Baboon–Naja Marie Aidt (2006)
Translated from the Danish by Denise Newman (2014)
Baboon, the debut collection in English by the Danish writer Naja Marie Aidt, has been getting a lot of buzz among bookish types. That was enough to get me to buy it, but not of course to read it. It had to compete for my attention with all the other books on my bedside table: books I had to read for work, books I had to read because they were coming due at the library, books I had to read so as not to face the books I had to read for work, books I had to read to satisfy obscure readerly projects of the sort I’m always setting for myself.
But Baboon spent only a short time in the purgatory of the TBR pile (most books sit there for years). I read it in two or three short sessions last weekend, impelled by the now inescapable fact that school is about to start up again. This year I am teaching a course on short fiction each semester and I always like to include a couple of recently published stories to help me decide what I really think about them. In this way I decided that I didn’t like Haruki Murakami or Etgar Keret as much as I thought I did, but that I liked Rachel Seiffert even more than at first. Although I’ve a few reservations about Aidt’s work, the collection impressed me enough that I’ve assigned the first story in the collection, “Bulbjerg,” for the first week of class.
“Bulbjerg,” named after a prominent limestone cliff in Jutland, reminded me a bit of a Margaret Atwood story. There’s the same sense that however threatening the natural world might seem it isn’t nearly as hostile as the people lost in it. And a similar tone: Aidt has Atwood’s asperity and intelligence. “Bulbjerg” opens with an expression of wonder—“Suddenly we found ourselves in the middle of an astonishing landscape: luminous, white sand dunes on all sides, wind swept, small trees twisting under the vast open sky”—but its dominant emotion is in fact fear. It’s fitting that “suddenly” is the story’s first word. A lot of dramatic things happen in its ten pages, just as they do in the other concise stories in the collection. But as PT Smith points out in an excellent review, eventfulness plus concision doesn’t equal clarity. As the story begins, the narrator, his wife, their six-year-old son, and their dog are lost in a forest. In the opening sentence they come up for air, but only by happenstance—note the passive construction “we found ourselves”—and not for long. They must plunge back into the forest to get where they are going. But where is that? And who are these people?
Aidt is good at menace, as in this scene from early in the story. The boy is tired, the family collapses to the ground. But time is passing. They need to get moving:
“Shouldn’t we get going?” you ask. I get up and suddenly notice how tired I am. My arms are completely limp and there’s an overwhelming feeling of weakness throughout my entire body. The water bottle is empty. The dog pants with its tongue hanging out of its mouth. You lift it into the cardboard box on the bike rack. Sebastian bravely picks up his bike and rides ahead of us. His bell rings with every bump on the road, and the flag he was so proud of when I mounted it on the rear mudguard looks cheap and shabby now. We ride on in silence.
The first time I read this, I was sure something terrible had happened, a catastrophe of some kind. A war, maybe, or a natural disaster. Maybe it was that cardboard box for the dog that got me thinking this way. Who takes their dog on a bicycle trip in a box? It seemed so desperate. Are they escaping something? Or maybe it was that bell, ringing its feeble warning, its futility only exacerbated by the cheap and shabby flag. What could have pushed this family to this point? They’ve run out of water, they’re tired, vacillating between barely restrained anger (“Shouldn’t we get going?) and silence.
But it’s not a catastrophe, at least not in the apocalyptic sense. It turns out that this is just a family outing gone awry, not life threatening, but dangerous nonetheless. Aidt captures perfectly that knife-edge between panic and exhaustion that sets upon you when you’ve lost your way in the woods. But she isn’t just describing that sensation—she’s also inciting it in us. In this story and in the others, readers are as lost as these characters. That’s because Aidt is always dropping us in the middle of things, leaving us to sort out who the characters are, how they’re related to each other, where they are and what they’re doing. And when we do figure these things out, we often have to wrestle with our feelings about them. There are not many likable characters in this collection, some are downright unpleasant, even disgusting. That’s true even in a story like “Interruption,” a kind of absurd experiment in the mode of Kafka or Gogol, when a middle-aged woman—a fugitive, it would seem, though this too is never made clear, from a newly opened “massage parlor” which is really nothing more than a brothel—bursts into the apartment of a graduate student, installs herself there (cooking and cleaning and offering other services besides) and refuses to leave. Our feelings towards the woman—the narrator thinks she is Thai or Filipino but can’t be bothered to find out for sure—remain unclear because we never get any access to her consciousness, and the narrator’s indignant and slightly revolted response to her is hard to get past. We know it tells us more about him than her, but she remains a cipher to us. I admire the way Aidt suggests the precariousness, even the danger of the woman’s life without using it to build sympathy. Similarly, I appreciate the way she makes the student, who in another story might seem sympathetically put upon, as much cold and calculating as bewildered and frustrated.
If I say these are confusing stories, then, I’m referring not to their style—Aidt’s sentences are straightforward, even plain—but to their emotional force. They refuse to offer us the consolations of protagonists that we can identify with and situations that we can embrace. Even when the characters threaten to become caricatures the stories wrong-foot us, as in the case of the self-satisfied hedonist of “Wounds,” whose life falls apart when an innocuous boil on his ass becomes a horrifying, life threatening, baffling disease. We can’t enjoy disparaging him, yet we don’t quite ever come to sympathize with him either.
So when I say these stories left a bad taste in my mouth you shouldn’t take that as criticism, exactly, but rather as recognition that they’ve done the work they set out to do. These stories don’t ask to be loved—they’re the opposite of ingratiating—so what’s left might be admiration. And I do admire them, certainly enough that I want to read Aidt’s first novel, also just out in English translation. And I’m curious how I’ll feel about “Bjulberg,” at least, after I’ve taught it next week.
Baboon is translated by Denise Newman. As always when I read translations from a language I don’t know, I’m at a loss as to what to say about her efforts, beyond expressing deep gratitude for giving me access to books I’d never otherwise be able to read. I could say the translation seems fluent and skillful, which it does, but in the absence of the original I’ve no idea. I do wonder, however, and this doesn’t have to do with the specifics of this translation but of its very existence in English translation (and thanks are due to Two Lines Press for publishing these stories, and in such a handsome edition). As I read the book, I thought about what Tim Parks has been saying repeatedly over the past few years—that “international” or “world” literature is increasingly governed by the unstated, free-floating, but no less powerful desire to be translated into English, such that a straightforward style (more Raymond Carver than Henry James, say) and a lack of cultural specificity have come, however unconsciously, to govern the production of literature already in their original form, let alone in the decision (always as much economic as aesthetic) to translate that literature into English. If I understand him right, Parks thinks there is a whole canon of world literature that is being written in ways that make it amenable to being translated into English.
Whatever one thinks of Parks’s claims—I like him because he’s kind of cranky and intemperate, our own D. H.Lawrence, even though I think he might be exaggerating the case—I think there’s a useful question to be asked about what we want from literature in translation. Another way to say what I mean is that I found myself wondering as I read this collection whether there was anything particularly Danish about it. Which in turn made me wonder, what the hell would that even mean and why would I want it? Was I expecting a landscape tastefully littered with Arne Jacobsen chairs? It’s condescending to expect the foreign to be exotic, or to correspond to one’s received idea of a place (these things usually mean the same thing). And yet the suggestion, made in a blurb on the back cover, that these stories are “universal” (which I take to mean, “could be American!”) seems similarly condescending and disrespectful. Maybe it’s knowing so little about Denmark other than a few television shows and crime novels (as well as an abiding conviction that it must be the loveliest place on earth) that makes me feel this way.
But I did decide, as I always do, not to include Babel on my short fiction syllabus, even though those stories are wonderful, because they strike me as likely to seem foreign to my students in ways my course doesn’t have the time to explicate. Aidt, on the other hand, will I suspect resonate strongly with students. The comparison could be better, I know: anything written a century ago needs context in a way something written today doesn’t (though I do teach plenty of early twentieth century texts in this course). But I can’t help thinking that the ready amenability of these stories to being translated into English is a kind of fault. And yet as soon as I do I remember the disreputable narrator of “Bulbjerg” and his desperate family, as lost to each other as they are in the woods, and unsettling to us. Perhaps I’ve been fooled in my thinking. Perhaps these are uniquely Danish stories. Perhaps there is no such thing as a Danish story. Perhaps the apparently assimilable style of Baboon is a false friend, only an apparent cognate. Perhaps I’m not giving these surprising and sly stories their full due.