In his first since the Booker-winning How Late It Was, How Late (1994), Kelman essays a wildly different piece of experimentation.
Long a champion of modern Scottish fiction in the face of what he perceives as slights from the London-dominated literary establishment of the UK, Kelman casts his best work in the language of contemporary Glasgow. So the last thing one might expect from him is a prose style that is a deliberately denatured version of bureaucratic English. Translated Accounts, however, offers exactly that. Or, to quote Kelman’s preface, the ostensible firsthand accounts of a country under martial law are “transcribed and/or translated into English, not always by person native to the tongue.” It consists of 54 brief chapters, purporting to be narratives, monologues, or written recountings of the terrors of life in a police state (unnamed, although there unmistakable echoes of the civil war in the former Yugoslavia), as rewritten into a peculiarly mangled English prose. Although these narratives overlap one another frequently, there is no plot per se, but rather a pervasive air of sweaty terror and unmitigated paranoiac fear. At its best, the stumbling English gives the tale a certain poignant vulnerability: “So, I did not want to be killed. This is not sarcasm.” But more often the reader is numbed or confused by the twisted syntax and repetitions, the parade of unnamed speakers and unidentified victims. This may well be intended as a continuation of the experiments with voice and diction that animated How Late It Was, but that one was grounded very precisely in place and character by the author’s linguistic choices; this one is unmoored by them.
A frustrating and difficult work that fails, albeit ambitiously, perhaps even nobly.