Allan Cameron
of Vagabond Voices

Friday 17th January 2020

Q1) The book you wish you’d written

I have read so many impressive books in my life - perhaps books that have left a trace in me without me remembering their titles, though I'm sure I would remember the author, if mentioned by someone else. I certainly remember reading Gabriel Garcia Marquez's A Hundred Years of Solitude in the early seventies (it came out in Italian first, and was very successful). It seemed to present a new way of writing in which historical events were depicted in a heightened, imagined world. To have written that book or a book like that would have been wonderful.

Q2) The book that gets you through hard times

Books, all books, get you through hard times - and good - because they get you away from yourself and your troubles. I don't know that there is a particular book.

Q3) The book that most disappointed you

Don Quixote had long been on a list of books to read, and when I finally sat down to read it, it started very well. It should have been meat and drink to me, because I have read a great deal of sixteenth-century Italian literature, particularly the more demotic prose writers. However, it felt like the endless repetition of the same joke, and it wasn't the first attempt at satirising the chivalric tradition (which leaves itself very open to satire). Ariosto's Orlando furioso and Gottfried von Strassburg's Tristan and Iseult did this beautifully and long before (early sixteenth century in the former case and way back in the twelfth century in the latter), but they did it in verse. Don Quixote wasn't the first novel, but it was certainly the first significant novel of the Modern Era and therefore we are indebted to it. Still I only got through a quarter of it, and it's unlikely that I'll have another go.

Q4) Name a book with either a brilliant opening or a brilliant ending

Lars Sund's A Happy Little Island, a very topical novel about asylum-seekers drowning as sea, has a spectacular opening. I know it well because we published it a few years ago: originally written in Finland Swedish, this book came to mind partly because the ending wasn't quite as good as the rest of this excellent novel in a Swedish tradition we could learn from.

Q5) Your favourite character from a novel

This is the most difficult question, because characters are part of a whole and indivisible from their context, but I think that Dorothea Brooke, the protagonist of Middlemarch, should be the obvious choice. She is part of an unusual story of an unjust world, which doesn't work out well. Sought-after marriages are unhappy, and perhaps the unhappiness teaches the victims something. This is very far from the romantic world of the Brontës. She wants to be the dutiful wife but also to collaborate intellectually. The failure of this hope is the failure of her marriage, but it is the complex plot Eliot constructs around her that really gives meaning to the character. Eliot translated from German and was aware of new techniques and philosophical arguments ignored at the time in Britain.

Q6) Next on your 'to read' pile is ...

The next book on the pile is Corrado Alvaro's L'uomo nel labirinto ('The Man in the Maze'). It is there because I'm translating another novel by Alvaro with the English title, Fear in the World, a dystopian work based in part on his travels in the Soviet Union at the time of the purges. I know very little about 'The Man in the Maze', except that it was his debut. I'm reading it to know the author better, as this may assist my work.

Q7) Your favourite poem

Both Dante's Inferno and Milton's Paradise Lost are wonderful for their content but even more for the poetic quality. I think that it was Philip Pullman who said that no one understood better the poetic potential of the English language than Milton. Whoever it was must surely be right. Every language has a different potential, just as playing the same tune on different instruments produces a different sound. If someone said that I had to choose between the two, then I would go for Dante, but I'd prefer not to because these are different books written in different times, however similar the subject matter. And for a short poem, I would choose Shelley's Ozymandias, in which each word fits together to create an image, an idea and a flow of sound in perfect concord.

Q8) The greatest book you've ever read

This at last is the easy one. It took me a nanosecond to decide on Tolstoy's Resurrection, as I decided on that long ago and wrote an essay on it in my collection of essays, Things Written Randomly in Doubt (p99). I read it when I was thirteen, having found a highly abridged American version, which in many ways turned out to be the truest one. All other versions I've read have been translations of Russian ones that had been extensively censored by Tsarist officials. Hopefully a proper English translation will come out some day, but even in its current forms this ferocious attack on the aristocracy and the middle classes in the Tsarist empire is probably the greatest naturalist novel of the nineteenth century. Tolstoy must have studied Russian prisons, because his reflections on prison reform are still relevant today. We know that he was a great admirer of Memoirs from the House of the Dead, Dostoyevsky's autobiographical account of his ten years of forced labour. We also know that the only reason they didn't arrest Tolstoy for this book was that they didn't want to make a martyr of an elderly, internationally famous novelist. The Taviani brothers also made a good movie of it, but better the book. ●

Born in 1952, Allan Cameron grew up in Nigeria and Bangladesh, and lived as a young adult in Italy. He has been a book translator since 1992, a published author since 2004 and a publisher since 2008. His most recent novel, Cinico, came out in 2017.
t: @VagabondVoices


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