Translated Fiction Book Club: ‘Singer in the Night’

This week saw the final session for the online Translated Fiction Book Club where we discussed Singer in the Night by Olja Savičević, translated by Celia Hawkesworth and published by Istros Books.

A warning that there are spoilers throughout this post!

Singer in the Night is a Croatian novel in which we follow the protagonist, a television soap writer, Clementine as she searches for her old lover, Nightingale, an artist who has mysteriously disappeared after leaving a series of letters for his neighbours. The first person narrative from Clementine is interrupted by these ambiguous, sometimes bizarre letters from Nightingale and allows us a glimpse into the seemingly troubled artist’s life. Having moved away from Split and the apartment that she and Nightingale shared, Clementine returns in an attempt to figure out where he may have gone. Her journey takes her to his home village and his childhood house, then even further to a small village in Bosnia where their mutual friend Helanka lives. It is here that Clementine finds out that Nightingale has flown to the United States in order to find his estranged daughter. The final chapters of the novel, however, leave us questioning her entire story. It is clear within the final pages that we are potentially dealing with an ‘unreliable narrator’. Around halfway through the novel, we find out that Clementine has suffered head injuries from a car crash, injuries that have left her with symptoms of amnesia. However, it is not until we reach the final pages, that we find out that Clementine is in an insitution, where she repeatedly watches the artist Nightingale tell his life story in a television interview. Here, it begins to come clear that perhaps this whole story was a figment of Clementine’s imagination. In the penultimate chapter, we see Nightingale and Helenka in Detroit, a letter has arrived for Nightingale, a letter from Clementine (which we read in the closing chapter). Nightingale does not have the slightest idea who Clementine is, nor why she is writing to him. These final pages make the reader question completely the incredibly detailed story that Clementine has woven, a story that it seems she has built around this one television interview. Within this jarring and confusing story, the writer also explores themes of literature and art, as well as questions of linguistic and national identities through lyrical and juxtaposing language.

To introduce the session, there was a discussion with Susan Curtis, director of Istros Books, and Celia Hawkesworth, the translator of the novel. Istros publishes literature uniquely from South-Eastern Europe, its name coming from the old Greek for the Danube river that passes through the majority of the countries they publish translations from. Hawkesworth told us that, without much luck, she had spent many years trying to get Croatian books published in translation, therefore, when she met Curtis, she was delighted. The translator then went on to tell us about the break up of Yugoslavia, and how in the aftermath, many countries began attempting to form their own identities, part of this was creating new words in order that they spoke ‘different’ languages. Hawkesworth spoke of how several characters within the novel speak very different dialects, something that is almost impossible to convey in translation, as choosing an English equivalent for these dialects would mean displacing the novel. Therefore, Hawkesworth creates distinctive dialects or accents that seem to belong nowhere but are very particular to the individual speaking them. Sometimes the odd anglicism slips in such as ‘bloody’ or ‘love’ but these words are not at all too jarring, and the novel’s position in Croatia remains strong. In my opinion, here, Hawkesworth has dealt with a very tricky translation challenge, very well.

For the second part of the book club, we broke off into groups to discuss the novel in more detail. First of all, we talked about the use of language within the book and its marked accents and dialects. The placing of these juxtaposing dialects within the novel cause it to have a number of strong voices that intermingle and within our group we talked about whether this was perhaps representative of the various national identities found in post-Yugoslavia, specifically these peoples’ search for an identity. As Hawkesworth told us earlier, each country attempted to distinguish itself after the break up of Yugoslavia, leading to the forming of new dialects and words within the language that would differ from each other. The novel is set in a cultural quagmire, a difficult area of the world, still dealing with a number of fresh memories or wounds from the Yugoslav wars, the appearance of these strong and very different voices in the novel is perhaps representative of this. We then discussed the ending of the novel, which, as previously mentioned, made us readers question everything we had just experienced. The revelation of Clementine as an unreliable narrator definitely makes me want to return to the novel to see if I can pick up on any holes in her story. As mentioned, at the end of the novel, Nightingale claims to have no knowledge at all of who Clementine is, yet her vividly detailed account of their story does make me somewhat suspicious of this. Whilst Clementine’s version of events may be a tapestry of imagined situations, I do wonder if she and Nightingale did ever cross paths. Perhaps they did, or perhaps Clementine’s amnesia really has allowed her to weave such an intricate tale. Another interesting element that this ending brings, is that it contrasts completely with what a reader was perhaps expecting, it being the opposite of the normal endings that Clementine would be used to writing for her romantic soap stories. I think I will definitely revisit the novel soon to see if I can pull together my own idea of what the relationship (if any at all) between the pair consisted of.

I really enjoyed this week’s discussion of Singer in the Night, it was great to hear the discussion on translation, and also to hear other reader’s ideas on the story. Despite these online sessions originally being planned for six weeks, it seems pretty clear that we are all going to be in lockdown for far longer, therefore, when I heard that the book club would be returning under the name ‘Borderless Book Club’ I was delighted! So, I will be returning for the next meeting in two weeks where we will be back with Peirene Press reading Snow, Dog, Foot by Claudio Morandini, translated by J. Ockenden.

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