Albert Bonniers förlag, 2012.
Reviewed by Kevin Halliwell in SBR 2013:1
Review Section: Faction
Ovid was a Roman poet who was exiled to Tomis on the Black Sea by the Emperor Augustus in 8 AD, ostensibly in punishment for his Ars Amatoria (The Art of Love), which Augustus considered to be subversive. In exile, he wrote his Tristia and Epistulae ex Ponto (Letters from Pontus, i.e. the Black Sea), in which he describes his longing for his homeland and his experience of exile to his friends back in Rome.
Theodor Kallifatides is a Greek writer who began his self-imposed ‘exile’ in Sweden in 1964. Initially a poet, he is best known for the novels in which he describes his memories of his homeland and his life as a Greek abroad. That he should choose, in Brev till min dotter, to wrap himself in the toga of a fellow-poet and expat to reflect on his own experience is perhaps a logical literary step.
Both writers tell a similar tale of how it feels to be exiled, not just physically, from one’s homeland, but also emotionally, from one’s language and culture. But there is a major difference: where Ovid writes his lament in Latin to and for his friends at the centre of the glittering Empire, Kallifatides writes in his adopted language, holding up a comical mirror to his new fellow-citizens, to whom these letters are really addressed.
For the inhabitants of Tomis – a tribe he calls ‘Getae’ – dance around the maypole, hold crayfish parties and ‘get terribly drunk as soon as they possibly can’. Their response to the approach of summer amazes him: ‘From one day to the next they have become different people. They go around with smiles on their faces; they talk to each other [...] if the Sun God Apollo knew how grateful these Getae are when he shows up, he would shine on them all year round’. All of which will bring a wry smile of recognition to the face of many a Nordic reader, but which otherwise, in its description of the mores of a tribe that inhabits one of the warmest cities in Romania, does require a certain suspension of disbelief.
As ever with Kallifatides, the prose is a pleasure to read and those with a good grasp of Swedish language and culture will find much to enjoy as the knowing humour unfolds. But a paradox lies at its heart: to what extent can this book – essentially about exile and foreign lands – actually travel? How far will the ‘in-jokes’ be accessible to readers who are unfamiliar with contemporary Swedish custom and idiom? Culturally-bound references such as those involving ‘little frogs’ and ‘happy salmon’ will have Swedes chuckling with laughter as they recognise themselves in the mirror that Kallifatides holds up to them; but to the outsider these references will be all but meaningless (not to say a translator’s nightmare).
Brev till min dotter is a warm, funny, hugely enjoyable book for those ‘in the know’. But when the target audience has been so narrowly defined – both culturally and linguistically – then the old adage that ‘humour doesn’t travel well’ is in danger of being confirmed.