Friday, 6 March 2015

Mr B's Reading Year, Seven: Lost in translation?

Translated from the Icelandic, it's almost impossible to describe Butterflies in November as anything but quirky - much as I usually dislike using the term. Our unnamed narrator, who works as an editor and translator, loses her husband and her lover on the same day after accidentally hitting a goose while driving between assignations. As she tries to put her life back together, her best friend Audur suddenly has an accident, and she becomes temporarily responsible for Audur's small, disabled son, Tumi. After winning the lottery (it's that kind of book), she sweeps Tumi off on a road trip across Iceland during which they have a host of weird and memorable experiences, and kill at least one other animal - an unfortunate sheep. Our narrator, however, tends to take everything in her stride; for example, randomly encountering her ex in one of the hotels she stays in during her trip: 'On my way up to the bedroom I meet my ex-lover on the staircase and halt at a distance of five, six steps. "Nice trousers, like the floral pattern, they suit you."' The novel, we quickly realise, is not quite realistic; how much of this is really happening seems up for grabs. The most engaging sections, for me, were the brief, italicised flashbacks to our narrator's childhood, mostly because they felt emotionally engaging and real, rather than buried in whimsy. Fans of a stereotypical idea of what 'Icelandic fiction' should be won't enjoy this novel; it's no Independent People.

Initially, I enjoyed our narrator's interesting voice while it still formed a contrast to the more mundane events happening to her. Killing a goose and breaking up with various men may be dramatic, but it's still very much within the realms of believability, even when she decides the best thing to do with the goose is cook it. I also liked the familiar back-and-forth conversations she has with her husband, even if (at least in this translation) all the characters seem to sound the same. As they sit down to analyse the problems in their relationship, he has a serious grievance to voice: "not all men are bright and chirpy in the morning, and you can't expect them to appreciate the nuances of linguistics over their morning porridge... It isn't always easy to figure out what you're on about. Other people just chat when the bread pops out of the toaster. Maybe, for example, they say things like: the toast is ready, would you like me to pass it to you? Would you like jam or cheese? They talk about cosy, homely things like washing powder, for example, things that mean something in a relationship. Have you ever asked yourself if I might like to talk about washing powder? Somehow you're never willing to talk about washing powder." At its best, the novel is funny and observant about long-term relationships, how grievances about the character of your partner are so difficult to express, so wound back into your long history, that they come out as incredibly petty. The narrator's internal reactions are also apt and interesting. For me (as so often with novels!) Butterflies in November started to go downhill when the plot kicked off, and our narrator is saddled with Tumi. As this became a quirky road-trip novel rather than a more subtle exploration of our undoubtedly interesting main character, I lost interest. The narrator starts reacting to an array of peculiar things (a cucumber hotel! black sand beaches!) rather than becoming deeper and more fully-realised, except in the flashbacks I mentioned before.

I did wonder if there is a cultural gap between me and Butterflies in November, and whether I'm just not getting it, most of the time. This is one reason why I tend to avoid books in translation, as it makes that gap even bigger. Sarah Moss, who is not Icelandic but lived and worked in Iceland for a year, had a similar reaction to me, but as far as I know, Moss doesn't speak Icelandic either, so we're still divided from the book by language. Judging from the cover, however, the publishers are very much selling this book as something that is quirky and charming, not a more serious consideration of love and relationships (our narrator is 33, but the cover recalls a teenager or a woman in her early twenties). I couldn't fathom the inclusion of Tumi, and didn't feel that the narrator's haphazard babysitting said anything more about her than we already knew - she's irresponsible and impulsive. And although I liked the occasional details about Iceland, the setting doesn't especially dominate. Most baffling of all, for me, was the inclusion of fifty pages of invented and unworkable 'recipes' (at the end of a book that's only 250 pages long!) I skimmed these, but felt a little as if I was drowning in yet more loveable craziness, so did not read them thoroughly. Would an Icelandic reader react differently? I'm not sure.


  1. Interesting review! I haven't read this one yet, but have a big interest in Icelandic literature. Icelandic culture is one of the furthest away from ours I've found (one of the reasons I love reading about it so much) so you've actually made me want to read this more. I love Sarah Moss's fiction, but her book about living in Iceland made me think she didn't really understand the culture. I want to read this now and see which side of the fence I fall!

  2. Sorry, just saw this - Blogger isn't informing me when people have commented for some reason. I also love Icelandic literature, but don't know enough about Icelandic culture to judge whether or not Names for the Sea was accurate. I'd be interested to know your thoughts!