Book Review

Translated Accounts

James Kelman

Doubleday, 2001, ISBN 0385495811; 256 Pages, Hardcover $24.95. [Browse/Purchase]

Anchor Books, 2002, ISBN 038549582X; 336 Pages, Paperback $14.00. [Browse/Purchase]

Review by Tim Conley

James Kelman probably would not much care to hear himself called avant-garde, not least because of the term’s often ignored military origins, but he is, no question, a gutsy, experimental writer. The Booker Prize, not typically known for celebrating innovative directions in fiction, was given to Kelman’s How Late It Was, How Late (1994) only after one judge for the prize balked: “over my dead body...” Thus, Booker notwithstanding, Kelman has avoided the dreadful endowment of book-of-the-month club respectability and so continues to investigate, with a hardened eye, the inequities of society, the disarming kindnesses of strangers, and the resilience with which people live from day to day.
All this having been said, Translated Accounts, Kelman’s latest novel, owes a rather embarrassing debt to the later works of Samuel Beckett (How It Is and The Lost Ones in particular). “Reminiscent of Beckett” and “comparable to Beckett” – phrases often employed by other reviewers, who apparently have some fuzzy recollection of seeing syntax like “What treasures there are no treasures” somewhere before – just don’t cut it; and yet I am reluctant to say simply “derivative of Beckett” for its pejorative connotations. Perhaps “imitative of Beckett?” Regardless of wording, the Beckett comparison is nothing new: after all, the simultaneously desperate and comic I-can’t-go-on-but-I’m-going-on ethic of How Late It Was, How Late is expressed by a character named Sammy. And isn’t one stringent Celt author as good as another? Perhaps in Translated Accounts Kelman has decided to do what many film actors are credited with doing these days: ironically playing with, rather than against, typecasting. (Think of how Tom Cruise’s wooden mannerisms and beleaguered public marriage finally paid off in Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut.) Perhaps Kelman, repeatedly told that he is “like Beckett,” wanted to meet this charge directly by being aggressively, determinedly more like Beckett than even Beckett could manage. Perhaps Kelman has decided to confront the Beckett within.
Fifty-four accounts of various lengths are received from “an occupied territory or land where a form of martial law appears in operation” (this from a brief preface and a table of contents). The matter of their reception is where the word “translated” comes in: the voices and stories we encounter are fragmented, deformed and broken as much by the transmission process as by the sometimes brutal and traumatic events they relate. Violence from the hands of “securitys” and “militarys” comes quick and the syntax of its description can be equally quick; rationalizations for various unjust exercises of colonial power come in unsteady steps like this following unsophisticated bit of mental footwork:

All have aims an objectives, targets they must achieve. We can say goals, we have goals. I played football. I was in midfield, football player as we say fed to strikers, broke down attacks, attacks by opponents, yes, strikers of the opponents, I was to win the ball, such was my job, security job, the objective from my role. Break down these attacks, my coach would advise me. How you do it, this is your own self.

Identity as the arc of your truncheon’s blow, and nothing more: this is a striking estimation of the “security” agent’s puerile and brutal worldview. (The football analogy is not far-fetched. Pierre Gemayel based his own cruel military force, the Phalangists, known for breaking Arab heads, on the principles of a football team.) In reading and rereading the above passage, I am reminded not only of the police and unpleasant functionaries of the damaged welfare system in How Late It Was, How Late, but of Kelman’s talent for catching in his short stories (see 1987’s Greyhound for Breakfast, for instance) the psychologies behind the gestures at the pub, between guys, talking, just talking. There is more in that talk than stout, or even intention.
What I’m getting at is that it’s not just Beckett and the aesthetic of “lessness” that Kelman is staring down: he is also watching the imperialist within – all of those little ways we make ourselves complicit in the formations and sustaining of oppressive regimes and organizations, be they iniquitous economies, corrupt bureaucracies, or occupying armies.
Although the defamiliarization process that is the “translation” of these accounts at times presses them to the edge of intelligibility, it also has the ability to bare the absurdities of accepted tenets and thus invite us to re-examine them. In the following passage, for example, Kelman gives us a line of thought that sounds like a multinational oil company CEO’s speech, if it were written for him by Gertrude Stein:

Water and oil, these are international. Rivers may be pipes. I have heard them so called. It is not sarcastic. Rivers can be pipes. Sealed not sealed, some may be. Oil also is sealed. People do not say oil-river, rivers are of water, water gives life but of a water-river people may say of it it is a pipe. I have heard it said. If water is sealed off from people what is it, it is a pipe. The river is one issue of water, more, issuing not from the sea but from the mountains into the sea. Rivers are in the mountains but where is the water. Foreign lands have rivers, all have pipes, pipes are crossing borders, international.

In other words, globalization is a wonderful thing once you understand it. “Trickle-down” economics is made plain here: “international” pipes are superior to rivers just as ownership is better than free or natural resources, and it is not the common (female) sea but the mighty (male) mountains that distribute, command, control. “Water is controlled,” the narrator of this account says in a tellingly passive voice. By whom? The mountains – “these mountains beyond” who, according to the adage, will not come to Mohammed, no matter how thirsty he might be, or whose prophet he might be.
“It is not sarcastic,” and elsewhere, “This is not sarcasm”: these assurances appears as nervous tics throughout Translated Accounts. Eventually driven to an etymological dictionary, I happily discovered that “a sarcastic remark is etymologically one which involves the ‘rending of flesh.’” The history of the word provides us with expressions like “bite your tongue” and “gnash my teeth” and, of course, “a cutting remark.” The oft-stymied translator who distorts these reports from the occupied territory may be (guiltily?) hiccuping over something here. “This is not sarcasm” is not quite the same as “This is true” or “This really happened.”
Sometimes the translation apparatus, through which we experience the “events that might take place” in the novel, fails even more resoundingly. The book’s fifth “account” is probably the most obvious case, and one that I’ve noticed has dispatched many other reviewers to the defensive “I don’t understand this, so I will shake my head at what passes for literature these days” position. It is certainly disorienting to come across lines like “who saw artist or lawyer say father tildnottildsubject: what language subject: whatlanguagehot: whatlanguagetildnottild@ifdotcome for FO dept of r *hot: whatlanguage &&theypromenadi&&” but then, of course, that is precisely the point: the feedback loops, static storms, hesitations and lacunae are all parts of communication we regard as non-communicative because they express but don’t communicate. That is, such utterances do not fall into our prepackaged sets of meaning – and in this regard, are not unlike art, or even the ignored cries of the oppressed, unimportant, and marginal (Lost Ones again). Kelman dares us to examine the politics underlying our criteria for “meaning.”
Amid the present deluge of CNN’s Wolfblitzkrieg babble – where a genuinely interested observer may sit for hours radiated by alleged “coverage” and “commentary” about Iraq and yet learn nothing meaningful at all – there is, if not exactly consolation, at least a tangible compassion to be found in reading Translated Accounts. Unlike CNN, Kelman has not abdicated his responsibility as a witness. This is not sarcasm.

--Tim Conley
9 April 2003

Additional Information

CW James Kelman Page -- A brief Kelman page sponsored by the British Councils Contemporary Writers program.

An Interview with James Kelman -- The Barcelona Review's Fabio Vericat talks to the author about Scottish literature and Translated Accounts.

James Kelman: Walking Among the Fires -- An interview with Jayne Margetts, discussing the Booker Prize and How Late it Was How Late.


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Aleph, alpha: nought, nought, one.