Felix Bellamy is a domestically inclined Swiss bureaucrat with a healthy distrust of polyglots: “Languages are like toothbrushes: the only one you should put into your mouth is your own.” To his distaste, he is put in charge of the interpreters’ department of a large international body. One of the interpreters begins, most alarmingly, to burble, whistle and gabble in the course of his work and then, after infecting our narrator with his linguistic madness, disappears. Felix’s search for the man who has “undone” him takes him on a giddy journey into a German sanatorium that forces patients to learn some languages and forbids them others, onto the crime-laced docklands of Odessa, across the Romanian countryside as a gun-toting outlaw and back to Germany where he sleeps rough until a wealthy man rescues him and joins his quest.
Even before the adventure proper unfolds, Felix’s life is tinged with surreality. His wife, Irene, communes with the furniture. His home leaves its scent on his handkerchiefs. Strolling by a lake, he observes a “brightly coloured ice-cream van slithering along the gravelled alleyway with its mournful peal of bells”. Everything in his world is alive, metaphorically and sensually. Everything speaks. So when we learn that the madness is the articulation of a primal language that connects humankind with the animate and inanimate world, it makes a kind of sense. We are one. Yet, as it turns out, not even all dolphins speak the same language. We are divided. It is not hard to read The Interpreter as a parable about the European Union in particular – especially given the author’s personal history as an EU interpreter and inventor of the macaronic language “Europanto”.
The Interpreter completes Diego Marani’s trilogy on the themes of language and identity that began with New Finnish Grammar and The Last of the Vostyachs. There are occasional distracting lapses of narrative logic and seemingly infelicitous elements of translation: is “young girl” really the best way to introduce a character who, half a page or so later, turns out to be a multilingual interpreter and sex worker? Are we really to believe that Felix, a man of a certain age, can outrun his enemies like some action hero? The ending, too, felt slight, given the drama that led up to it – but perhaps that is the ultimate joke in a mesmeric novel about communication in which no one even seems to carry a mobile phone. CG
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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 6, 2016 as "Diego Marani, The Interpreter". Subscribe here.