Flight in search of a universal language

Written By: Nicky Harman
Published: January 22, 2016 Last modified: October 25, 2016

The Interpreter by Diego Marani (Dedalus, £9.99)

Felix Bellamy, head of interpreting in an international organization, has to fire one of his interpreters for emitting strange, unintelligible noises in his booth, instead of the usual smooth flow of words. The troublesome inter­preter’s only explanation is that he is on the verge of discovering a universal language. He then mysteriously disappears.

Bellamy’s life is further compli­cated when he finds strange noises and whistling coming out of his own mouth. For a while, he admits himself to the Munich clinic of the sinister Dr Barnung, where patients are treated with therapeutic language courses and are strictly prohibited from speaking their mother tongues. But he soon leaves, to cross Europe in pursuit of the elusive interpreter, believing that if he can find him he can find his cure.

His state of (linguistic) health improves, but the threat that he may relapse at any moment continues to hang over him.

A mysterious death (another inter­preter) sends him on the run from the police into Romania, and he has uncomfortable brushes with people traffickers and stealers of body organs, in the company of a pleasant young woman inter­preter on her way to a business meeting she is destined to miss.

Romania seems to suit him. “For the brief period when I was travelling the roads… like a buccaneer, my physical problem seemed to vanish.”

Further adventures see him eventually take a boat to Tallinn, but the voyage is interrupted by a “man overboard”, who turns out to be none other than Dr Barnung.

Finally track­ing down the interpreter, whom he finds in the local aquarium commun­ing with dolphins, he discovers that the ‘universal language’ is actually the language of these creatures.

Unfortunately, his own dolphin language of whistles and gurgles is suless: “According to the interpreter, they cannot understand me; it seems that I speak the rare language of the southern Tursops, which … live in the Sea of Japan around the Kuril Islands.”

The different elements of this novel make for a slightly uncomfortable mix: Bellamy, a cerebral character, is much given to examining the effect of multilingualism on his own and the interpreter’s personality.

What I found more engaging, in fact frightening, was the description of his uncontrollable lapses into warbles and whistles, his loss of intelligible language. Then there are the car chases and dices with death – almost light relief by comparison.

I had no difficulty in making it through to the final pages of The Inter­preter, and it has been beautifully trans­lated by Judith Landry, but I am left feeling ambivalent about the novel as a story.