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Figure It Out

Yeah, The Avant-Garde Fiction of Translated Accounts is Hard to Read. Get Over It.

Translated Accounts

Author:James Kelman
Publisher:Anchor Books

By John Barry | Posted 1/22/2003

We may have a problem here. There's this Scottish writer, James Kelman, who got the 1994 Booker Prize for a novel called How Late It Was, How Late. It's about a slacker who has a few too many pints, gets in a scrape with a few police officers, and winds up getting his head kicked in and being deprived of his vision. So he sits around in his flat and then, convinced the police are pursuing him, leaves town forever, penniless and blind. It's all written in Scottish dialect, à la Irvine Welsh, so it takes a close read, but once we get into it, it goes quickly.

Now that we've learned to handle the dialect, Kelman spends seven years writing Translated Accounts, but there's nary a lilt of Scottish in it. Instead, it's got 54 short chapters, and at points it reads a little like it's been put through a shredder and pasted back together. It's in the first person, but we have no idea who that person is, or how many of them there are, and something is happening, but damned if we know what it is. And so after 60 or 70 pages, lost in the land of half-sentences and cryptic hypertext, we go back to the preface.

The preface reads a little like instructions for assembling small machinery: "These 'translated accounts' are by three, four, or more individuals domiciled in an occupied territory or land where a form of martial law appears in operation." Hence the catchy title. So these are translations that have been edited for content by several people who are more or less adept at the language in question. But what the hell is it supposed to mean?

If How Late It Was, How Late was Kelman's version of Samuel Beckett's Molloy, this is his Unnamable. Well, it's not quite that tough, but it's no joyride. And as we read it, and read it again, and read it again, we notice a few things. First, something actually is happening, though we can't quite put our finger on it, but it has something to do with a state run by "securitys" who wander around shooting people, torturing them, and crushing dissent. And the characters who narrate this story are dissenters, revolutionaries, unionists, or, possibly, outside infiltrators. And although we can't quite be sure how or why, things begin to fall into place.

Or maybe not. Just as we feel we're about to get our footing, Kelman wants to pull the rug out from under us. One chapter might be written in fragmented sentences; the next will be written in the queen's English; and then there's Chapter 5, which is a crazy, virus-driven ramble. For example, "Templates:Normal ! There was no curfew that evening @ Ùòo æ @ no, here was no curfew, not that evening they spectated also . . . " It's the sort of interlude Lawrence Sterne might have played around with if he had a computer. And although Kelman allows us in very general terms to read this as an account of people who are fleeing "authoritys," the plot line has more or less been through the meat grinder.

Nonetheless, there's actually something coming to the surface: a detached, displaced speech that doesn't go anywhere but still manages to catch thoughts, emotions, and dreams in its patterns and designs. If that sounds a bit abstract, turn on your Yahoo! and take out your Ritalin. Kelman's world seems to be gripped with chronic ADD, and whether people use it as a means of expression or entrapment is anybody's guess. Ah. So it speaks to us in an era where "security" in the name of terror has left us floating. The question is, is it worth it?

Yes. Take three doses of Kelman and come back in a week. Even if you don't like it, he's a writer who's actually trying to challenge you. More to the point, even if he wins the Booker Prize, he's not willing to sit around coming up with self-validations or sequels (unlike, for instance, one of his countrymen). And for those of us who think we've learned his game, he's telling us that we're clueless. He's left his fans--and most of his reviewers--foaming at the mouth. Maybe they're right to. Maybe he is pretentious and solipsistic. But the least you can do is figure it out for yourself.

Just don't write it off as a sudden foray into the world of "experimental fiction." There's a pattern in Kelman's work. In How Late It Was, How Late, he turned into a stranger and fugitive on his own turf. In Translated Accounts, he's taking his characters one step closer to the vanishing point. He doesn't seem to know where that's going to take him any more than we do. That can be annoying, it can be scary, and it can be provocative. Translated Accounts is all three.

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