Arnold Jansen op de Haar, King of Tuzla

Translated works always represent a challenge. There is something slightly disconcerting about knowing that you are not reading the actual words of the author, but someone else’s interpretation of them. There’s been some discussion of this around the blogs and in the media this year, partly because of the publication of Why translation matters by award winning literary translator Edith Grossman.

Ramona Koval, of Radio National‘s The Bookshow, interviewed Edith Grossman earlier this year. Koval introduced the interview with:

According to Edith Grossman, translation is a strange craft, generally appreciated by writers, undervalued by publishers, trivialised by academics, and practically ignored by reviewers.

Well, maybe translators are ignored by professional reviewers, but I’ve often seen the issue discussed in blogs and online bookgroups. We are keenly aware of the translator’s role and have been known to compare translations. Anyhow, to continue… The Wikipedia article on Grossman includes a quote from a speech she made in 2003:

Fidelity is our noble purpose, but it does not have much, if anything, to do with what is called literal meaning. A translation can be faithful to tone and intention, to meaning. It can rarely be faithful to words or syntax, for these are peculiar to specific languages and are not transferable.

Arnold Jansen op de Haar, King of Tuzla bookcover

Book cover (Courtesy: Holland Park Press)

This brings me nicely to Arnold Hansen op de Haar’s King of Tuzla. I found it a strangely compelling book. I can’t say I loved it, and at the beginning I nearly gave it up, but it’s short and so I decided to push on. However, more of that anon. First a brief plot. It tells the story of a young Dutch army officer, Tijmen, who finds himself in the middle of the Bosnian War as part of a UN unit, and tracks his experience of the war and his feelings about it. Interspersed between his story are little “cameo” stories about various civilians and the impact of the war on them. In fact, the novel starts with one such cameo, the Muslim Galib who had been a civil servant but had lost his job due to the war and was now a farmer. These cameos do not become part of the main narrative.

The book is divided into 5 parts. The first three parts are essentially chronological, while the last two are told after the war, in flashback, some of it through Tijmen’s journal entries. Overall I liked the structure of the book. The early chronological sequence, the interspersed cameos that gave “life” (albeit often horrific) to the matter-of-factness of the military detail, and the change in pace and perspective in the last two parts give the book interest by layering meaning.

The characterisation of Tijmen and his fellow officers is effective. Tijmen himself is an intriguing character: a bit of a loner, interested in the arts (reading, ballet, iceskating), ambitious (but “Eleven years later and still he had got nowhere”), and a little proud (the King of Tuzla, the Duke of Sapna, is how he sees himself during the conflict). I must say, though, that I don’t quite know why the book has been described as a coming-of-age novel. He is an adult when the novel starts and, while he is a little naive in the ways of the world, I saw no coming-of-age focus.

The trouble is that the book is a bit of a plod to read at times, and I wonder whether this is to do with the translation. So, here’s the rub: do I place my concerns at the author’s or the translator’s feet? Part of the problem is the flow. It felt clipped and jerky, but not in a way that seemed like it was done for effect. And at times, the sentences just plodded on one after another, like a boring history text. Maybe all this was intended, but I found it hard going. In addition, there are errors, such as “the colonel still lay there snorting” (“Snoring” seems more likely) and some awkward expressions, such as “It was some minutes before Eddy was able to extricate himself from the situation with some difficulty”. Is this a translation problem? “With some difficulty” seems redundant, and makes the sentence clunky to read.

There are, however, also some lovely images and gorgeous rhythms. I particularly liked this, for example (despite the errant, to me, semi-colon after “popes”):

This was the area where the different population groups overlapped like different geological strata. It was the land of popes; the mullahs and rabbis, the Christians, the Muslims, the Jews and the gypsies. The land of the long hot summers and the long severe winters, of rakija, walnuts and prunes and the land of the centuries-old struggle between the Turks, Hungarians, Austrians and Germans…

And this poignant description of Tijmen’s flat:

Eight years in the same flat, where time’s mechanism had jammed. No-one had been loved there.

In the end, figuratively speaking as we learn this two-thirds of the way through the book, the war is too much for Tijmen and he leaves the army. The book concludes with some nicely structured words beautifully conveying what he had earlier described as “this uselessness, this futility, human helplessness”. (Wouldn’t it be better with another “this” before human?) This may not be the best war novel I’ve read, but it has its power.

This book has received some varied reviews. You may like to read a couple: Stu at winston’s dad and Lisa at ANZLitLovers.

Arnold Jansen op de Haar
(Trans. by Paul Vincent)
King of Tuzla
London: Holland Park Press, 2010
(Orig. pub. 1999)
199pp.
ISBN: 9781907320064

(Review copy supplied by Holland Park Press)