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Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Translator Update #1: Getting to know Nanidat

Welcome to the first of a series of updates from me, your humble translator, which I will be writing as I work on the translation of Dmitry Chen’s Pet Hawk of the House of Abbas. This is a small but sincere thank you for your sponsorship. Much like our hero, I have no carved-in-concrete plan for any of it but am simply inviting you to share my impressions and discoveries as I go along.

Two months in (real time, not novel time), my journey with our narrator and hero, Nanidat Maniakh, has only begun, but already I feel quite at home in the world of his story. Having barely arrived back in his beloved Samarkand from another long trading trip to Imperial China, he is hustled away in the dead of night to put him out of danger (that doesn’t work, but if it had, there’d be no story) and given a mysterious errand that neither he nor his readers yet fully understand.

Beyond the plotline, though, I quickly learned that this is a gloriously visual, tactile, sensual piece of writing, with its louring fortresses, prickly badlands, fragrant gardens singing with water, the comforting aroma of fresh bread, the racket and jostle of a sun-baked bazaar, the stench and copious bodily fluids of a hospital with empty coffers, and so much more.

There is a powerful distancing mechanism in operation here that excludes the modern sensibilities. Real as he is, Nanidat Maniakh is very much a man of his time and place—self-aware, self-deprecating but also delightfully self-confident and, it seems, endlessly resourceful. But this is no magic carpet ride, either. It is grittily true, seen through Maniakh’s clear eyes, yet with none of the irritating omniscience that can often leave us in awe of the narrator but rarely endears us to him.

So far, Maniakh has been making his way without much of a plan, just doing the best he can to stay alive and one step ahead of those who are obviously invested in seeing him dead. The people he has met along the way are previously known to him or (mostly) random strangers, but all have meandered in and out of his life and gone off to follow their own destinies. We can’t know if we will ever see them again. But each adds another tile or two to the mosaic that is his life in exile.

One such character is a caravan mistress—no heroine, she, but still Maniakh’s unlikely savior in a time of great peril. She wants to know more about him; he has secrets that he wants to keep:

So then, with another sigh, I gave the matron a tale about something else altogether.

About how we lay on a rug, Aspanak, that loathsome lad, and I, both with hands clasped together and chins just grazing them. And directly before our eyes stood two identical and marvelous objects. They were large. . . my God in heaven, simply enormous—bigger than both our heads! . . heavy, compact constructions, like little dwellings made of pure silver. Their flat, polished bases rested sturdily on Zargisu’s rug, and the two side walls of each curved smoothly upward to meet at a silver loop in the form of thick, knotted vine strands.

And in the milky gleam of those walls was a whole world, a vanished and half-forgotten world of loveliness. Interlaced in cambered coils were wondrous beasts with arched necks, arrows frozen in flight behind them and letters in human form, and above them all, Khosrow the Great, King of Kings, his lance angled downward.

These were the silver stirrups of a prince of vanquished Iran.