Book Review: The Plan

In Gerhard Roth's 'Krimi' The Plan, a Viennese librarian finds a manuscript and a new life, but he deserved a better translator

The Plan, Gerhard Roth’s newly translated crime novel, tells of the transformation of Konrad Feldt, a sickly and isolated at Vienna’s Nationalbibliothek who finds himself in possession of a priceless scrap of manuscript after the original thief commits suicide. Planning to sell the document and change his life, Feldt journeys to Japan, where the illegible underbelly of an utterly foreign culture forces a change once again.

It’s a compelling story, rendered through Feldt’s semi-hallucinatory consciousness, rife with the odd details that make travel narratives so enticing (“down below, the man in the blue baseball cap had resumed sweeping the meadow”). Read this book and you’ll meet a maniacal volcanologist whose predictions are so deadly accurate that he must travel undercover to each new epicentre.

Austrian novelist Gerhard Roth looks into an illegible word | Photo:

Austrian novelist Gerhard Roth looks into an illegible word | Photo:

You’ll accompany Feldt through his labyrinthine mental libraries, and venture on a sinister scavenger hunt through the Kyoto of temples, Kabuki theatres and disheveled ­Ryokan inns. The plot winds through murder, accusations, paranoia, intrigue, brief encounters. As I said, it’s a great story.

Not meeting the gold standard

But there’s a problem: the translation.

The celebrated translator John Nathan, whose work undoubtedly helped Japanese novelist Kenzaburō Ōe win the Nobel Prize in 1994, once told me that a translation requires as much stylistic skill as the original. In other words, don’t translate if you can’t write.

Few works truly pass the Nathan test. The art, ease and, frankly, the quality of the original prose style are often lost in translation. German to English translation seems particularly vulnerable to cumbersome constructions. It doesn’t have to be this way. The crisp prose style with which Patrick Bowles translated Heinrich Böll’s Billiards at Half-Past Nine, for instance, delivers an English-language text as luminous as the original – if not (dare I say?) more so.

Todd C. Hanlin’s rendering of The Plan, out last year from Ariadne Press, does not meet this gold standard. Sometimes it does not meet even a bronze standard. Embarrassing phrasings like “in all the colours of the rainbow” (a formulation not in the original) or “lady-friend” (for Freundin) pop up every few pages. Moreover, the narration occasionally resorts to formulaic language like “first and foremost” or “for all intents and purposes”.

One suspects Hanlin has spent too much time reading German – or writing academic texts – to have a feel for the freshness of contemporary English idiom. Most unforgivably, there are moments of seeming carelessness. “Some restaurant’s garden café” is Hanlin’s unforgivably confusing translation of “a restaurant’s Gartenhof”, or garden courtyard. I could go on.

Casting such a judgement is painful. First, on principle, literary translations should be celebrated, especially into English. In the United States, for example, only about 3 per cent of all books published are works in translation.

While the American economy devours Japanese cars, Italian wine, Austrian handguns, their literatures are largely ignored. So much for Goethe’s prophesy that “the epoch of world literature is at hand…”

Second, we welcome every volume from the pioneering Ariadne Press, the California-based small press devoted entirely to Austrian literature. A miracle of survival in a savage book market, the ever-compelling Ariadne offers works ranging from Adolf Loos’ On Architecture to The Best of Austrian Science Fiction.

Third, and most to the point, we Anglophones need more translations of Gerhard Roth, one of most significant Austrian novelists alive today. Despite his formidable impact, Roth defies easy categorisation – his oeuvre is too protean.

In the early 1970s, he debuted with experimental novels, including The Autobiography of Albert Einstein and The Will to Sickness.

Over the past 40 years, he has explored many genres – popular novels, plays, photo books and essay collections (Eine Reise in das Innere von Wien deserves a read by those who attempt German).

But Roth is perhaps best known for his two novel cycles – Die Archive des Schweigens (The Archive of Silences, 1980-1991) and Orkus (Underworld, 1995-2011) – each born out of Roth’s conviction that social problems are too complex for the parameters of a single novel.  The Plan, originally published in 1998, belongs to the Orkus-cycle.

In an unreadable world

The Japanese setting of The Plan provides a particularly dramatic study of a society as filtered through the perceptions of the individual. Japan renders Roth’s protagonist – a bibliophilic hoarder of cultural patrimony – functionally illiterate. Signs stop signifying. They exist only as abstract shapes.

In this respect, The Plan may be cast in a larger tradition of works in which Japan serves as a impenetrable backdrop for lost Westerners, such as Sophia Coppola’s 2003 film Lost in Translation and German director Doris Dörrie’s 2009 Cherry Blossoms.

Not coincidentally, the great French theorist Roland Barthes used his 1970 travel book on Japan to shift away from his earlier study of cultural “signs” to his later understanding of “empty signs” – of the fundamental slipperiness, instability and absence at work in all language.

Like an updated version of Thomas Mann’s Gustav Aschenbach in Death in Venice, Roth’s Feldt journeys beyond his at-home literary routines to a land where language becomes a curtain of sounds and life becomes lived, not read.                                    ¸

The Plan
by Gerhard Roth
Ariadne Press, 2012
pp. 249

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