Thursday, September 04, 2008

recommended reading

From a review of Kevin Vennemann's recently translated novel Close to Jedenew:

The trick to both the immediacy of these memories (building a treehouse, drinking punch next to the pond) and the duration of the immediate events (Wasznar’s barn, converted to house Marek and Antonina’s family, burns in the background of the whole book) is that the narration never once detours from the present tense. This is much more unusual in German than it is in English: German fiction is written almost exclusively in the simple past tense, which is rarely a part of spoken speech. (Past events in spoken German are almost invariably described as, effectively, “having been done” rather than simply “done.”) The chief challenge of the translation has been to render this strangeness in English, where the present tense is an ordinary literary device. The translator, Ross Benjamin, who with his second effort proves himself perhaps the great German translator of Vennemann’s generation, has come up with an elegant and effective solution. He uses a historical present that English doesn’t have, as in the first quotation above: “we hear their songs for hours already.” This formulation is quite normal in German, but it jars in English in a way that communicates the strangeness of the tense usage[...]

One can’t help reading this as a reflection on the German storyteller’s anxiety that in writing about the Holocaust—in writing a story, in Vennemann’s case, about an event in which there are no survivors—he has pilfered from here and there and devised what has become his story. But, Close to Jedenew says, that might, by now, be okay; there is no other choice but to inhabit the invention. This is what it means to be the first Holocaust book from a generation of writers who do not feel burdened by guilt. It is a harrowing, remarkable, serious novel, in part because it is not a guilty one. This is no “never forget” platitude. This is new remembrance.

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