Sunday, February 20, 2011

Gigolashvili’s Perceptive Interpreter

I’m a selfish reader so I’ll state my selfish wish right away: I want Mikhail Gigolashvili to write more novels. Alas, I’ve nearly exhausted his novel-length repertoire by reading Чертово колесо (The Devil’s Wheel/The Ferris Wheel) and Толмач (The Interpreter); Gigolashvili’s early novel Иудея (Judea) seems unavailable. I thoroughly enjoyed The Devil’s Wheel and The Interpreter: both demonstrate Gigolashvili’s skill at hearing and conveying diverse voices and capturing the pain of sociopolitical transitions, while blending in humor and absurdity that lend realism and levity.

And so, The Interpreter, a book hovering somewhere between connected-short-stories-as-novel and epistolary novel… Each chapter is narrated by a nameless man, a native speaker of Russian who interprets for refugees in Germany in 2001. The chapters are rigidly structured, beginning with personal notes to a friend about life and health problems, like tinnitus; signing in and bantering with a beer- and money-loving employee at the refugee camp; interaction with interpreters from around the world; and interpreting immigration officials’ interviews with refugees. There are twenty chapters plus an epilogue that actually deserves to exist.

Yes, my heart sank when I began the second chapter and thought I was reading yet another (*sigh*) collection of stories passed off as a novel. But several chapters in, The Interpreter’s structure gave me the feeling I was accompanying the narrator to work, not reading isolated tales. I was as curious as he to learn who would be interviewed next: I opened each chapter by scanning for the refugee’s dossier. Though the book is fiction, Gigolashvili’s inclusion of names and years of birth felt naughtily voyeuristic to me after working as a medical interpreter. The narrator also repeats several times that interpreters are a means of communication, not “человек,” a person.

As I observed interviews, I came to know immigration rules and the officials charged with observing them – Mark, with the stomach problem, was particularly memorable – and I started considering who would and wouldn’t be granted political asylum. Despite interpreters not being people, the narrator, and the officials, too, are thoroughly human, commenting in asides about the immigration process and problems in the Former Soviet Union. Our narrator occasionally shows a lascivious side in conversations with and about female interpreters and even – danger! – an applicant.

Of course the twenty applicants and their stories are the highlight of the book, and they become a modified Greek chorus: though their voices and woes are unique, they begin blending into a more universal story of truths, lies, and wishes for better lives. Many are caught lying, few have legitimate claims for political asylum – simply wanting new opportunities doesn’t count – and I’d guess the majority of them claim not to possess a valid passport, to the frustration of officials. Many refugees say they’re from Chechnya and many trust that “good people” will save them in Germany. Among the most vivid figures for me: a woman who offers her body as incentive; nuns; a confused woman who probably has dementia and mixes up words, speaking of the Stalinist depression instead of the Stalinist repression; and a man formerly from the special forces who starts a fight. The novel reminded me a bit of a Breugel painting.

The other interpreters create another chorus, grudgingly grateful to dictators for driving people out of their native countries so they have work in Germany. Our narrator says, in part, that interpreters have scratches and scars on their hearts from each meeting. I often felt the same way after interpreting because an interpreter, even when neutral, is still a person. Voicing someone else’s pain leaves traces. I’m sure that’s a big reason the book, which Gigolashvili constructed with the all-too-rare combination of writerly discipline, lively language, social relevance, and playfulness, resonated so much with me. As with The Devil’s Wheel, I was sorry when the book ended.

For further reading: Chunks of The Interpreter are online here, thanks to the literary journal Знамя. Some of Gigolashvili’s other повести (long stories and novellas) and short stories are available online, too.

Level for non-native readers of Russian: 3.5-4.0/5.0. Some passages would be fairly difficult without knowledge of colloquial language and accents. One section, about a criminal, contained slang that the interpreter didn’t know, so there were explanations. The Interpreter, of course, focuses a lot on storytelling and what I guess I’d call the mechanics of mutual understanding on linguistic and human levels, but it’s candid rather than politically correct.

Up next: Olga Slavnikova’s Лёгкая голова (Light-Headed or A Light Head), a post-Soviet account of one guy against The System, with debate about freedom plus a reality-or-entertainment thread.


  1. interesting. the books sound novel in its approach and I love such audacity in writing. I would have added it to my wishlist if not for the last statement about native Russian speakers. Is the book in English?

  2. I have a very obvious question, Liza - how did you feel this book compared to Mikhail Shiskin's recent Venerin volos? Not that I've read either, although Shishkin's book has been sitting reproachfully on my shelf for over a year...

  3. Thanks to both of you for the comments! I'll answer Nana's question first: unfortunately, the book is not available in English.

    Russian Dinosaur, I'm glad you mentioned Shishkin's Venerin volos, which shares themes with The Interpreter. Speaking of sharing, unfortunately, our copies of the book share an unhappy fate: mine has also been sitting reproachfully on my shelf for over a year, too. I'm not sure if I'll get to it before the London Book Fair but we'll see: I'm probably going to start with Письмовник, since Shishkin will be presenting it. With so many writers on the LBF list, it's hard to decide what to read in the next six weeks!

  4. Lisa, thank you for the great review - I finally read the book and I loved it. Not a stranger to how the world changes through the use of words, and having played that game to my own amusement. The role of an interpreter definitely allows for a unique observation angle of a human condition, spanning many cultural degrees of separation. Definitely hoping that Mr. Gigolashvili (believe it or not, I just typed "Gogolashvili" - it's my subconscious speaking) writes more! Zakhvat Moskovii up next!

    1. I'm so glad you enjoyed it, Margarita! I'd forgotten how good that book is. I didn't think Захват was nearly as good, though it has some very funny passages. But I still hope there's another book on the way!