Monday, May 18, 2020

Best Translated Book Nominees: Christos Iknonomou's GOOD WILL COME FROM THE SEA (translated by Karen Emmerich)

Blogger's note: this is my first read off the long list of books nominated for this year's Best Translated Book Award. I'm going to see how many of them I can read before the short list and eventual winner are announced. They all just sounded too interesting not to try out!

"Back then they sent people to the islands by force, now we come here on our own."

The four linked stories that comprise Christos Ikonomou's  Good Will Come From the Sea are set on a fictional Greek island that, like the rest of Greece (and the rest of the world), is still feeling the impacts of the 2008 financial crisis, and of earthquakes that have been wrecking Athens. But that description, as bland as this book cover, doesn't begin to convey those impacts, which are not abstractly economical (though they are that, too) as much as they are very, very human, in the form of a new kind of migration pattern that proves the source of enough different kinds of agonizing tension to power many more than just these four excellent stories, and not just, as the pulled quote above conveys, because earlier in Greece's history the Aegean islands were where repressive governments sent uncooperative citizens to contemplate the error of their ways with a little help from jailers and torturers.

People who have lived on the island for generations witnessed that and let it form their society and grew accustomed to it, but now are suddenly having to deal with a new, semi-voluntary influx of people who, again, are just as Greek as they are, but because they come from Athens and grew up in higher socioeconomic classes above the natives' own, are referred to behind their backs and, in hostilities (which are many) to their faces as "Foreigners." The "Foreigners", in turn, refer to the natives as "Rats", perhaps alluding to the island's weird cave-riddled geography that the natives know intimately and the Athenians can barely navigate? If I'm being charitable here? Which nobody in these stories is, neither the Foreigners (not even, much, to each other) nor the Rats, all of whom are now trapped together by circumstances but none of whom are adjusting especially well.

All four stories are from the perspective of the in-migrants from Athens, who have left behind broken lives of relative privilege and prosperity and are still in shock but striving to rebuild in a new place... and finding it very, very difficult. Their prior values and cherished illusions are getting shown up as laughable and flimsy, they're facing real privation for the first time in their lives, and their support networks are disintegrated or diminished. They're still perservering, for now, but as each story opens, they're facing crises that may break them. And, I'll warn you right now, readers: don't come to these stories looking for happy endings or neat resolutions. Mysteries don't get solved. Resolutions may be fulfilled beyond the confines of a narrative but you don't get to see it.

But you do get to explore the interiority, and hidden resilience, of some very interesting characters as they struggle with the disappearance of loved ones, with vandalizing assaults on barely-started enterprises, with the question of the responsibility to act on knowledge they wish they didn't have about harm happening to a helpless other. As the protagonist of my favorite of the four, "Kill the German", a paraplegic who lost the use of his legs trying to blow up a sex shop and now uses mobility aids on an island not at all designed for his kind, observes to himself as he frets over the fate of a young girl pimped out by her family to a rich old man:
The world is constructed in such a way as to deprive each of us of the possibility of doing any personal good. No, that's not right. Let's take it from the top. Ready? Okay. The world is constructed in such a way as to relieve each of us of the responsibility of doing any personal good. We are all free to do bad in a thousand ways, but good is always someone else's affair.
We're all dealing with this right now especially, wherever we are in the world, eh? Only a lot of us have discovered that the government/social safety net/network of private charities we've always counted on to mitigate the sob stories the daily news brings us was never so robust as we thought, even in the free and prosperous West, and it maybe really is up to us to help each other out directly, even though we risk a lot in doing so.*

As we wring our hands at what the COVID-19 virus has done to and, more importantly, revealed about our world (though yeah, lots of us already knew from first-hand experience that life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness were very unevenly distributed), I feel like the characters, both Foreigners and Rats, from Ikonomou's stories would laugh at us, bitterly. Which is to say that these stories feel uncomfortably prophetic, especially for readers like me who live in remote places to which everybody else (*cough* Neil Gaiman *cough*) dream of or already have active plans for retreating, and have already seen the effects of decades in-migration by people who visited here once and decided to retire here but who are used to or demand "better" than what we have to offer, which is to say I was disposed to identify perhaps more with the Rats (none of whom really get developed as characters in these stories) than with the Foreigners, but Ikonomou is so damned good that he made me care about the Foreigners -- which is one of the big things that literature, that art, is for, isn't it?**

"If you're in need, if you are on the outside, you're a foreigner everywhere." another character observes. And your turn to be one might be next, is the not-so-subtle message here. So why not start being decent to one another now? Because here's the alternative, and it ain't pretty. 

So while these tales of people facing hostility, subterfuge, corruption, distrust, envy, sabotage, from people who are supposed to share the same culture as themselves, more or less, awaken empathy, they also are every bit as disturbing as any of, say, William Gibson's recent fictions of his post-Jackpot world.*** Passages observing the effect of long-term unemployment may soon come to feel a bit too familiar to a lot of people who have taken gainful work for granted , for instance. So I really can't decide if this is bad pandemic reading or good, but it's possibly the best pandemic reading? Because it is full of some sweet and amusing moments, too, like my favorite, which takes place in a new family-run taberna:
One of the ladies points at the light fixture on the ceiling. And the kid turns bright red and says no, no, no lamp, lamb, lamb, you know baaa, baaa. The old ladies start laughing and say okay okay and Petrus picks at the menus and comes over all in a huff and asks me who wrote the English menu.
And some frankly lovely prose, as when a man in search of his missing son (delivered into the employ of a shady local syndicate on his orders, no ifs ands or buts) pauses and observes the sea as he climbs to the top of the island's ridge to get a better look around: "The waves tipped with white like frothy eyebrows over the water's countless blind eyes" and wouldn't we all just kill to have sentences like that published under our names? And of course, how much of that is Ikonomou and how much is translator Karen Emmerich?

One bit that I think is mostly Emmerich comes as my paraplegic friend contemplates some old wisdom that I get from Jorge Luis Borges but think he probably got from Bishop Berkley or somebody, but phrased as succinctly and elegantly as I've yet seen in English: "Fathers and mirrors should be hated to an equal degree because they alone have the ability to make people multiply." Maybe it's really economical in the original Greek, too, but I'm thinking this is the translator's hand showing, gracefully.

So, as I said on Twitter the other day, if the rest of the books on the long list for Best Translated Book are anywhere near this good, I'm going to have an emotionally challenging but very satisfying set of reads ahead of me. Gimme!

*And, of course, in the U.S. and, it appears, the U.K. especially, we're also dealing with sizeable populations of people hell-bent on preventing us from helping each other, sometimes with the threat of deadly force.
**Not that my foreigners are going to be in quite the shape of these Athenian migrant-refugees, of course. I live in the Billionaire Wilderness.
***He seems to be buried in tweets whining to him that he predicted our current plight too damned well and maybe wasn't writing fiction but is some kind of pre-cog wizard. At least no one is mocking him for not foreseeing cellphones anymore?

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