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MAJ SJÖWALL AND PER WAHLÖÖ. Roseanna (1967).

01 Jul

The title character, Roseanna McGraw of Lincoln, Nebraska, appears only in death and only in memory. Her killer, a Swedish bachelor named Folke Bengtsson (his identity and his guilt are never in serious doubt), casts a bulkier shadow than she does over this grim affair. The tale of their chance meeting on a cruise ship as it passes through idyllic Lake Vättern, and of the dreadful transaction that follows, inverts the standard pattern in which Puritan America confronts a worldly, uninhibited Europe. RoseannaBig.jpg For Roseanna is one of those lusty, shame-free librarians whom many men dream about, while Bengtsson is a man who can’t distinguish that dream from a nightmare. He’s an introverted sort who manages a Stockholm moving company, and in his narrow mind sex and shame make an all-too-perfect couple. At great length, and with considerable difficulty, Inspector Martin Beck and his crew reconstruct the encounter between those artfully realized but tragically incongruent characters. Along the way, the sober pleasures of the police procedural are well in evidence. There’s Beck, who fits the mold of the long-suffering cop and adds to it the persona of a dour Swede. (A damp chill seems to lay perpetually on his Nordic soul. In his Stockholm, not coincidentally, it always seems to be raining or snowing.) And there are well-carved slices of life—not only life in the sense of everyday bourgeois existence, but also life in the raw, life at the point where passion and its repression find a rough, unsteady balance.

Obscuring those pleasures, however, is the language used to depict them. A good procedural relies on prose that conveys a casual yet intimate realism. But the standard English translation of this novel stumbles over the most basic phrasing. Here’s a single line from the book’s last page: “Round-shouldered and whistling Martin Beck walked through the pulsing, white mist to the subway station.” In English, “round-shouldered” and “whistling” simply can’t share the same participle; likewise, a winter mist can be many things, but “pulsing” isn’t one of them. Failing to capture this Swedish story and its Swedish scene in a suitably English-sounding idiom, the translator (Lois Roth) renders strange what should be as familiar as the taste of a reader’s own tongue.

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Posted by on July 1, 2010 in Novel

 

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