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Book review: The Interpreter by Diego Marani – gloriously shambolic and vivid

Before acclaimed Italian writer Diego Marani began his career as a novelist, he invested enormous time and energy into realising an unusual challenge: creating his own language. After serving for years as a translator for the European Union, he embraced the jumble of languages in his mind and produced his own trans-European language.

“Europanto” avoided rules, and instead operated around a series of guidelines or suggestions to combine and decipher most European words, phrases and grammars. By several accounts, it created vibrant, chaotic but somehow enjoyable conversations.

Marani stopped promoting the language in 2005, but his expertise and passion for the interactions that occur on the edges of language has permeated all of his novels so far, including New Finnish Grammar, his breakout novel with English-speaking readers that earned him reviews sprinkled with declaration of his genius.

When reading his new novel, one can easily imagine he sought to transplant the hyperactive heart of Europanto into The Interpreter, which shares the same erratic and occasionally messy energy and will be released in Australia this week.

Set in Europe, The Interpreter follows the latter years of Felix Bellamy, a professional academic administrator who is appointed head of a university’s interpreters department despite his long-held view that languages are similar to toothbrushes: “the only one you should only put into your mouth is your own,”.

But Bellamy’s stable, limited life begins to erode as soon as he steps into his new office. On his desk sits a report detailing one of the department’s most accomplished translators has begun to emit strange gurgles and shrieks during his translations, and needs to be fired.

Shortly after firing Gunther Stauber, Stauber confronts Bellamy next to a fog-wreathed lake and vindictively rants at him before hissing and emitting “a sound like a liquid whistle, which his palate was trying to restrain but which then sank down into his throat and mingled with a raucous vibration of his vocal cords”. Shortly after Stauber disappears.

The demise of the veteran interpreter, who embarks on a quest to connect his gurgles to the first human language, triggers Bellamy’s mental breakdown and he too begins to garble in indistinct languages.

He checks himself into a German clinic for language disorders and from here the novel’s repressed and hapless protagonist is sent on a spiralling journey across Europe’s borders, tongues and ultimately, morality as the previously constrained character embarks on a life he never even knew he dreamed of.

This is the most rich and experimental part of the story. Doctors prescribe courses of intensive Romanian to connect some patients with their inner emotional life; ban others from speaking their mother tongue so as not to reawaken early trauma, and in one extreme case, employ a program of intensive Navajo language learning so a patient (not Bellamy) must wrap their troubled mind around not only a new vocabulary and grammar, but also the philosophy of colour the Navajo tongue is steeped in.

The energy and momentum of the book, translated into English by Judith Landry, makes The Interpreter an enjoyable read rich with insight into how languages shape our lives and in the first half of the book, a provocative and curious cast of side characters.

Yet as the tale criss-crosses Europe and crescendoes, the joy of being taken along on the adventure is undercut by a faltering commitment to characterisation, which renders later players in the story as little more than stereotypes. As the plot becomes more absurd, these slim characters struggle to provide enough believability and human context for Bellamy’s internal story to surface as much as one might hope.

This issue is compounded occasionally by bumpy plot developments, but overall these weaknesses are cushioned by Marani’s eddying sentences, peppered with vivid details, which are easy to get swept up by.

The Interpreter is published by Text Publishing.

You can buy the book here



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