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Questions – LXIII (after Neruda)

How is the translation of their languages
agreed upon with the birds?

How do I explain to the tortoise
that I am even slower than he is?

How should I quiz the flea
about his championship statistics?

Or address the carnations,
in my appreciation of their fragrance?

The Pikey Laureate introduces Whitman to the high street

O ye women who go down
unto the Co-Op in your onesies:

What do you think you look like!?

Debriefed by Captain Underpants

A day out in darkest South Wimbledon, with David Gandy and Rich Hardcastle.

For The Spectator

I’ll play along (after Da Ponte)

You wanna dance,
you little count?
You wanna dance?

If you really wanna dance
then I’ll dig out the banjo.
Why not? I’ll play along with you.

If you wanna learn how
I’ll even show you the moves:
I could teach you a thing or two.

I will,
I will –
I promise!

But gently now…
I’ll keep my thoughts to myself,
the better to expose your little secrets.

The art of concealing,
the trick to grafting;
pricking here,

and quipping there.
So help me,
I’ll destroy your every plan.

So if you wanna dance,
you little count,
if you really wanna dance

well then sure, I’ll play along with you.
Of course
I’ll play along.

Translator’s Note (after Khemiri, after Heti, after Valtat, after Coetzee, after Nooteboom, after Martin, after Kierkegaard)

What I would like to say by way of introduction to my essays on the art of writing, by A.B.C.D.E.F. Godthaab*

(* Bear with me, please, while I endeavour to explain what is going on here.)

Twelve years ago, I wrote, with considerable emotional anguish, a long novel about a war against the languages. It took place in an alternate universe, in a wordless desert, where language-soldiers had outlawed any elaborate vocabulary, and where underground forces were busy planning their counteroffensive. Interpreters sat in grammar shelters, cutting up explosive adjectives; professors of rhetoric sharpened their arguments for battle; bands of editors roamed about, smuggling subversive nouns into children’s books.

I pitched it as a ‘linguistic sci-fi thriller’ in my covering letter to the publishing houses, and, convinced that the book would mark the outbreak of my literary career, was awash with expectations for publishers’ phone calls, sizeable advances, international sales, book festivals, and weeks spent in anticipation of the day when the Secretary of the Swedish Academy would emerge from behind closed doors, blinking blearily against all the flashing cameras, and saying: ‘It is no ordinary occurrence that we should give the Nobel Prize for Literature to a first-time novelist. But this year we have made an exception!’

The first rejection letter came after a few weeks. It was rather personal. ‘Hi. Thanks for giving us the opportunity to read your manuscript… afraid it seems a little overwrought… didactic rather than imaginative… bloodless… academic… Sadly we feel it’s not really right for us.’ Letter number two was both shorter and more critical. The third was a proforma: ‘thanks but no thanks.’ All the publishers responded, though. All of them except you.

Twelve years passed – and occasionally I thought of you. I wondered what could have happened. Why had I never heard from you? Of course, I assumed that my manuscript had ended up at the bottom of a pile; or lay unattended on a shelf somewhere; or had slipped into a packing crate and been spirited away into the bowels of a distant warehouse. But I consoled myself that sometime in the future, soon, any day now, in fact, one of your interns would almost certainly happen upon the dusty bundle and think: ‘Wow! A linguistic sci-fi thriller! This is precisely what our autumn catalogue has been missing!’

But that did not happen. The years went by, and I had to start taking on whatever work I could find, if only to pay off my student loan. Receptionist in a dental clinic; window-dresser in a new and shiny shopping mall. I stopped writing.

Then – this is seven years ago, now – a friend of mine reminded me that I owed him money, and told me about a translation agency that was on the lookout for new talent. That’s exactly how he put it, ‘new talent’, and I remember I was so bowled over by the fact that anyone could think of me as a ‘talent’ of any kind that I contacted them immediately.

After a short interview and a couple of assessed translations (duly approved), I got my first real commission: a tractor manual. The regulator can be controlled by one hand and by the foot-throttle. The hydraulic jack is operated by a lever mounted on the left side of the lifting platform, easily accessible from the driver’s seat. I loved it!

The second assignment was the instruction booklet for an orange squeezer. Cut the oranges into equal halves [sic] and place one half at a time onto the centre of the pressing tray. Check that the voltage indicated on the appliance corresponds to the voltage of the mains supply before connecting. NB The cut side of the orange should be facing down. It was so easy! Finally, I felt at home, and for the first time in years I found I actually enjoyed the writing. No strings attached. Well paid. OK, maybe not well paid. But paid, at least.

It soon became clear that I was pretty good at this. Better than good, actually. I was quick and efficient, I had both precision and feeling, I was careful and thorough. Customers began to ask for me specifically; but I never took on more work than I could deal with. Naturally, this meant I could also increase my rates, doing fewer but more-prestigious jobs. A sales catalogue for an exclusive wine importer; an awards committee’s commendation for a chemistry prize; publicity materials for a big American toy company. My most recent job was a promotional film for a large consulting firm: Join us on our worldwide journey as we enter the global world in which we as global businesses have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to influence the worldwide market. Globally.

The only time I’ve ever worked for nothing was when a relative of mine came out of the woodwork to tell me, re. his impending indictment, that he’d been let down by his lawyer, and that he didn’t trust the man’s interpreter. So I helped him out. I translated his appeal for him, pro bono. Or only for a nominal fee, anyway. At any rate, I didn’t charge any more than he afford. Your honour, I hope that in your assessment of my case it will be taken into account that my mother was old and sick when it happened, and neither she nor I were aware that those were real weapons. We thought the ski-masks were just part of some fancy-dress costume. And we never knew a thing about the dye-marked banknotes in the attic!

And then, one day last week, I did hear from you. And I must admit I thought you had finally discovered my novel, and now wanted to publish it!

Instead, you asked if, at extremely short notice, I was available to translate into Swedish some kind of ‘literary essay’. I explained that I do not usually undertake ‘literary’ projects, and also that I already had a jam-packed schedule. But you did not give up so easily. You insisted that it was an emergency: one of your writers needed help. He had accepted an invitation to take part in a ‘super-prestigious’ project (your word), but the tragic death of a friend had suddenly befallen him, and now it was ‘super-urgent’ (your word again). The deadline was only a few days off, and was there any chance that I would be able to assist with this? I had total editorial independence, you assured me. And the remuneration (I enquired)? Well, of course you only had a ‘very limited budget’.

Anyway, I said yes.

What I would like to say by way of introduction to my essays on the art of writing, by A.B.C.D.E.F. Godthaab. A self-important hack bangs on about the art of writing, the state of literature, and the nature of contemporary existence in general. He talks about literary ‘form’, and ‘style’, and other such trifles; he snivels and begs before his prospective future readership; he barks abuse at his poor, browbeaten secretary.

Well, it’s not like I was nervous about the project. I knew it would be easy. After all, if I’ve done this once then I’ve done it a hundred times. You start with the first word, and you end with the last, working calmly and methodically, from the opening line through to the finish. The only real trick is to make oneself invisible.

Well, the title was obvious enough, certainly. What I would like to say by way of introduction to my essays on the art of writing. Or maybe the craft of writing. But then came the author’s name. That was slightly trickier. According to the textbooks, everything in the world is not only fixed but also carefully calibrated. There is a right word and a wrong word, and the goal is to replace the latter with the former. But this was a whole other problem altogether: Literature with a capital L, a matter of such great importance that it was apparently ‘not worth anything’… Suddenly I felt rather unsure of myself.

The name of the author was obviously some sort of code – nobody is called ‘A.B.C.D.E.F. Godthaab’ in real life. And yet ‘Godthaab’ is not only supposedly a surname, but also the ancient name of Nuuk, the capital of Greenland (est. 1728; pop. 15,000). Moreover, a rearrangement of the letters turns this surname ‘Godthaab’ into ‘Bath Goad’ – i.e. someone who encourages you to take a bath. Are we to understand this, too, in terms of some relationship to Greenland? That the city itself would like us to ‘swim’ to some alternative location? Perhaps some altogether different type of ‘swimming’ is intended. Or are we meant to recognise some allusion to the currency of Thailand (with or without inferring some kind of direct pecuniary incentive)? Or should we jumble the letters again, and extract from ‘Godthaab’ the cry of a man who suddenly appreciates the distinction between two different species: ‘Ah! Bat/Dog!’

Again and again I went back to the original text, scouring it for clues, hoping to decipher its hidden meaning. Soon enough, religious interpretations began to suggest themselves. ‘Godthaab’ is just one transpositioned H away from ‘God T[o] Ahab’ – ‘God will speak unto Ahab’, the son of Israel (just as the author of this essay intends to speak unto his readers).

But, I confess, I was at a dead end. I had progressed no further than the name of the author. Sure, I had reread the Old Testament, researched extensively the cost of package holidays to Greenland, and even made some preliminary enquiries into the anatomical structures of dogs vs. bats – but then the deadline was upon me, and all of my considerations had been wasted. The only thing left for me to do was to write you this short letter of apology. I understand how frustrating it must be for you to hold your breath for something that has not turned out as you’d expected.

Still, now we’re even.

Unauthorised translation, arrived at with the considerable Swedish-English assistance of Google Translate and additional editorial contributions from Madelaine Carlander. None of the aforementioned to be held responsible … etc. Jonas Hassen Khemiri’s original can be found in Multiples: 12 Stories in 18 Languages by 61 Authors (ed. Adam Thirlwell), where it is, in itself, a translation of the work of no fewer than six preceding authors. 

Epigraph (after Ondaatje)

K:  Am I ‘K’ in your book?

A:  No.


We still get MamanBébé fliers
for our childless former flatmate.

Mortality 101 – or; Catullus at the graveside

‘I want to explain about the Catullus poem … Catullus wrote poem 101 for his brother who died in the Troad.’ – Anne Carson

I have travelled, brother,
over lands and oceans,
to this field of bones
to observe the rituals
of the final hour,
and mumble pointless words
above your ashes.

Misfortune took you from me –
wrong brother,
wrongly taken –
but all the same
I here perform
the old traditions
of our grim forefathers.

I admit it, I am crying.

to eternity, my brother.
The night is coming

…….– and so goodbye.

NB This is an extremely loose translation (from the Latin), encouraged by Anne Carson’s NOX. Neither Ms Carson nor Catullus should be held accountable, etc, etc.

St Paul’s (Knightsbridge) and the Great War

A blog piece for Culture House on the Royal Naval mobilisation of the Rev Wilfrid Hannay Gibbins, and the parish mags of a church in West London over the course of the First World War.

For The Spectator

Flak Jacket to Dust Jacket

Men at War: What Fiction Tells Us About Conflict, from The Iliad to Catch-22
By Christopher Coker
(Hurst 325pp £25)

My Life as a Foreign Country
By Brian Turner
(Jonathan Cape 240pp £16.99)

Seamus Heaney once remarked upon the heroes of antiquity that it is ‘not so much their procedures on the page which are influential as the composite image which has been projected of their conduct’. In Men at War, Christopher Coker (Professor of International Relations at the LSE) undertakes an unscrambling of this particular equation, picking over the last 3000 years of warfare in literature to see ‘what fiction tells us about war’s hold on the imagination of young men, and the way it makes – and breaks – them.’

At heart, Men at War does what surveys of this kind should always do: sends you hurrying to (re-)read the many dozens of books the author’s been referring to as, from The Iliad to World War III, via the Napoleonic era, Dresden and Vietnam, he investigates five designated ‘personalities’ – ‘warriors’, ‘heroes’, ‘villains’, ‘survivors’ and ‘victims’ – incorporating examples as diverse as Henry IV and Dr Strangelove, McCarthy’s Blood Meridian and the Flashman novels (I paused at the Master and Commander chapter to re-watch Russell Crowe’s ‘definitive’ performance). Coker is extremely widely read, both on and off the battlefield, and full of acute literary insights, wit, and a tremendous amount of human sympathy. He has an especially frank and generous affinity for the ‘survivor’, the individual against the heartless ‘machine’ – a category that thankfully shed most of its connotations of cowardice in the course of the last century, and during the Vietnam War in particular. The whole thing is delivered in a relaxed, conversational prose, marred only by some astonishingly incompetent proofreading (or lack thereof).

Coker’s belief that most soldiers are aware of their literary lineage, however (that they have read ‘what fiction tells us…’), is a bit of a sticking point. Achilles, for instance, is ‘a man so many soldiers wish to be but also dread they might become’. This is just wrong. Most ‘soldiers’ have never even heard of Achilles, and only a very few would see him as a cautionary character. It is clear, throughout, that Coker must mean ‘officers’ – a rather 19th-Century distinction that I suspect his audience (none of them ‘soldiers’, in any case) would nonetheless take for granted. All the same, since I still don’t buy that Alexander used his Homer for a pillow, the idea of some Para lieutenant in a Sangin platoon-house thumbing through the Catalogue of Ships seems extraordinarily optimistic. For what it’s worth, the only British officer I am sure has read The Iliad is a former student of Professor Coker.

Things appear to be slightly different in the American military, where a considerable number of soldiers – with or without the inverted commas – seem not only to be conversant with military (and other) literature, but frequently to set about producing it themselves. A prime example of this is the prize-winning poet Brian Turner.

On 3 December 2003, Sergeant Turner’s mechanised infantry unit crossed into Iraqi territory: ‘from Herodotus to Xenophon, from Cornelius Ryan to Lieutenant General Harold G Moore – I am aware of a variety of insertion narratives’. Now, in a fine and contemplative prose memoir, guided by the ghosts of his military ancestors, Turner follows the never-ending rumble of war from one brutal manifestation to the next. Through its drone-pilot conceit, surveying the landscapes of Iraq and Northern Ireland, Bosnia and Vietnam, My Life as a Foreign Country becomes a sort of trans-historical hallucination, this war and all the wars before and after exchanging hints of recognition through the cracks in his personal experience.

While Turner will not have been the only soldier who’d joined up because ‘at some point in the life of the hero the hero is supposed to say I swear’, he is surely one of the very few in living memory to have appointed a ‘literary executor’. My Life as a Foreign Country is chock full of allusions not only to the Graeco-Roman Classical tradition (at one point we watch Turner reading Gregory Hays translating Marcus Aurelius quoting The Iliad) but also to the Bhagavad-Gita, Japanese art, Norse mythology and more. During an aside on the history of weapons manufacture, Turner quietly tracks the etymology of ‘vanadium’ – from Vanadís: ‘goddess of love and fertility, battle and death’ – an element in the steel used to make the M4 rifle.

It’s not just the old-timey stuff, either. The Pequot War, Vietnamese funeral rites, the advent of ‘Waterloo Teeth’; and, in a long, updated riff on O’Brien’s ‘The Things They Carried’: ‘the soldiers enter the house with paperbacks in their cargo pockets, Starship Troopers and Black Hawk Down, We Were Soldiers Once and Young.’ Turner himself packs a copy of Iraqi Poetry Today.

For Literary Review (in a slightly different version)