Crime is not standardized across the globe. In the States, for instance, murders are bloody, very visual, full of vengeance and rage, organs get chopped off, limbs scattered to the four winds. American crimes are, without doubt, gruesome. In many places in Europe, on the other hand, let’s take England for example, murder is usually very civilized, almost like the killer is doing his or her victim a favour by ending their life. Murder in Barcelona falls into that category too. We’re a civilized bunch, over there. I’m talking about literary crimes.
This is something I noticed a while back. Having read many of Patterson’s stories in his 19-volume Women’s Murder Club, or Michael Connelly’s Bosch, I couldn’t help but think that the murders in their stories are ever so different from those in Ian Rankin’s Rebus, or Camilleri’s Montalbano. Sure, there’s a dead body, obviously, but this tends to stay together, arms and legs attached to the torso, a sensible amount of blood spilled over the rug or the tiles… nothing more than a simple crime.
The same goes for Teresa Solana’s A Not So Perfect Crime. To the extent that I don’t even remember reading about a drop of blood! In fact, more than a mystery book sometimes you have the feeling you’re reading a comedy. The characters, twin brothers who do not look at all alike and whose wives and partners do not even know they are siblings, lead a private investigators agency in a very posh neighbourhood in Barcelona. Their office is near plaça Bonanova to attract wealthy clients; for appearances do matter. The simple description of their rented space has you laughing out loud. Their pretense is so ridiculous yet so real (how many people do we know whose lives are pure pretense?) that as you start reading you wonder whether you’ve really picked a thriller or a P. G. Wodehouse novel.
But crime there is, and as we follow the twins’ steps to uncover who killed the politician’s wife we are given a tour of Barcelona’s wealthy areas and those inhabiting them. Their doings, their life-styles, everything is pictured to a T and we immediately feel transported to the scenes described.
Europeans are used to reading in translation, we do it all the time, because a large number of books are translated into our mother tongues. Some are noteworthy, some are best-sellers or simply good sources of escapism. The same cannot be said about literature translated into English. Not much actually makes it from other countries into English. Which is a pity, because that means that English readers are losing so much. Reading in translation is not just about reading a story and escaping reality. When we read a book that takes place in another country we’re bound to learn about that place, its people, its culture.
I still remember reading Enid Blyton’s Famous Five in Catalan as a child (I hadn’t started learning English yet) and always marvelling especially at the picnics those four kids and their dog had. The food was so different from anything we would eat! Those books had me wondering for years what “meat cake” was, picturing layer over layer of beef and birthday candles on top. Over a decade later on my first trip to England (I could speak English by then) I was served beef and potato pie* and I suddenly realised what the Famous Five had been lunching all those years ago. I love that memory. And it is one of my favourites about literature in translation. For me, to realize that a) people do things differently in other places -and it’s OK to do them- & b) books could take me places I couldn’t physically go to (yet) filled me with joy.
So how come there’s so little translated into English? I don’t know but I do have a theory or two that could be the part of another post. In the meantime, though, I encourage English language readers to dive into the unknown. It’s that time of the year when people have all sorts of New Year’s Resolutions, good intentions that get forgotten by the third week in January. Well, make this one of yours in 2020 (and stick to it): discover books in translation. Find a foreign author, or two or three. Or do it by language. Or by country. There’s so much out there that’ll fill you with joy.
The fact that Teresa Solana is one of those lucky authors to see her Catalan works in English definitely means something. It means her books are worth reading, and not just by those few who understand Catalan, but by the extensive English readership. Solana has not won the Nobel prize for Literature, and that’s OK, for she does a pretty good job of portraying and ridiculing mercilessly Catalan society. Who knows, reading her books you might discover something about us that you don’t know, yet.
Solana’s twins’ adventures in English are three in total, and whilst they are stand-alone novels, I always prefer to read any series in chronological order. Her current titles, translated all by Peter Bush, one of the best-known Catalan into English translators, are: A Not So Perfect Crime, A Shortcut to Paradise, and The Sound of One Hand Killing. They can all be found at Bitter Lemon Press.
Tile: A Not So Perfect Crime
Author: Teresa Solana
Original title (Catalan): Un crim imperfecte
Translator: Peter Bush
Publisher: Bitter Lemon Press
Date: 3rd September 2009 (US) / 9th November 2008 (UK)
* Whilst pie and cake are definitely different things, the Catalan translation in those days for both words was "pastís" (cake) for we did not have “pies” in our culinary repertoire.