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Sunday 13 September 2009

The Language of Character

I don’t as a general rule respond to other people’s comments about my books, but Fiction Desk’s review of The Maze of Cadiz, and the subsequent thread of comments which I came across recently, raised some interesting questions that confront any author who writes a story with a foreign setting, where many of the conversations are actually taking place in another language that will not be understood by the majority of readers. Should you simply put everything in English - thereby making no distinction between the English and non-English speaking characters? If not, how much foreign language are you going to use?

When I embarked on the Peter Cotton series, I was clear that each of the books should aim to reflect, as faithfully as possible, the flavour of the particular time and place in which the story was set. Context is like a pre-biotic soup from which the characters and actions emerge. And language is an essential part of this - as much as climate, or landscape, or food, or political regimes.

I have spoken to a lot of bilingual or multilingual people who, independently, have made the same point: that their manner and even their personality takes on changes according to the language they are speaking - an interesting phenomenon, which I have observed with some amusement myself as my bilingual children were growing up. Spanish can have a raw, energetic directness in comparison with the rather polished, polite cadences of English. We are what we eat? Yes, in part. But even more, we are what we speak, and our speech reflects what we are.

The inclusion of some Spanish language was, for me, not a question of adding exoticism but of reflecting reality. I lived in Spain for over twenty five years and as I was writing The Maze of Cadiz, just as an English writer might hear a character speaking with a Glasgow accent, I was hearing the words of the Spanish characters not just in Spanish, but in gaditano, that is, the Spanish of Cadiz, with its curious, rich and sometimes quirky turns of phrase. To deprive characters entirely of their mother tongue is to deprive them of an important part of who they are.

Peter Cotton was brought up in Mexico and does speak Spanish - but not gaditano, and he sometimes has to think and work out what people are saying. That’s what happens when you are dropped in a foreign environment, and the inclusion of Spanish gives the reader some flavour of what it was like for him to find out what was going on.

The comments left on the Fiction Desk review soon turned to Javier Marias - a writer I greatly admire. He is perhaps the best Spanish writer writing today. He speaks excellent English and in fact taught at Oxford during the eighties (his experiences of this are reflected in All Souls). The book that made him internationally famous was A Heart so White, for which he was awarded the IMPAC prize in 1997. The protagonist of the book is a translator. Javier Marias himself translated a lot of English works into Spanish when he was younger, most notably Tristram Shandy - a great labour of love.

Would-be Spanish purists say that his writing sounds like English. Absurd. He is a fine and inventive writer. Fortunately for non-Spanish speakers, he has an excellent translator in Margaret Jull Costa.

In this weekend’s FT (12/13 Sept 2009) there is an interesting interview with the Russian-born conductor Semyon Bychkov (about to conduct Verdi’s Don Carlo at the Royal Opera House) who emigrated to the US in 1975 and now lives in France. He speaks five languages and says:

“You can only truly get to know a people through the subtleties of their language. Language is the mirror of national character.”

I don’t know about national character, but it is certainly true of characters in novels.

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