One of the best things about reading books written in and of the country you live in is that they give you new perspectives on the familiar and everyday, making you look again at places and people you had long since taken for granted. In the last few years I have read work by English, Irish, Norwegian, Bulgarian, Zimbabwean, American and Chinese writers who live and write in Scotland, and their work is invaluable in creating a clearer picture of what a modern, multi-cultural, Scotland is like. If anyone tells you that doesn’t matter, they are wrong.
Leila Aboulela’s 1999 novel ‘The Translator’ makes the reader reappraise Scotland, and Aberdeen in particular. Sammar is the translator of the title; a Sudanese widow who is carrying guilt and grief in equal measure, and they are threatening to stop her living her life. The grief comes from the sudden death of her husband, Tarig, and her guilt lies in the fact that she has taken her young son, Amir, back to Khartoum to live with her family while she returns to work in Aberdeen. Actually, the real guilt comes from the fact that she doesn’t miss him.
She works at the university, and it is there she meets Rae Isles. Rae is an academic in Oriental and Islamic studies, although not a Muslim himself. This is something which confuses and frustrates Sammar as she grows more attracted to him. She needs him to convert to have any chance of marrying him, something she dreams of, yet she cannot propose this directly for fear of rejection. This cultural clash is at the heart of the novel, as Sammar tries to balance her belief system with not only that of Rae, but the city which surrounds her.
As the days count down to her leaving to return to Sudan, she tries to imagine and construct a future where she and Rae can be together, but wherever she turns she finds cultural, social, religious and linguistic differences are placed in their way, and she isn’t sure they can be overcome. The more she begins to understand Rae, all she can see is ultimate failure.
A great novel set in Aberdeen deserves musical accompaniment of the highest order, and one of the best Aberdonian bands of the moment are The Little Kicks. This is their recent single ‘Girl’:
I have to mention the language in the novel. There is some of the most elegant prose you can imagine on show. In the opening chapters Sammar takes ill, and goes home with ‘eyelids heavy as coins’. Later, Rae proclaims that ‘loneliness is Europe’s malaria’, and there are many such poetic turns of phrase for the reader to savour and consider. While in Aberdeen, Sammar contemplates which is more blue, a tin of Nivea or the Nile? To her, colours, even in nature, are washed out and less vivid in Scotland, yet when she returns to Khartoum she does so wearing sunglasses as the sky is too blue. Like many who settle in more than one place, the concept of ‘home’ becomes a confusing one.
It had been years since I had read ‘The Translator’, and if it is the same for you I would urge you to revisit it. After recent, and indeed current, global events, the way it examines clashes of culture, and particularly religions, seems both prophetic and prescient. When Sammar worries that Rae may not be Christian after all, but an atheist, she cannot comprehend such a thing. She could understand that he believes in a different god, but to not believe in any; that is unthinkable. As Sammar says about translations, ‘meanings can be translated but not reproduced’. Rae and Sammar may understand each others words, but not what lies behind those words. But, as the end of the novel unfolds, it reminds us that if we do not understand each other at first, or at second, it should not stop us trying, but should encourage us to try harder.
All of these columns can now be found in one place over at Indelible Ink.
Next Month’s Novel: Next month’s Indelible Ink is the 50th edition, and to celebrate we are setting a competition with a quite spectacular prize, the details of which will appear on these pages in the coming days, so keep an eye out for that.
The featured novel is Andrew Crumney’s ‘Pfitz’, a comic mystery which touches upon history, philosophy and cartography. It is one of those novels which has been largely forgotten, and which deserves to be read more widely. Based on the life of an eccentric 18th Century German prince, it is yet another example of the diverse nature of Scottish writing.