Hazel McHaffie

The Redeemer

Lost in Translation

One of the bonuses of this time out due to Covid-19 has been reading books quite outside my usual milieu, and taking the time to appreciate different skills and talents. This week it’s the amazing skill of translators.

Jo Nesbo is a Norwegian writer and his work has been translated into English by Don Bartlett, a freelance translator who lives in Norfolk. And boy, the result is so impressive I just had to consume two Nesbo novels consecutively – meaty tomes though they be. 

Both feature Harry Hole – a detective inspector in the Crime Squad in Oslo, loner, obsessive, recovering alcoholic, always seemingly a whisker away from being thrown out of the police force.

The Redeemer  is full of subtle moral and religious analogies and paradoxes, which I found intriguing. The plot is tortuous, the unravelling complex and detailed. Picture the scene. Shortly before Christmas, the Salvation Army, resplendent in their distinctive uniforms, are playing traditional music outside in one of Oslo’s most famous streets. Without warning, a man in a black raincoat and black woollen hat with a red neckerchief, takes aim at short range and kills one of the players with a single bullet through the head, before vanishing from sight. But it’s the wrong target. And thus begins a trail of devastation and horror.

The assassin – given the name The little redeemer – is cold, ruthless, fearless and driven. As writers, we’re always told to utilise all the senses in writing, so I was particularly taken by one particular characteristic of this man. His mother had told him that ‘the human brain can reproduce detailed images of everything you have seen or heard, but not even the most basic smell.’  He has grown up, since, unusually alert to smells. ‘His nostrils flared and drew in the faint smell of damp cement, human perspiration, hot metal, eau de cologne, tobacco, sodden wool and bile, a smell they never managed to wash out of the train seats, or to ventilate.’
He had learned to shut out noises – screams and artillery – but not smells, and he was acutely aware of this feature in the hospital where he was a teenage errand boy. One smell above all others haunted him – the smell of burnt flesh and blood from the operating theatre. It was ‘like nothing else’. Can’t you just feel the elements assembling that will drive this budding killer to hunt down and take life?

And it’s this amazing facility with language in a translated work which caught my attention. Nesbo’s background is as a singer/songwriter, and I wonder if this contributed to his ear for the lyrical in language. It’s not just the choice of words, but he uses uniquely clever and ingenious transitions between sections, beautiful linkages which serve to add to the intrigue. A couple of examples to illustrate … At the end of one section the detective presses his thumb against a cold metal button; at the beginning of the next section a different person altogether takes his finger off the button, puts down his heavy bags and gazes up at the block of flats above him. Then later, one of the Salvation Army officers says, ‘You’re lying.‘ The next section begins with the detective saying, ‘No I’m afraid I’m not’, but in answer to a completely different conversation. Brilliant. I loved it!

In The Snowman, a young boy wakes to find his mother has vanished, but her favourite pink scarf – the one he’d given her for Christmas – has been wrapped around the neck of a snowman in the garden. By the time Inspector Harry Hole arrives, everything is starting to drip and sigh in the thaw, and the snowman has ‘a slight list and poor future prospects‘. When a second woman goes missing, Hole fears he has a serial killer operating on his patch. And this conviction is strengthened when one of his colleagues traces back a whole series of women who have mysteriously disappeared. What kind of monster emerges on the day of the first snowfall, creates snowmen, and abducts women – married women with children? The Snowman. But who is he … or she?

It’s a devilishly plotted tale, with false trails, deception and suspects aplenty. Just when you think we’re about to see the monster unmasked, another set of wet slushy footprints lead off at a tangent. In this one, the plotting is the main attraction, but again the language in places is lyrical. How about this for the police inspector’s job?: he stared ‘into others’ faces to find their pain, the Achilles heels, their nightmares, motives and reasons for self-deception, listening to their fatiguing lies and trying to find a meaning in what he did: imprisoning people who were already imprisoned inside themselves. Prisons of hatred and self-contempt he recognised all too well.’

Brutal murders and serial killers aren’t my usual bag, but this is one author and one translator who have inspired my admiration. And I was taken by surprise by an unexpected phenomenon: both feature medical syndromes and inherited diseases … Now, I’m listening, even if the detail isn’t strictly accurate in one place! It’s close enough for purpose, and I never was a reader on the hunt for mistakes or anachronisms; I have too much respect for the hard work that goes into writing a book or a drama to nit pick.

Psychiatrically disturbed personalities unnerve me somewhat too: and as one such character says in The Snowman: ‘My psychiatrist says I’m just a few notches more extreme than most people’. Just what I was always afraid of!

Jo Nesbo’s novels are published in 48 languages. That’s a lot of translators. I salute them all.

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