Tres ataúdes blancos (Three White Coffins, Antonio Ungar)

One thing led to another, and that was only the beginning. I am referring to the head resting on the plate of cannelloni. Heavy and still and deaf, and attached to Pedro Akira’s stocky body by a strong, manly neck.

When the opposition presidential candidate is brutally assassinated in the fictional Latin American country of Miranda, an unlikely hero – an obese social misfit with a groundless superiority complex – is drafted in to ensure that the country’s dictatorial ruler will not go unchallenged. What ensues is a satirical thriller, a black comedy and a political tragedy, told in the unforgottable voice of its first person narrator, the oddly endearing José Cantona

 

Synopsis

A bizarre thriller in which the antisocial protagonist is forced to take on the identity of the leader of the opposition party and undergo unbearable adventures in order to bring down the totalitarian regime of a fictional Latin American country that bears more than a passing resemblance to Colombia. Within this structure, the novel grows, wildly and unpredictably gushing forth in the protagonist’s voice. Excessive, mentally unbalanced, hilarious, the narrator uses his words to question, ridicule and destroy reality.

Accompanying him on his adventures are an idealistic bodyguard and a reluctant nurse. Ceaselessly pursued by the regime and betrayed by their supposed allies, the characters are finally hunted down and defeated. The two men disappear. The woman manages to escape.

The adventure seems to have come to an end when the woman, living in exile, receives a manuscript that recounts their experiences, written by the protagonist. She reads it, believing the two men to be dead. Her reading, however, becomes a frantic revision of all she has experienced and helps her find a resolution.

Translation issues

The novel is told almost entirely in the first person by a narrator with a very distinctive voice, which constantly subverts linguistic convention for both surreal and comic effect. The main challenge for the translator is to convey this voice without either flattening it (by replacing unconventional source language phrasings with more conventional equivalents in English) or carelessly transforming the unusual wordings of the source into clumsy translationese. I believe that my sample translation (see attached) shows that these are issues that can be resolved, producing an English text that is true to the spirit of the original, retaining both its surreal mood and dark humour.

Author data

Antonio Ungar (b. Bogotá, Colombia, 1974) is a novelist and journalist, who won the Premio Nacional de Periodismo Simón Bolivar for his journalism in 2005. He has published three collections of three stories, three novels and one piece of fiction for children. His second novel (Las orejas del lobo) was the runner-up for the Courier International Prize for the best foreign-language book published in France in 2008.

He currently lives in Jaffa (Palestine-Israel), where he continues to work as a journalist for a number of publications and is also preparing his next novel:

http://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/culture/.premium-1.726656

Additional data

First published in Spanish by Editorial Anagrama (Barcelona, Spain). 284 pages. Winner of the Premio Herralde de la Novela 2010.

Translated into French, German, Italian, Dutch, Hebrew and Greek.

Reviews

“a political satire that keeps the reader on tenterhooks – laughing in nervous disbelief, cringing in fear – until the last haunted sentence” (Brendan Riley, Review of Contemporary Fiction)

“a work that loses none of its political power for its resemblance to a prose poem” (Ollie Brock, Times Literary Supplement)

“a grotesque, satirical thriller, which signals the beginning of a literary career that should be followed with interest” (Ricardo Baixeras, El Periódico)

“Its success is to combine parody with the enormous sadness that the story generates” (J. Ernesto Ayala-Dip, Babelia, El País)

“Stylistically brilliant, bitingly ironic, the book becomes a vertiginous story of violent events that tumble upon each other. But it is also the delicate story of an impossible love, which is counterpoised with the river of blood where the protagonist finds himself” (Arturo García Ramos, Abc).

“a grotesque comic fresco of Latin American tyranny, a stunning satire on political violence… But it is impossible not to recognise certain mechanisms of corruption and lies that also affect Europe and the rest of the developed world” (Iñaki Ezkerra, El Correo)