eden, the one in which the serpent spoke to Adam! (37) He is dismissed, and disappears; then the narrator finds the same grotesqueries appearing in his own speech, as if he has been infected. He sets off on a quest to cure himself, and then to track down the interpreter and get to the heart of the mystery. The quest spins more and more out of control and this sedate bureaucrat finds himself committing all sorts of crimes and getting mixed up in a caricatured criminal underworld.

Marani, it seems, in this third book is casting a satirical eye on the dream of the ur-language, just as he does on the profession of interpreters (a swarm of ranters) and psychotherapy – the narrator’s therapist offers this  therapy for “linguistic dissociation” :

we would have to subject you to a deeply alienating and, how can I put it, exotic linguistic soaking, with some sessions of Tungusic and Inuit to lure your ego out and oblige it to face up to the trauma it is suffering. Occasionally we might even have to have resource to dead languages… (53)

There’s some lively writing, some fun and some intriguing episodes, but the whole thing is rather unconvincingly hung on a linguistic theme that’s already been worked out in the earlier two books, and Marani really doesn’t bring any more to it. And the book just doesn’t cohere as those two did. The links between the various escapades are plucked out of the air and it’s hard to see why certain characters even exist (the wealthy Klaus Burke, for example, towards the end of the book). What is the significance, if any, of the fact that the narrator has the same name, Felix Bellamy, as the man who wrote a gigantic book about Arthurian legend and the mythical forest Broceliande?

I’ve read that Marani has said he won’t be writing any more books on this theme, and that’s a good thing. He’s written it out. God’s Dog, set in a future in which Italy is a theocracy controlled by a ruthless Vatican, came out in English in 2012.  There are at least two more novels as yet untranslated.

You can read Lisa Hill’s review at ANZ Litlovers here:

The Interpreter, by Diego Marani, translated by Judith Landry

10 thoughts on “Frankenstein alert: Diego Marani’s The Interpreter

  1. Really glad you reviewed this one. I’ve read the other two, and while I enjoyed them both, they seemed to be riffing on a similar theme. There is something very shadowy about some of Marani’s characters – I’m thinking of the protagonist in New Finnish Grammar and (based on your description) the interpreter in this new one.

    1. Although I don’t think you’d say that about the central character in Last of, whose name I forget. And the interpreter is more of a force than a person, which is why I think the error on the blurb is such a clanging one.

    1. Wouldn’t you think the author would when he sees the proofs? I’d be as mad as hell if someone made a mistake like that on my book. You know how sensitive the Gerts of this world are if they think the reader hasn’t drunk in every word of the magnum opus and etched it on the brain forever.

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