Breathless – Anna Swärd
Breathless, is a difficult book to talk about, not because it had anything particularly challenging to say, or because I’m not sure how I felt about it; I know that while it was quite engaging, I didn’t really enjoy it. The thing is that I’m not sure how much of my opinion is of the translation rather than the book.
I’ve read quite a few books this year that were not originally written in English, and Breathless is the first one that I’ve found myself questioning the quality of the translation. Originally written in Swedish, the prose throughout the book felt very detached and emotionally guarded, which as a whole made the book quite difficult to get into and generally meant I didn’t particularly enjoy it. Now, I’ve had a similar experience with other Scandinavian literature, namely works by Halldór Laxness and Selma Lagerlöf, where the language and atmosphere combine to do a very good job of portraying isolation. With this in mind, it is possible that these connotations are things that have been preserved from the original text, and are hallmarks of Scandinavian Literary fiction, but somehow Breathless felt different from these other works. However, there is another option. Instead of simply writing this sensation off as being characteristic of a literary tradition, there’s also the possibility that Swärd was intentionally using her prose to symbolise Lo’s detachment, first from her family, and then from wider society. It would be interesting to know if this is something that has been preserved from the original Swedish, or if it is in fact an artefact of the translation.
The other thing that I think didn’t work was that although it is Lo’s relationship with Lukas that drives the story and clearly defines her life, I found myself far more interested in her family dynamic (and indeed Lukas’ relationship with his father) than I was in the strange quasi-platonic friendship between the two. Lo lives very close-knit with a large extended family, the entirety of two dynasty’s moved south from the far north of Sweden prior to her birth, setting up a home together, and it was more by accident than design that Lo came about. Lukas however was brought to Sweden from Hungary as a toddler by his father, who never learnt Swedish or taught his son Hungarian. Both of these are far more interesting, particularly once they start to disintegrate, than the illicit and ill-defined friendship.
The one big problem that I think is definitely a symptom of the original text, rather than the translation, is the fact that the novel’s many flashbacks are often quite confusing. There is little to no indication, or at least none I could find, that indicated when we were flashing back to, or even if they were flashbacks at all. In fact, it’s difficult to know what the ‘present’ of Breathless is. There is an overarching linear narrative, but there are episodic jumps forwards and backwards in the chronology which makes it very difficult to keep track as you’re reading when the event you’re reading about has occurred.
The book is interesting. The family dynamics are both good, and original enough that they kept me reading, particularly Lo’s interactions with her mother, but in general Breathless is missing something. Whatever it was, the lack didn’t make it a bad book, it just didn’t make it a particularly enjoyable read.