On Writing


There are some things which cannot be learned quickly, and time, which is all we have, must be paid heavily for their acquiring. They are the very simplest things, and because it takes man’s life to know them the little new that each man gets from life is very costly and the only heritage he has to leave.

Ernest Hemingway



I believe – I know that writers need solitude, and seek alienation of a kind every day of their working lives. Powers of observation heightened beyond the normal imply extraordinary disinvolvement ; or rather the double process, excessive preoccupation and identification with the lives of others, and at the same time a monstrous detachment… The tension between standing apart and being fully involved, that is what makes a writer.

 Nadine Gordimer

I steal into their dreams, he said. I steal into their most shameful thoughts, I’m in every shiver, every spasm of their souls, I steal into their hearts, I scrutinize their most fundamental beliefs, I scan their irrational impulses, their unspeakable emotions, I sleep in their lungs during the summer and their muscles during the winter, and all this I do without the least effort, without intending to, without asking or seeking it out, without constraints, driven only by love and devotion.                                                                                                                                                                     Roberto Bolaño, 2666


The Fall of Icarus

When a man’s breast feels like a cage from which all the dark birds have flown – he is free, he is light. And he longs to have his vultures back again. He wants his customary struggles, his nameless, empty works, his anger, his afflictions and his sins.

Saul Bellow, Herzog

Kafka endevoured to be honest in his writing, in his profession and his love. At the same time he realized, or at least suspected, that a person who wants to live honestly chooses torture and renunciation, a monastic life devoted to a single god, and his sacrifices everything for it. He could not, at the same time be and honest writer and an honest lover, let alone a husband, even though he longed to be both. For a very brief instant he was deluded into believing that he could manage both, and that was he wrote most of his works. Every time, however, he saw through the illusion, he froze up, and stopped motionless in torment. He’d then either lay his manuscript aside and never return to it, or sever all his ties and ask his lovers to leave him.

Only fools – with whom our revolutionary and non-monastic age abounds – believe they can combine anything with anything else, have a little of everything, take a small step back and still create something, experience something complete. These fools reassure each other, they even reward each other with decorations which are just as dishonest as they are themselves.

I too have behaved foolishly in my life in order to relieve my own torture. I have been unable either to love honestly or to walk away or to devote myself entirely to my work. Perhaps I have wasted everything I’ve ever longed for in my life, and on top of it I have betrayed the people I wanted to love.

Ivan Klíma

An Odyssey

He decided. It was something that bothered him no end. He took a plane across the ocean, an afternoon flight, soft music played, and supper was served. He rode a train into the city. The station was built on a lake that looked like a sea. Clouds came in across the sky. He walked up a street of stone squares cut out like flowers. The street was steep and it took him some effort to reach his hotel. He checked in and had a drink in the lounge. He wrote a postcard home, which he’d send come morning, first thing.

The Girl from Izmir (extract)

She remembered the summer’s day she returned home from the beach, her skin brown, warm and glazed with traces of sea salt, to find in their lounge a tall young man standing over her father’s piano. The young man did not see her and so she stood there watching him from the doorway. As he tuned the piano, she noticed that although he was not handsome he had strong arms and attractive hands, with the longest fingers she’d ever seen. He played only the highest notes and looked down into the piano’s depths. She wondered why he did not play any of the other keys. Those sorrowful notes seemed to be what lay at his own depths and Işık both pitied him and desired to know if it were really so. Her father had come in then and the young man closed the piano and said that he was done. Işık’s father thanked him and sent him on his way. The piano was sold shortly afterwards and the young man never returned.

Detective Noir (extract)

Soon after, Ivan heard footfalls on the stairs. He smothered his pipe, went to the door and placed his ear to it. Petra’s heels on the linoleum floor came closer. He held his entire body against the door as though he were being nailed there, and listened. Her walk was slow, the rhythm melancholic. She walked like she was coming from somewhere she disliked and had arrived at a place she didn’t want to be. She was alone. Ivan spread his hands across the surface of the door and pressed his cheek against the wood. He waited until he heard the jangling of her keys and then he lowered his hand and opened the door slowly. But he was too late. All he saw was the wave of her black hair upon her collar, the fall of her coat down to the sheen of her stockings and the warm light of her apartment becoming dark as she closed the door behind her.

Of All the Places to Die (extract)

Joe came out onto the porch. It was cold, the sky still poised with low grey clouds after a night of rain. He looked to the floor. His father hadn’t been fooling around. There were bees. He hunched down and counted them. Five. His father said they’d frozen to death. Joe knelt, tucked his hands under his arms and looked closer. The bees didn’t look dead to him. They weren’t twisted belly up like other dead bugs he’d seen. He was sure most beetles died of stomach ache the way they curled in on themselves, writhing in bug death. These bees weren’t like that. There was no death on them. Their fuzzy coats were still electric, their abdomens honed, their pairs of wings unshaken by his breath. These bees were drones, he’d learnt in school, like soldiers. In winter they didn’t get home. They died lonely deaths, brave soldiery deaths, he thought. His mother came out then.

‘Joe, leave them bees alone now. You’re not to be playing with them, remember?’

‘I’m just looking. And they’re dead besides.’

‘No matter, come in. You’ll catch your death out.’

His mother went back indoors. Joe didn’t go in straight away. Instead, he hunched over the bees like before, wondering about those five and of all the places to die.

When he came into the house it was quiet, the only sound that of the ticking clock hung in the hall. His mother had gone back to bed, now that she’d seen to his father. She had left the milk out again.

His father had woken him before going to work. He had come into the bedroom without turning on the light as he always did. Lately he’d stay a while, and just sit in the dark. Sometimes Joe would see him come in, the light straying in from the hall giving his father the figure of a lonesome giant. Other times he’d wake up to find his father already there, sitting on the edge of the bed, staring over at the window. Joe wouldn’t say anything when he saw him like that. He’d pretend not to be awake, before making just the right noises, turning over in his bed, letting him know that he was there. His father would then turn to him and ruffle his hair. ‘Morning champ,’ that’s what he’d say. Joe would look at his father then. He liked looking at his round face, his dark eyes, and his thick black hair. He knew they looked alike. Everybody said so, too. His father would then get up from the bed, go over to the window and open it, no matter how cold it might be outside.

‘Be a good boy. Help your mother.’ Then he’d be gone till dinner time.

Joe brought some milk in a pan to the stove. Milk was quick to heat, time enough to fetch the radio in the next room. He brought it into the kitchen and switched it on. He kept the volume low so as not disturb his mother. He turned the dial as far as it would go and back again without finding a single song. There was a lot of talk, interrupted by a constant buzz. He liked radio. It made good company. And he learnt new things from it, although there were times when it got stuck on the same topic. Last summer all they spoke about was the heat and how it was the hottest ever. People were even calling in to say they agreed it was hot. Joe didn’t see the point in them doing that.

Lately all the talk was about the end of the world. The same people were calling to say they’d seen it coming, said the summer had been that hot ‘cause it meant the end. Experts had predicted it. They’d studied the Mayan civilizations – people who were dead already. The planets were lined up like marbles. They even got a professor on the show one time. The host seemed to like saying the word professor whenever she could. ‘Professor,’ she said, ‘our listeners would like to know more.’ But that professor didn’t seem to care for radio much. He cleared his throat a lot and used words Jonah had never heard before. He put a lot of sound into some of these words like it were a syllable game he was playing.

‘Ex-ter-min-a-tion,’ he said many times. Joe knew what that meant. He just didn’t see it: Everybody dying at the same time like that. It was as believable as the radio serials he listened to, like The War of the Worlds or, his other favourite, Captain Mayhem. Joe knew all about dying. He knew. He just didn’t understand this death they were talking about. He switched the radio off only to find that the milk had frothed up over the pan, flooding the stove.


In Barn Light (extract)

The barn was filled with shoes. Old shoes mostly. Shoes that had been worn until they no longer served the purpose of shoes. They were nailed to the dark streaked wood of the barn. Nailed to the planked walls, to the solid beams that held up the hayloft, and even high up in the rafters, where they dangled like sleeping bats. Brown and black and white leather shoes, some with wooden heels and some with exposed spiked teeth where the sole had been torn away. Shards of sunlight broke in from the wooden slates above. Ruth pointed out her favourite pairs and told Jonah to whom in her family the shoes had once belonged. Grassy tufts poked out from some work shoes where a swallow had made its nest. A pair of her father’s army boots had been bolted into the barn door at the ankle. Jonah flinched, imagining the pain, and looked away. In a corner, tied to a beam, he noticed a pair of ballet shoes. They were a faded pink. The satin straps ran around the beam and fastened the shoes against it with a tight knot in the middle, causing the heels and the toes of the shoes to rise.

‘What about those, up there?’ Jonah asked.

Ruth turned her head in the direction of the shoes.

‘Those belonged to my mother,’ she said.

They had closed the doors and climbed up onto the bundles of hay, golden brown and warm she said because it had the sun still in it. And then they undid each other’s buttons, taking off their clothes. Her dresses were old and threadbare and she was happy to be rid of them. They looked at each other, and touched where the sun hadn’t yet, where the skin was soft and white, and then he dressed her in straw. He told her to stay still – said she mustn’t laugh, because when she did her whole body was taken up with it and the straw wouldn’t stay.

Afterwards he thought about why they never spoke much in the barn. It did not bother him though. He liked the little noises she made as she lay back on the hay, her eyes taking him in, and the rustle of the dry grass moving under her like it was still growing out in the field. He had given her his shirt as a gift because it was her name day. She said it felt soft on her skin and that it smelt of him.

Death by Translation

The expression lost in translation holds true for many people living in a multilingual society where what one means to say and what one actually says are often worlds apart. Speaking a foreign language can sometimes be a process of cut and paste whereby one lifts familiar phrases from one’s own language, translates them directly, and then offers them around like a host sending out the hors d’oeuvres at a G8 dinner, hoping that they will be to everybody’s taste. Yes, in many cases, such linguistic faux pas do lead to interesting discoveries that enrich a language. Indeed, writers who choose to adopt a foreign language, such as Nabokov, bring new life to literature: rummaging through the lexical attics, they dust of the old words, shine them up and set them newly upon the shelf.

Much then can be said for the creativity of crossovers in literature, where things are found rather than lost in translation.

However, I would argue that this pertains only to freshly baked literature, those first time recipes of a serendipitous nature, and not to a literature that, in the altering, requires a surgeon’s unwavering hand, and a mirror, too.

I would once read the stories of Marquez or the poems of Paz without a thought as to how the English versions might differ from the Spanish originals. It was only in the role of translator that I really began to question the nature of equivalency in books. An unsuspecting reader might assume when picking up Murakami’s 1Q84, that the book they were about to read was the equivalent of the original. However, Jay Rubin, the longtime translator of Murakami’s work, suggests that the opposite is true. In a recent interview with The New Yorker Magazine, Rubin said: ‘I strongly advise people not to read literature in translation because I know what happens in the process […] Everything they’re reading has been filtered through the brain of the translator. And it’s his words they’re reading.’


Most readers would find Rubin’s comment unsettling: a poststructuralist nightmare whereby all the great works of literature from Cervantes to Dostoevsky to Bolaño are only as good as their translators. A bona fide translator may endeavour to transcribe exactly the text of the original author, but inevitably he brings his own interpretation and own language system to that work. In terms of the 1976 Barthes essay, ‘The Death of the Author’, the translated text then is no longer the same text simply because the author is no longer the same author.

The translator is also a reader, albeit one who attempts to step into an author’s shoes – wishing to replace him in Borgesian fashion or at least to imitate him. But the nature of language does not allow for such singular activities and so all that the translator can do is interpret, as best he can, the designs of language, aware of the changes made upon it by time and space. It may seem like a truism to say that translation is determined by language, yet the translator does face the difficult task of interpreting a language governed by the influences of social, historical and cultural constraints, based upon the underlying currents of language itself.

How then should we as readers approach this idea that what we want is not exactly what we are going to get? The work of a translator is one of making ‘choices’ within given perimeters, and as lovers of world literature it is a return to Babel; we must simply trust that the choices are the right ones.


Krzysztof Kieślowski

To tell you the truth, in my work, love is always in opposition to the elements. It creates dilemmas. It brings in suffering. We can’t live with it, and we can’t live without it. You’ll rarely find a happy ending in my work.