Michael Köhlmeier is a household name in Austria, known for both his writing and his music, and he deserves more attention in the English-speaking world. I’ve translated two of his novels, which are published in the UK by Haus. The first is The Statesman and the Tramp, which imagines an unlikely friendship between Winston Churchill and Charlie Chaplin. Sparked by a chance encounter, the two meet several times over the years to discuss their shared struggle with depression. Churchill and Chaplin’s real biographies are interwoven with quotes from invented historical sources, and recounted with gentle humour and pathos. This extract (my translation) is Chaplin’s account of his first meeting with Churchill on Santa Monica beach:
At first, he recalled, he had been afraid that the other man, whoever he might be, would recognise him and either turn away in disgust or offer his sympathy and solidarity, depending on which camp he fell into and which newspapers he read. His thoughts of suicide, as the stranger had correctly surmised, had become dangerously acute during the media witch-hunt of the preceding weeks, though the possibility had been with him since childhood. Under the starry sky of this Californian February night, he was once again faced with the appalling fact: though he’d had so many friends in his life, he had never once met somebody with whom he could have discussed this subject.
The stranger pointed at his wound. ‘Tell me about it,’ he said, ‘and I will listen.’
The second of Michael Köhlmeier’s novels to appear in English was Yiza. Six-year-old Yiza has recently arrived in Germany; after being abandoned by the man who calls himself her uncle, and running away from a shelter for migrant children, she and her new friends Shamhan and Arian survive on the margins of society. The narrative’s child’s-eye view and simple, understated language are extraordinarily powerful. In this passage (my translation), the children are about to break into an empty house in search of warmth and food:
But it’s not the house you told me about. Is it?
No, it isn’t.
So that house doesn’t exist?
No – it does. But it’s not this one.
So we’re not going there anymore?
No – we are going there. But first we’re going into this house.
And we’re going to stay in the other house all winter?
Yes, in the other one.
Not this one?
Probably not this one, no.
Arian shook his head, looked down at the ground, dragged his shoe across the rotting brown grass.
What? said Shamhan.
Arian shook his head.
Shamhan went to look for a rock in the garden. He had to look for a long time. Yiza and Arian watched him. He didn’t dare go too far out into the garden. It was daytime now, it wasn’t a bright day, but it was daytime, and someone in the house next door might see him in the garden. He couldn’t find a rock. He kicked the windowpane in with his heel. He reached through the hole, felt cautiously for the catch and opened the window.
By Ruth Martin
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Michael Köhlmeier is an Austrian writer and musician. His works of fiction have met with considerable critical acclaim and his many awards include the Manès Sperber Prize for Literature and the Grimmelshausen Prize.
Ruth Martin studied English literature before gaining a PhD in German. She has translated authors ranging from Joseph Roth and Hannah Arendt to Nino Haratischwili and Shida Bazyar. Ruth has taught translation at the University of Kent and the Bristol Translates summer school, and is a former co-chair of the UK’s Translators Association.