I’m a big believer in translating fiction, for a variety of very boring reasons. I’m always happy, then, when a new publisher pops up to specialise in translated fiction. And while Frisch & Co. do not yet have any Asian fiction on their list, they do have an impressive line-up of writers from European languages. One of these is Anna Kim, a South Korean-born Austrian writer, who steadfastly refuses to write about her roots, a decision I applaud heartily.
Each year in Amarâq, a town in Greenland, there is one night in which a series of suicides takes place. They are not planned or discussed beforehand—they simply happen—and no family in the town is left untouched. Anatomy of a Night takes us on a guided tour of Amarâq, and asks us to question why this horrific event keeps happening.
There can be no question as to who the main character of this novel is. Amarâq is fictional town in which Kim sets her novel, and it is Amarâq that gives us the most material to examine. It is bleak, it is depressing, and there are almost no redeeming features. Kim populates the city with grey people—not in a literal sense, of course, but in their unrelentingly bleak outlook on life, and their resignation to a life that will never come to anything more than being able to eke out a living amongst the detritus of other people around them.
Amarâq is not just the city; the surrounding landscape also becomes a part of this setting that takes people in and spits them out. Though some people venture out of the ramshackle collection of building that forms the settlement, they are invariably attacked or eaten by a polar bear, and made to return.
I’m not sure if this comes off as slightly off, but it’s interesting and fascinating to see the collision between traditional Greenlandic culture and contemporary life, particularly when it comes to suicide and death. Each of the suicides seems somehow inevitable. Some people with Inuit heritage see their lives as continuing after death, and the allure of a place where material poverty becomes immaterial, a place where they can be reunited with their loved ones, is more tempting than the
Though Kim never explicitly states it, much of the troubled state of Amarâq can be traced back to the original sin: the colonisation of Greenland by the Danish. Wilfully ignored by the central government. It’s not a new story, but Kim’s evocation of a town gone to the dogs because of policies that have been designed with prejudice in mind is careful and deliberate.
All of this is wrapped up in a writing style that marks Kim out as unique among a chorus of voices writing about the postcolonial context. Cormac McCarthy would be proud to see another write take up with gusto the follow-on sentence: Kim’s words flow across the page, never-ending, in their glorious descriptions of place and character. Full marks to her translator, Bradley Schmidt, who had managed to wrangle the German into gorgeous English.
Anatomy of a Night is not an easy read. It is complex, and demands both patience and intelligence from its reader. But if you are willing to take the plunge, to dedicate some time to it, you will be rewarded tenfold. Beautiful and horrific in equal measures, this novel marks Anna Kim out as a talented writer, and Bradley Schmidt as a talented translator. It is a novel I look forward to revisiting in the future.