Book Review of The Informers: Translated from the Spanish
There are many, many obstacles in the way of writers in languages other than English who are looking for success in the English-speaking world. English readers’ (and booksellers’) traditional suspicion of translations is rightly notorious.
There is the fear that one will have to make allowances for the translation, for cultural differences, for otherness. There are preconceptions about literature from a certain country, heightened if one of the writers’ compatriots have already made it big in English, for the room that we offer on our bookshop shelves often seems limited to one per country. (Imagine if this attitude were replicated overseas: ‘Dickens? No thanks, I’ve read Conan-Doyle.’) There is the restaurant-menu problem, can readers be sure of what they’re going to get? ‘this looks like it’s beef but…’ The list goes on…
And there are ways in which foreign writers have succeeded. First they, or their publisher, must secure an excellent translator (not just the spouse). They can play minstrel to the preconceptions, choose themes familiar to an English readership (a ‘English’ menu) or the style of an English-speaking writer, they can obtain endorsements from already established writers, they can be young and sexy, they can write well about sex (a whole different kind of menu, but none the less popular with tourists), they can write exactly like a North American, they can get lucky, they can win a major prize (sometimes this barely helps at all) or they can just be very, very good.
Juan Gabriel Vásquez has done some of these things. How far has he been successful? A sample of the reviews included on the paperback edition is revealing. As well as endorsements from Mario Varga Llosa and Carlos Fuentes (check!) we have:
‘For anyone who has read the entire works of Gabriel García Marquez and is in search of a new Columbian novelist, then Juan Gabriel Vásquez’s The Informers is a thrilling new discovery.’ Colm Toíbin
‘Juan Gabriel Vásquez, one of the most gifted writers to emerge from Latin America in recent years, fashions a misty and enigmatic mood of doubt, shadow and secrecy. His sombre city feels almost as if mature John LeCarré had wandered into the narrative labyrinths of Borges…’ Independent
‘Vásquez handles this electric material efficiently and with some panache. Columbian writers must inevitably work in the shadow of the master, Gabriel García Marquez. But with this thrilling effort, Vásquez goes some way towards taking up the torch.’ Spectator ‘A fine and frightening study of how the past preys upon the present, and an absorbing revelation of a little-known wing of the theatre of the Nazi war.’ John Banville
‘The examination of the consequences that a single act can have not only for the person committing it but also, through the ripple effect, for many others brings us into the territory of Ian McEwan’s Atonement…’ Guardian
Why does what is a remarkable amount of praise seem so grudging? ‘anyone who has read the entire works of GGM’, ‘Columbian writers must inevitably work in the shadow of the master, GGM.’ Why? Who is the Irishman we should read all of before we read Colm Toíbin?
And the one after? Whose shadows do, say, David Mitchell or Zadie Smith write in, what torches are they carrying? ‘…one of the most gifted writers to emerge from Latin America…’ what else might one emerge from? A jungle, a cave, the deep blue sea. Writers do not emerge from London, or New York. Because it is inconceivable that they might ever want to.
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing PLC
Publication Date: 06/04/2009
Number of pages: 352
The editor of The Readers Loft, and pursuer of relatively interesting information, Simon has a Masters Degree in Creative Writing and Journalism from the University of Wales, and is a photo-journalist and writer whose written and photographic work has been represented by the AFP news agency and appeared in newspapers across Europe and Asia.