Rasma Says

Musings, deliberations, flashes of unaccounted for brilliance…

Day 4: Kapittel – festival for litteratur og ytringsfrihet

Things to do:

  1. Pay my dues to Norsk Pen
  2. Find Mikail Eldin’s book about fighting in Chechenia
  3. Did I say pay my dues to Norsk Pen?

Last year members of NFFO – the union for nonfiction writers and translators – could join PEN through a cooperative arrangement between the two organizations. I did. Recently an email came asking if I had forgotten to pay this year’s dues. Yes, I thought and kept working my way back through my inbox, swiping to delete emails, judging with an eagle eye what deserved to live to be read at a later time and what could go without being read, sort of the way I go through the garden looking for weeds to cull.

I didn’t swipe to delete the PEN mail, so I know it’s still there, somewhere, waiting to tell me how much I owe for another year’s membership. Membership isn’t the right word really, it’s more support. Members would do something active. I pay other people to be active, give support to the PEN workers who really do something to help tortured and oppressed writers around the world.

This week in Stavanger I have come across some of those writers. Yesterday it was Iranian Mehdi and Fatemeh who now live in Lillehammer, chipping away at learning Norwegian as they chip ice off their boots and thresholds, slightly baffled that people actually live like this. But live like this they will, gladly, because the alternative is prison, whipping, death. To me the saddest thing about their story yesterday was not being able to go somewhere and read those poems again; not being able to point others to the poems and say, you gotta read this. 

I’m going to pay my dues to PEN because that’s what they do: bring writing from oppressed writers into print. They have done that with Mikail Eldin’s manuscript, written in Chechenian-Russian, which no publisher was interested in translating and publishing. The war in Chechenia is … oh, so 1990’s. My blood boils at the very idea that this book will not be published in Norway because some executives in shirts and skirts deem it to have low marketing relevance.

Hell, what about learning from history? What about learning from prose that is so beautifully written by a writer (who looks like he just popped out of a New Yorker line-drawn cartoon of a mustached Chechenian) with such a poetic soul that you weep when he tells you how the eyes of dogs that have feasted on human flesh are no longer the eyes of dogs. His unabashed fear of those dogs is palpable as he recounts his memory of the soldier enringed by them, keeping the snarling, snapping, starving dogs at bay with an unloaded gun in trembling arms, his last cartridge removed and lying close at hand to use on himself when, not if, the dogs call his bluff.

It’s not just what Mikail Eldin says about the war, it’s how he tells it. His Norwegian is good, but he has not translated his own manuscript. Only a Norwegian translator of the caliber of Rune R. Moen could do justice to it. I can’t tell if Moen is crying as he reads, or just has a dry throat and needs to stop and put a drop of something in his mouth, or both. Behind him on the wall is a slide show: the cover of the book: The Sky Wept Fire: my life as a Chechian freedom fighter; pictures of Chechenia when it was a city before 1993, and as a field of rubble after. There’s also a picture of Eldin before the war when he was a young, naive music journalist whose main goal was to write the perfect review of Abba. There are no pictures of Eldin after the war. His book is that portrait.

I ask Moen later if Eldin’s mastery of English is as good as the lyrical Norwegian translation suggests. “He’s a poetic writer,” Moen says, “in Russian.” Eldin doesn’t know English. When he couldn’t get a Norwegian press interested in translating his manuscript, PEN sent it to London, paid for the translation and found a publisher. I nod as Moen tells me this, all the while thinking: gotta to pay those PEN dues ASAP! 

I’ve always supported the idea of supporting oppressed writers – who wouldn’t – but in my sheltered or shuttered life I have not come upon a book that I so strongly feel must exist and would only exist because of PEN’s effort. I ask Moen if he translated from the Engish. He answers yes, from the English and Russian, with Eldin sitting next to him, during the past two intense days at the Stavanger International Festival of Literature and Freedom of Speech.

If anything embodies the spirit of this festival, it is Mikael Eldin, a man with the look of a small town barber and the soul of Apollo. The final incident Moen reads is about music – let’s see if I can remotely do this justice – There’s a conflict via radio between Russian soldiers and the Chechenian resistance, complicated as usual by the presence of Russian defectors on the Chechenian side and Russian soldiers disguised as Chechenians – tension escalates – one group demands some kind of information from the other – tense waitng for an order to be broadcast, or a confession, but soldiers on all sides refuse to speak — Eldin takes over the radio and turns on a piece of classical music. (I didn’t catch the name of the composer, it’s one of his two favorites; the other, Grieg, would have been too demanding…) As Moen reads this, Eldin turns on his smartphone and the music fills the room the way it filled the air over Chechenia that time, creating a caesura, suspending the war as soldiers on all sides listened through the night. I think it must have been like that Christmas Eve football match between the German and English soldiers in WWI trenches. Here in The Cellar, we feel it, the raw vulnerable bravery of Eldin’s appeal to man’s most fundamental impulse — the only thing that can stop mortar fire and make soldiers lay down their guns — the primal yearning in each of us to be touched by something beautiful.

Yes, literature and free speech.

You can buy the book from the publisher here, but I also found it at my favorite Norwegian local online bookstore Adlibris.  Granta published an excerpt here. In my ears, Rune Moen’s Norwegian is even more lyrical than the English by Anna Gunin. Her book won the UK PEN translation award, so by no means is anything lacking there. I just hope to read more of Moen’s rendition. Translation is its own literary art, and I can only imagine how both Gunin and Moen have labored like alchemists to render Eldin’s prose.

Translators: worth their weight in gold, and then some.



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