Sunday, 21 June 2009

Kadri Kõusaar: "Free Rise" (excerpt)

We all have our translation failures, book excerpts we eagerly translate, only to find no publisher is interested. One of my failed projects in this respect is the second novel Vaba tõus (Free Rise) by the Estonian author and now film-maker Kadri Kõusaar (born 1980), a book that appeared in 2004. I didn't find her first novel particularly interesting, but liked her second one. I translated more than the statutory twenty pages and there was a synopsis, but alas, nothing came of this project. While still involved with the project, I wrote, back in 2004:

"Her literary models are writers such as Michel Houllebecq and Milan Kundera, and her website [now defunct] contains published articles about the Russian writers Nabokov, Pelevin, Dovlatov, as well as Sontag, Kureishi, Lorca, Neruda, Pessoa, plus film-makers such as Pedro Almodóvar and David Lynch. Kõusaar is not averse to mild provocation. She has appeared on several occasions on the covers of women's and popular magazines which she does as a deliberate tongue-in-cheek ploy to contrast her photogenic nature with her intellectual core. In late September 2004, Kadri Kõusaar began hosting her own lifestyle programme 'Mandolino' on Estonian television." [She subsequently gave up the honour, not being in agreement with the choice of interviewees.]

Kadri Kõusaar matriculated from the Tallinn English College secondary school in 2003 (an institution that taught subjects in English even in Soviet times!) and studied Spanish philology at Tartu University. But she has had her share of bad luck in the arts world. In 2007, her film Magnus was sent to Cannes, but the Estonian courts banned its distribution in Estonia on account of the personal nature of some of the film, too closely resembling what they interpreted as a libellous version of real life events. The court finally backed down in March 2009. But by then her chances at Cannes had passed by.

No legal problems are attached to the excerpt from Free Rise, reproduced below:

Part One - LIFE


It was perhaps the fourth night after Miroslav's death that I woke up at three. A raging hunger awoke me. A hunger which exploded inside me as if I had not eaten for days. And I liked this - I even liked it a lot because now I could at least think about something else besides Miroslav and death.

I put some spaghetti on the stove, heated up some tuna in olive oil and tomato purée, added a double dose of garlic, fresh basil and... Something else too. I even added something else.

But the taste was not from dreams. It wasn't right. I can't stand... imperfection. I simply can't. I had to have something perfect right away. I thought of making real hot chocolate. I boiled half a glass of milk with some cocoa powder, added cinnamon and Baileys... but something was still wrong.

Nothing for it but to make something simple and wholesome. Freshly squeezed orange juice with ginger - yes, that was always right. I picked three of the most beautiful blood oranges from the fruit basket and squeezed them, but I stumbled and the glass smashed to pieces. The red splashes on the white walls were...

I wiped the wall clean and staggered back to bed.

In the morning, I painted my lips the same orangey-red colour, put on a Prada which Miroslav had once given me and went to the funeral. Through the taxi window, I saw all the bellavital arches, baker's shops, well laid-out gardens - all as before but now so different.

My hunger for perfection and beauty had evaporated, all the arches and gardens seemed too beautiful. Suddenly I wanted something industrial, I wanted to be a machine.

"Hang on, hang on," said the taxi driver. "You are after all an actress. In this submarine with this transparent calypso... You've saved the world!"
"Yes," I replied. "I have been an actress. I changed and I wanted to change. But right now I want to be a machine. Be all the same and do all the same... And I want others to be the same too. Because the more you look at the same exact thing, the more the meaning goes away, and the better and emptier you feel."

The taxi-driver wound down the window and lit a cigarette.

"Please don't smoke," I said. "My perfume..."

The taxi-driver stubbed out his cigarette.

I made that scene up. Nothing like that ever happened. It could have happened but the reality was quite the opposite.

I was cooking all right as before. On the face of it, Miroslav's death didn't change anything at all. Everything was the same but I wanted it to be different. I wanted to change not only that surreal feeling inside, but everything else, too. I wanted to change and I wanted to be away: above and away, and I wanted others to change too. At the same time, I was in the clutches of a strange lethargy, not only me, but everything around me. I could, of course, have travelled away, but the point was to notice change in things that had always surrounded me. I wanted greatness - greatness and nobility, refined tragedy. I would have liked scenes like in "The Godfather": eyes of feverish flame, blood-red lips, impeccable black suits, empty cathedrals, Italian houses with turrets and balconies passing by through the tinted windows of the limousine; servants and especially their ebullient admiration and loyalty... I would have liked that throat-clutching feeling of innocence, Miroslav to have been a good mafioso who had been killed... by a sniper, while trying to make the world a better place as he sat with two old gentlemen at a table with a white tablecloth (in the background a bright green plain with cypresses). Hm, Hermes, my dream: the god of both robbers and thinking, the god of solutions. Miroslav was just taking a swig of Bellini - champagne, fine champagne with freshly squeezed peach juice when the bullet hit and bright red spots fell on the white tablecloth... like the stains of blood orange on the white wall.

But in reality - what happened in reality? The grey tones of everyday life - the sensitivity was there, but it was kind of mundane. Nothing exceptional. Maybe that was what disturbed me, that mundanity. I didn't want to identify with anything, I wanted a hero.

I went home, it was raining and the air was humid - what lecture had I just been attending? - wooden houses on both sides of the road did not make it a cosy suburb, simply a slum. Everything was dull and dirty, a car alarm was wailing. I opened the door, threw my coat on the hanger and wanted to make some tea. I had to throw the old tealeaves down the toilet, so I opened the bathroom door and...

... the next moment I checked mechanically to see if the keys and the mobile were still in the pocket of my jacket (strangely enough I didn't panic) and was outside again a second later. No, actually it all took two seconds. First I glanced at the mantelpiece. I was used to looking at it, registering it, and I wanted this to be the last I would remember of our flat. Ikebana, limes, oranges, apples, chopping board with ginger root, chopping board with cloves of garlic, jar of honey, stub of a candle, newspapers - one second. And the stairs which had once had the smell of my kindergarten (of semolina and games), but which now had the smell of exams - another second. By the third second I was already in the bar round the corner, ordering a tea. "If you find a corpse on the kitchen floor it's best to make yourself a nice cup of strong tea," someone once wrote. I remembered this as I was drinking mine. It brought about the first wave of panic - when I had read that sentence long ago, it never occurred to me that I would be learning the moral by personal experience.

"I'm never going back to that flat!" I said when the police, the ambulance and my parents arrived.

"I'm never going back to that flat!" For some reason, I felt the urge to repeat it.

"I'm never going back to that flat!"

"I'm never going back to that flat!"

Hm, it already felt like the game of a beautiful sentence.

Translated from Estonian by Eric Dickens


David McDuff said...

Come now, Eric, it's by no means a failure. It's quite entertaining, in fact.

I've removed that nasty preformatted text again, as I don't see that it adds anything to the general aesthetic effect. :-)

Eric Dickens said...

I didn't mean failure in the sense that the book itself or the translation was crap, but failure in the sense that I couldn't interest any British or American publisher. Maybe the "clever blonde" aspect was off-putting to some. Some like their blondes dumb. (By the way, the other novel I haven't managed to sell to a publisher was written by a closet gay. It takes all sorts of authors to make a literature.) Anyway, I translated about half of the Kõusaar novel, so I may send it out to a few more publishers in due course.

It'll be interesting to see whether Kõusaar makes it as a film director. After all, getting your film to Cannes is quite an achievement for a then 27-year-old from a country no one has ever heard of, except when unpleasant things happen there. I'm sure she'll rise again. And on a mercenary note, if she becomes a big name in film, maybe the translations of her novels will sell too.

Thanks for reformatting. As for the codes, preformatting, etc., it still annoys me that you can't get normal paragraphs here with normal indents like in millions of books in the English language. Having to choose between an inadequately indented paragraph or a white (black, here) space between every paragraph is not a sufficient choice. I cannot understand why Google or the HTML people haven't tackled this before, making it as easy to indent as it is on Word or WP, and retaining the font you originally chose.

David McDuff said...

I still wouldn't see it as a failure - after all, think of all those hundreds of Swedish Book Review, Books from Finland and FILI "excerpts" and "synopses" which are meant to to interest UK and US publishers, but apparently don't, at the time, anyway. I think the process is really one of slow percolation - it often takes years for a Nordic book to reach a non-Nordic audience. One recent example is Klas Östergren's Gentlemen, which was first published in Swedish in 1980, but has only now appeared in an English translation (by Tiina Nunnally).

Eric Dickens said...

The problem with Swedish Book Review, Books from Finland and similar publications is that many of the readers are already involved in some way with Scandinavian literature. Publishers are potential readers as well, but may be too busy to pore over each issue.

It should indeed not take almost 30 years for a book to percolate through to the English language. It would be interesting to know how and when Tiina managed to persuade the publisher to take an interest in this particular book. The Dutch translation also appeared recently, in 2007, and the French and German translations seem to be recent. (There was a review in the Nouvel Obs in January 2009.) I wonder whether recent promotion at Frankfurt also generated an interest in "Gentlemen" and "Gangsters".