August 27, 2012
Q&A with Annie Janusch, translator of Brenner and God
by Melville House
Can you describe some of the challenges you faced in translating this title?
By all appearances a crime novel, the real mystery of Brenner and God isn’t located in how the plot advances but in how the story is told. Basically we have a narrator who’s taken it upon himself to tell us the kind of story he thinks we’re going to like—a crime story—but who ultimately doesn’t want us to find the story more compelling than him, the storyteller. He’s canny enough to dole out the requisite plot points—a kidnapping, a detective, suspects, corrupt institutions, a car chase, a love interest—to satisfy our expectations for a book of this genre.
But by the same token, he also knows how to work against the rules of the genre by deflating suspense with digressions, undermining his protagonist with backhanded comments, and didactically barking at his reader to pay attention. Moreover, as soon as the narrator becomes aware that he’s somehow gotten himself into a conventional genre moment, he’ll stop short and omit something, or presume something of the reader that the reader can’t possibly know, or change the topic entirely.
What remains unsolved by the book’s end is the identity of this narrator, and perhaps more importantly—what gives him the nerve! As a reader this can leave you feeling like you’re being taken for a ride: you think you’re picking up a regular page-turner of a thriller, only to find yourself on the receiving end of a one-sided conversation with a narrator who’s a bit of a blowhard. The process of puzzling this out by the reader is just as important as Brenner puzzling out who the kidnapper is, though. Ultimately, the narrator calls explicit attention to the ways in which crime fiction is constructed and how dutifully reader expectations subscribe to them.
Figuring out where to pitch the narrator’s voice in a book where the plot comes secondary to the narration was by far the biggest challenge in translating Brenner and God.
How did translating Brenner and God enhance your understanding of the text?
I’ve read a few readers’ reviews of the book by now, and I’ve been interested in how each has commented on the style, finding it awkward or tedious or even bewildering. To be fair, I can recall having had a similar response myself when I first read the book. However, when I started translating it, which is to say, when I started reading the book closely enough to be able to dismantle it sentence by sentence, I came to understand that there was something more cunning going on. What constitutes good style has been drummed into us to such an extent that, as good readers, we still bristle when a writer upsets those ingrained ideas. And what I see Wolf Haas doing is prying open this chasm between, on the one hand, how language behaves, and on the other, how language is enforced—and then letting his reader fall right in. On a basic level, writing a crime novel in a style that readers are apt to find awkward, tedious, or bewildering, actively works against the genre in that it slows reading down and prevents page-turning, but in so doing, it also creates an opportunity for the reader to do the detective work by taking his decoder ring, so to speak, to a text that lacks the hallmarks of accepted literary style. There is of course a crime story here, but it’s been deliberately cloaked in a narrative that the reader has to decipher for himself how to read. To this end, the reader is put in a position not unlike that of the translator.
On another level, though, Haas is doing precisely what the crime genre has always done by telling the story of a detective who ends up having to rescue “respectable” society from itself, and in so doing, reveals it for the conceit that it is. But in Brenner and God, this is reinforced by language that resists the very manuals of style that have come to dictate respectable usage in our writing. To this end, puzzling out our assumptions about language is just as important with this book as puzzling out the apparent mystery of the kidnapping.
Can you explain some of the unique experiences you may have had with this particular title? As a reader and translator, do you feel closer (or further away) to the characters and/or plot of this book?
What had the potential for distancing me as a reader ended up reeling me in closer—once I learned how to read the book on its own terms. For example, one of my favorite sections comes in chapter 13 when after a car chase—in which Brenner tails the prime suspect in the kidnapping by driving in front of him and watching him from the rearview mirror, and the real suspense is in Brenner’s pursuit of a radio station—Brenner goes on a stake-out.
“[Brenner] quickly got himself something to eat from the Inn, and before anybody gets excited: in those five minutes absolutely nothing happened. And while he was eating his bacon rolls in the Mondeo, nothing happened, either. And then nothing happened for another hour. And then another hour and nothing happened. The Inn closed and the waiter drove off.”
Needless to say, this flies in the face of every craft discussion out there about keeping your reader in the story. In fact, the narrator seems to actively, if not brazenly, push the reader out. Haas might just as well have written, “As a reader you’ve been conditioned to expect a scene like this to transpire in a certain way, so let me stop you right here and inform you that not only is it not going to pan out that way, but nothing is going to happen at all.”
What interests me, though, is what happens when the obvious impetus to continue reading has been removed. What reason do we have as readers for finishing the book? Either we don’t, or we learn to recalibrate what we’re reading for. And I think most curious readers will do the latter. Once I started reading the book on its own terms, I realized that the text was just teeming with Haas’s own distinctive moments of suspense: watching one of the narrator’s hapless metaphors break down; tracing every cause whose effect has gone missing; tallying up just how many unforgettable things are introduced by the narrator’s clutch-phrase, “one thing you can’t forget”; or, marveling at just how elaborately and comically a writer like Haas can make nothing happen. It’s an uncommon book that makes you read differently—especially a book encumbered with all the formulae of a genre—but Brenner and God is that book.
In addition to Brenner and God, ANNIE JANUSCH is also the translator of Melville House’s Art of the Novella edition of Heinrich von Kleist’s The Duel.