Translated Accounts by James Kelman

I’m not entirely sure what to make of this. It’s a bunch of short pieces, fragments, from a handful of narrators (three or four, the back cover says, and I’ll take its word for it), about living under some repressive regime – probably back in communist East Europe, at a guess. This is all very well, and it’s an impressive image that Kelman creates, forceful and unflinching and harrowing, with what strikes me as an unusual depth of understanding (one of his great strengths, but hitherto brought to bear on relatively ordinary Glaswegians), capturing some of the internal differences that a repressive society enforces.

But why is it written in this extraordinary way? It doesn’t explain itself, but it reads like very awkward, even bad, translations. Besides that, it’s so abstract – the country isn’t named, and nor is a single person in it. What’s this about? The lack of naming may have certain meanings, about the limitations of communication from such a nation, perhaps an attempt at universalising, perhaps something to deny the reader the ability to focus onto personalities, since it’s hard enough most of the time to work out if this might be the same narrator as that one a few chapters back, so we are forced inside, into the thoughts and feelings and explanations of the narrators. But why that stilted, clumsy prose all the way? Is this about the inability to communicate between two utterly different societies? A simple gimmick?

Weirdly, it occasionally reminded me of late Beckett: “The period when nothing can be done, this is that period. I walked on.” Isn’t that almost explicitly reminiscent of the end of The Unnameable? There are other such specific echoes, here and there, but there is also the obsessive introspection, the vagueness of any outer world. Then another odd connection occurred to me: by this stage, if I have my chronology right, Beckett had begun to write in a foreign language (French) and translate back to English! I have the feeling that there is something more in this line of thought, a vague grasp of the shape of a deeper connection. Is there anyone else there who has read them both who might be able to say more? Has Kelman talked about Beckett at all? Maybe I just need to reread the trilogy, but I don’t imagine I’ll do that soon.