Madame Mephisto

This is another Stork Press book sent to me for review. I was slow to get round to reading it because I wasn’t sure if I’d like it, and I’ve been slow to review it because I haven’t been sure how to write about it…

“I am a professional liar.

I am two people.

I am the best thing that could have happened to you.”

This is the way Magda describes herself. Magda is Polish, living in London. She is a major cannabis dealer now more at home in the UK than the Poland she has left behind. Forced to return to Poland after a death in the family, she spends five days talking to someone, telling the story of her life and trying to persuade her listener to come back to London and get involved in her business.

I found the book more moving and funnier than I expected though I was sometimes irritated by Magda’s destructiveness and slightly alarmed by the author’s detailed knowledge of the cannabis trade. Her relationship with her mother is very well observed with the two strong women pulling against each other – the mother is a traditional Polish matriarch who wants Magda to settle down with a nice Polish boy and have babies, and clearly this is the last thing on Magda’s agenda.  The other particularly strong aspect was Magda’s experience as an immigrant in London, ending up too Polish for the Brits and too English for the Poles. This clearly reflects the author’s own experience as A.M. Bakalar was born and raised in Poland but has lived all over the world before settling in London in 2004. On Book Oxygen she writes:

“I feel more comfortable in my English skin than in my Polish. I stumble when I speak in Polish, and English immediately invades my mind when I speak or try to write in Polish.”

Madame Mephisto is the only book on the Stork Press list originally written in English, yet is it also a translation? A translation of the Polish experience perhaps?

“The only time when I do not translate my second language into my mother tongue is when I write in English because writing in English has become so automatic that when I try to write in Polish it feels like a foreign language to me. In a way I am actively and constantly translating my Polish identity and culture into English every time I write or speak.”

I did find the English occasionally tinged with Polish, but perhaps that was because I was expecting it to be. If it had been a conventional translation I’m sure I would have commented to that effect. It’s well done though, and the voice comes through strongly, drawing you in to Magda’s world.

But even now, a few weeks after reading the book, I’m still ambivalent about it. There were bits I liked, bits I didn’t. I’m still not sure how to describe it, which doesn’t make for a great review. Sorry about that. Maybe you’ll have to read it for yourself and make up your own mind!

Madame Mephisto by A.M. Bakalar (Stork Press, 2012)

Madame Mephisto by A.M. Bakalar (Stork Press, 2012)

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About forwardtranslations

I'm a freelance literary translator from German and French to English. The title of my blog comes from Mary Schmich's description of reading: it struck home with me, and seems especially apt for translated fiction. Here are some of my musings on what I'm reading, re-reading, reading to my children, and translating.
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