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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Interpreter

Diego Marani

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To purchase The Interpreter

Title: The Interpreter
Author: Diego Marani
Genre: Novel
Written: 2004 (Eng. 2016)
Length: 217 pages
Original in: Italian
Availability: The Interpreter - US
The Interpreter - UK
The Interpreter - Canada
L'interprete - Italia
from: Bookshop.org (US)
directly from: Dedalus
  • Italian title: L'interprete
  • Translated by Judith Landry

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Our Assessment:

B : good fun

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Guardian . 9/3/2016 Nicholas Lezard
Sydney Morning Herald A 11/3/2016 Andrew Riemer
TLS . 2/3/2016 Thea Lenarduzzi

  From the Reviews:
  • "This is more of a romp than the other two novels, more comedic, albeit a very dark kind of comedy; part investigation into the properties of language, part thriller. (...) When we find out what links the list of cities together we realise that we have, in a most enjoyable way, been subject to a kind of superior shaggy dog story." - Nicholas Lezard, The Guardian

  • "I won't reveal the ending or the last stages of this dizzying narrative for fear of spoiling readers' pleasure and running the risk of getting confused about its outlandish details. But The Interpreter is a great read. (...) The Interpreter may be saying something significant and even profound about languages -- and about the origins of language, the language of Adam and Eve in a manner of speaking -- in a playful and deliberately irreverent manner. Here, then, is further evidence that Marani deserves to be better known than he is, at least in this country." - Andrew Riemer, Sydney Morning Herald

  • "(A) singular and deeply felt thesis, a warped manifesto of sorts, derived from a career spent immersed in languages." - Thea Lenarduzzi, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Interpreter is the third in a loose trilogy -- following New Finnish Grammar and The Last of the Vostyachs -- which, as the publishers put it, are: "on the theme of language and identity". Both are, indeed, central to this novel, narrated by Felix Bellamy, who begins his story around the time that he took on a new job, as head of the interpreters' department for a large international organization, but, by the end, is a man transformed -- not least in going by an assumed name. As the opening words of the novel already make clear: "This is the story of my undoing".
       Bellamy is a somewhat odd fit for the position of director of the Interpreter and Conferences Department, as: "The only foreign language known to me is an inadequate and obsolete German". -- and also since he seems leery of: "the swarm of ranters I was now being called upon to supervise":

They were people who challenged God; who, out of sheer devilry and vanity, would lean forward to peer into the abyss of madness. They struck me as circus performers, shifty, dishonest quick-change artists, mental stuntmen, who at any moment might put a foot wrong and take a serious fall.
       At the time, he still lived with a woman named Irene, a long term relationship that seemed close but clearly also had some communication issues: "The fine-tuning between us, in our household intimacy, was so perfect that we had no need for speech".
       Among the first tasks delegated to Bellamy in his new job is to sign off on forcing out one of the interpreters -- the interpreter of the title, whose name is only given as Mr. XXX and who remains a slippery figure, with Bellamy often having difficulty even just recognizing him. The man knows fifteen languages and has always been an exemplary interpreter, but recently his work has been erratic and unprofessional: while simultaneously interpreting he, for example: "emits completely meaningless sounds and whistles". The interpreter defends himself to Bellamy:
They're not senseless noises, they're a language ! A secret language !
       He maintains
A process as old as man is taking place in my head: the birth of a new language ! Or perhaps the rebirth of an old one, forgotten by mankind !
       He's desperate to hold onto his job, too, as he needs that buzz of all the various ones he works in for this new language to come to the fore. But Bellamy signs off on his suspension, and the interpreter is out of his job -- though he continues to hound Bellamy for a while. When the interpreter finally announces he is truly moving on, he leaves Bellamy behind cursed, in a way: "All your life you will continue to wonder what I was looking for, and whether I found it". And, indeed, Bellamy soon spirals into his own crisis -- manifesting itself linguistically, in his suddenly also finding: "what came out my mouth was incomprehensible blather".
       Bellamy seeks help from the psychiatrist who had assessed the interpreter, Dr. Herbert Barnung, going to his clinic and becoming a patient there. He undergoes Barnung's 'linguistic therapy', which also involves learning new languages as well as avoiding speaking in others. (Amusingly, the one language Barnung can't abide is the artificial Esperanto: "Esperanto doesn't deal in the unconscious, it doesn't do identity".)
       Though Barnung warns him that his therapy is not complete, Bellamy abandons it and goes in search of the interpreter. He has some clues about his possible whereabouts and tries to follow the trail, something of a wild goose chase that, in various ways, gets out of hand; for a while, The Interpreter mixes quest tale with on-the-run tale, with Bellamy venturing to some of Europe's farther reaches.
       The novel is both mystery and thriller, with various characters cropping up again as Bellamy proceeds. Ulterior motives come to light, too -- and there are several casualties along the way. In its resolution, Bellamy does get the answers he was looking for -- yet also finds himself, as he had warned at the opening, undone.
       It makes for an amusing and quite entertaining ride, though it wends itself along a curious path. It's fun to see Bellamy revel in his new-found notoriety when he makes headlines as the 'Beast of Bucovina', but the highs and lows -- including also his basically living on the streets for a while, and then partnering up with a Klaus Burke, "one of the richest men in Munich" --, tend towards the extreme.
       Marani's fascination with language extends to larger theories of language, and one underpins the plot here. It is an intriguing idea, and quite entertainingly presented. Built up on this -- but also in what else Marani piles on --, The Interpreter is certainly not your usual thriller, but it is good fun.

- M.A.Orthofer, 27 June 2022

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The Interpreter: Reviews: Other books by Diego Marani under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Italian author and linguist Diego Marani was born in 1959.

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© 2022 the complete review

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