Common Sense

Sally Mapstone

  • Translated Accounts by James Kelman
    Secker, 322 pp, £15.99, June 2001, ISBN 0 436 27464 7

James Kelman’s fifth novel, Translated Accounts, is also his first to be delivered entirely in English. In the three novels he published between 1984 and 1989, Kelman mixed Scots and English, with Scots used to convey characters’ speech and states of mind while English handled action and certain, often more formal, types of discourse. This approach reached its most radical realisation in How late it was, how late (1994), Kelman’s last novel before Translated Accounts, in which the dominant voice is the Glaswegian demotic of its blinded protagonist, the minor criminal and drunkard Sammy Samuels, but Sammy and his interlocutors and opponents can easily switch linguistic codes. In his grotesque interview at the Department of Social Security, Sammy is at risk of being cornered into making incriminating or contradictory statements on how he went blind – it happened after a fight with a group of policemen.

Look I’m saying I got the dysfunction cause of the physical restraints, it wasnay spontaneous I mean I didnay just lose it cause of nothing, it was something, whatever it was I don’t know but it was something. So I’ve got to register that. I mean that’s all I’m doing, registering it here like I’m supposed to; I’m no being cheeky, if I’m entitled to benefit then I’m entitled to benefit. If I’m no I’m no. Know what I mean, that’s all I’m saying.

Sammy knows the buzzwords – ‘dysfunction’, ‘physical restraints’, ‘register’, ‘benefit’ – and mingles colloquial Scots with straightforward English phrasing. His respondent, though also a Scot, gives him it back in the full bureaucratic English McCoy:

Yes well the police department is empowered to restrain the customer Mister Samuels and certainly if the customer is then in receipt of a dysfunction, and this dysfunction is shown to be an effect of the restraints applied then the customer is entitled to submit an application to this department in respect of Dysfunctional Benefit and if it is approved then the benefit is awarded.

The point is not whether anyone would actually speak like this, but that the response articulates the outlook of the state apparatus that Sammy is gamely struggling with. His reply translates that into his own strategic and linguistic terms: ‘Aye well that’s all I’m saying miss it was restraints, they were doing restraints and I wound up blind I mean I agree with that.’ Despite the collision of idioms and positions, and the dispute over meaning, what each side is getting at is clear. Kelman’s punctuation, or the absence of it, tracks the immediacy of speech patterns as well as forcing on the reader a sense of the way ideology prevails even when it is in part being resisted: ‘they were doing restraints and I wound up blind I mean I agree with that.’

Contrast that passage with this one: ‘I cannot say about a beginning, or beginnings, if there is to be the cause of all, I do not see this. There are events, I speak of them, if I am to speak then it is these, if I may speak.’ This is the characteristically opaque ‘English’ idiom of Translated Accounts. Although the novel is written in English, it is not the English of native speakers: the 54 ‘accounts’ that make up the book are presented in the preface as having been ‘transcribed and/or translated into English, not always by persons native to the tongue’. The conditions of their production are also varied: ‘Narrations of incidents and events are included; also reports, letter-fragments, states-of-mind and abstracts of interviews, some confessional.’ It is not clear how many different voices can be distinguished: ‘three, four or more anonymous individuals of a people whose identity is not available’. They live in ‘an occupied territory or land where a form of martial law appears in operation’.

What it is to speak, to say, to mean, is continually at issue in Translated Accounts. The accounts have an occluded, fragmentary aura, which can be haunting and suggestive, but also gives much of the writing the not-quite-there feel of a poor prose translation or of English as spoken by Sven-Goran Eriksson. Very occasionally, and, it seems, almost unwittingly, Scotticisms manifest themselves: ‘A situation may be looked upon as outwith control if outwith control by humans, by agency of humans.’ Far more commonly, sentences are ungrammatical, misleading, and feature strange pasted-in pieces of vocabulary, suggesting a misused dictionary or computing resource: ‘Our attention now may be drawn to situations inter as between owner of the vicious dog leaping the garden gate that has bitten the skinny little child.’ One account (number 5, ‘¿FODocument’), a frightening narrative of a raid during a curfew, is frequently broken into by computer code. It ends with a phrase which is recurrent in the book, ‘if wemaysppeakwemayspeak’, followed by 21½ lines of .

It might be the same voice that ends a later, though not necessarily chronologically later, account (22, ‘intercession/selection?’): ‘I may speak of security, perhaps of securitys, the security, that security, security.’ ‘Security’ is the word used in Translated Accounts – and it appears constantly – for the state police force in its various guises, sometimes in association with ‘military/s’, the Army. Securitys (the plural is commonly spelled like this) threaten, violate and mutilate citizens. Their real or implied presence lies behind many of the scenes in the novel in which things cannot be spoken of, and reactions must be smothered, held back. This affects not simply the content of the accounts, but the way some of them are told. In ‘a pumpkin story’ (14) the narrator recounts how he sees militarys and securitys bundle a couple of men out of a bus. The younger man seizes a pumpkin from a nearby stand and hurls it at a military official; the pumpkin splatters over the man who reacts by ‘stepping to the younger fellow, firing bullets into his head immediately’. In a similarly deadpan tone the narrator remarks that he thought the young man threw a pumpkin, but others have claimed it was a watermelon. The narrator’s inaction at the time, shared with the others who observed the events, segues into a reluctance to make much of the acknowledged political and analytical potential of the episode:

No disturbance followed, buses depart. I said. This is the pumpkin story, or watermelons, I now have narrated it. What is memory, if I who was there and so bearing witness to it, if times may arise for opposition, when do these times arise, what was the time of the younger man and we travellers who could do nothing, what time is it for myself, if questions are to follow, if they should, not for myself, who am a practical man.

In ‘if she screamed’ (34) a security masturbates into the mouth of a young woman while her family and friends are forced to watch. ‘Afterwards the security cleaned his penis on her hair, looking to us.’ Noise is picked out in the account: the laughter and talk of the securitys, the silence of the onlookers, the whisper of one of them, a woman – ‘They do not think we are human beings’ – for which she is knocked to the ground. But, typically for this book, not everything can be heard or recorded clearly. The security who has violated the girl ‘smiled and called something which I did not hear’. Noise and incomprehension come together at the end of the scene, when the woman who has been thrown to the floor

began banging her head on the stonework. I heard the noise of this, the thumping, and if she screamed, I do not know. I would think of what she had said, if she was mistaken, perhaps, if this could be something she believed, perhaps not, I would think about it, considering it only if later.

Analysis fails in these cases because the narrators need to connive with the state’s way of seeing, or are baffled and defeated by the capacity of its lackeys and legislators to justify or protect themselves. It is argued in 10, ‘lecture, re sensitive periods’, that the state will readily reverse successes against it by denying or recasting the case-law that individuals or groups may cite in their own defence.

Kelman’s novels have always dealt with conflict and oppression, usually in the form of the effects of capitalism, but always in a more localised, personal context. His novels feature individuals trapped in situations they cannot rectify, where they are forced to make compromises even as they attempt rebellion. The chequered bus-conducting career of Robert Hines, the eponymous protagonist of Kelman’s first novel, The Buscoductor Hines (1984), ends with a dispute between Hines and the management when he refuses to go to head office in his free (and thus unpaid) time to pick up a disciplinary ‘line’. He is threatened with instant dismissal and a quickly assembled union meeting votes for strike action. But in a subsequent session with his bosses Hines resigns instead. Afterwards he knows that he ‘blew it . . . The land of the regal brits is to let sleeping dogs lie,’ and the novel ends with Hines working out his week’s notice.

Hines decides to resign when his superintendent taunts him that what he is really after is a place in union politics: ‘The Superintendent snorted. He shook his head and gazed at Hines for a moment. I think I know what it is with you, he said. You fancy yourself on the soapbox. Eh? is that what it is?’ Political action seldom seems a credible option to Kelman’s protagonists, who are typically loners, like Tammas in his second novel, A Chancer (1985). The commitment Tammas gives to gambling is balanced by his lack of interest in the workplace, and his unwillingness to be careful with the money he wins comes from a refusal to attribute value to anything other than chance and the present moment. The novel, though written with a rarely wavering focus on Tammas, never allows the reader into the workings of his mind. A Chancer is full of what is not said, but that unspokenness is eloquent, as when Tammas throws in his factory job during his first day:

I’m no used to the work, said Tammas.

Aye but you’ve got to learn it!

Naw its . . . Tammas shook his head. Just make up my cards.

A Disaffection (1989) is written from further within the system, but explores its cul-de-sacs no less relentlessly. Patrick Doyle is a teacher who gets his class to repeat after him:

We are being fenced in by the teachers

We are being fenced in by the teachers

at the behest of a dictatorship government

at the behest of a dictatorship government

in explicit simulation of our fucking parents the silly bastards

in explicit simulation of our fucking parents the silly bastards

Laughter.

Good, good, but cut out that laughing. You’re here to be treated as young would-be adults under terms that are constant to us all; constant to us all. Okay then that last bit: viz. the suppressed poor!

viz. the suppressed poor!

Cheering.

As the novel goes on Patrick’s disaffection deepens but is just as profoundly thwarted. Alienated from his job, he is also alienated from his roots. Like Hines, like Tammas, he reaches a no-go point nearly two-thirds of the way through the book, in Patrick’s case during a drinking session with his unemployed elder brother, Gavin, and a couple of Gavin’s mates. Gavin refers to teachers as ‘middle-class wankers’.

What do you mean middle-class wankers? said Pat.

Gavin shook his head. He replied, I didni mean them all.

You fucking said it.

I know I fucking said it.

Well ye fucking must’ve meant something.

Aye, I meant something, I meant middle-class wankers; middle-class wankers, that’s what I meant. Okay? Middle-class wankers.

Who exactly?

Whoever you fucking like brother.

Do you mean me? Are you fucking calling me a middle-class wanker?

Gavin laughed and snapped the spent match into two pieces, dumped them in the ashtray.

Just as Sammy in How late it was, how late will admit that he was blinded during a fight with the police but won’t say they are responsible, Gavin thinks that teachers are middle-class wankers and can see that he might think his brother is one – but that judgment is going to depend on how his brother behaves. The brothers avoid the confrontation – though Gavin continues to taunt Patrick through his use of a posher pronoun in his response:

I don’t want to argue with ye Gavin

I don’t want to argue with you either Pat.

The repetitions here are like an ironic parody of the chanting scene in the classroom – translate political litanies into a more personal context and you will be less able or less willing to deliver the punch lines.

A Disaffection is Kelman’s wittiest book, but it is also his bleakest novel before Translated Accounts. The reader is allowed into the inventions and wanderings of Patrick’s mind (Kelman here uses the opposite narrative strategy to that employed in A Chancer), but Patrick has nowhere to go. This is literally true: early in the novel he sets off on a speculative car journey by night ‘on the road to England’ but gives up almost immediately, at Motherwell. At the end of A Chancer, Tammas accepts a lorry ride that could take him to London – a possible destination also for the departing, blinded Sammy in the last pages of How late it was, how late. But as A Disaffection finishes, Patrick is going home on foot from Gavin’s, across Glasgow in the rain, contemplating ‘That temptation. What is that temptation. That temptation is aye the same temptation and it is suicide, it is actually suicide.’ All Patrick’s musing, and analysing, and exploring is leading him in this direction – and this state of mind is intensified, as the novel ends, by the menacing of the police, whose suspicion he arouses in the street and from whom he starts to run: ‘What are they shouting. They’re just shouting they hate him they hate ye we fucking hate ye, that’s what they’re shouting.’

How late it was, how late takes off virtually where A Disaffection ends. But Sammy’s fight with the police is a fight of his own creation, brought about by his winding-up of a group of non-uniformed ‘sodjers’, or police officers. He knows what he is doing: ‘But he had decided. Right there and then. It was here he made the decision. And he was smiling; the first time in days. Know what I’m saying, the first time in days, he was able to smile. Fuck them. Fuck them all.’ It’s like an answer to Patrick’s last, defeated words in A Disaffection, ‘Ah fuck off, fuck off.’

In Sammy’s subsequent interviews with the police, where officers are shoring themselves up against his potential case for police brutality, there is some suggestion that Sammy has criminal associates with ‘political’ interests. But Sammy’s oppositional stance is essentially individual, ingenious and instinctive, like the original ‘beautiful left cross’ which got him into trouble. Kelman has long believed, as he said in a Chapman interview at the time of A Disaffection’s publication, that ‘there is no possibility of socialist change . . . The big American corporations and multinationals would never allow it, they control most of everything.’ What interests him more in this last of his Scottish novels is how, as Sammy puts it, again in implied and pragmatically positive opposition to the Patrick Doyle stance, ‘Ye blunder on but ye blunder on. That’s what ye do. What else is there man know what I’m talking about what else is there? fuck the suicide rates and statistics, Sammy was never a huffy bastard, that’s one thing.’

Translated Accounts is not only a move away from Scottish settings and diction, it is an attempt to avoid what Kelman called in the Chapman interview ‘the standard third party’ narrative voice, ‘the voice of God’ and the value systems and colourings associated with that. His use of multiple and often unidentifiable narrators rather than, as in the first four novels, single protagonists or narrators, shows an increasingly radical formal approach. Reading Translated Accounts is a bit like reading Kelman’s collections of short stories, where the stories work both by themselves and in juxtaposition with their neighbours – notably in The Good Times (1998), which continues How late it was, how late’s depiction of man’s quotidian, dogged, even noble, struggle and endurance.

The tone and sentiments of Translated Accounts are most recognisable in Kelman’s polemical essays and articles. Some of his early and important pieces were published in 1992 in Some Recent Attacks, others are most readily available on the web at www.jameskelman.co.uk. Kelman’s main subjects are art (including his own) and human rights, both at home and abroad.

Writing about the Stephen Lawrence inquiry he said:

People in the United Kingdom are being forced to live what the vast majority would regard as some sort of horrific nightmare. They are being terrorised in their own home by people from their own area, often neighbours. They are bullied and humiliated, subject to sickening physical assaults that have ended in death. They are forced to witness their children being attacked and beaten, not only by other children but by adults.

It is hard not to read this now without thinking of the murder of an asylum seeker at Sighthill in Glasgow. Equally, it would be a mistake to take Translated Accounts as dealing with a country and a state regime seen to be very different from Britain. There is much in this vein in Kelman’s essays: ‘The barbaric outrages that occur on the streets of this country are an extension of State policy.’ It would make little difference to Kelman, I imagine, that he wrote this during the last years of a Conservative Government. Kelman argues that ‘it’s a piece of hypocrisy to argue that police officers or any other form of State or Government agent can be excused from their own humanity. Who can be excused from being a human being?’

Kelman’s view of human potential and of language is given its most extended and provocative expression in his long essay ‘A Reading from Noam Chomsky and the Scottish Tradition in the Philosophy of Common Sense’. Kelman is attracted to Chomsky’s belief that ‘in normal speech one does not merely repeat what one has heard but produces new linguistic forms – often new in one’s experience or even in the history of the language – and there are no limits to such innovation.’ This tallies with what Kelman eventually achieved in the translation of working-class speech into fictional form in (especially) How late it was, how late. Kelman claims that, according to Chomsky’s ‘libertarian conception’ of the functioning of the mind or brain,

The basic principle of humankind is freedom, the right not to be tortured, the right not to be raped, the right not to be violated, the right not to be colonised in any way whatsoever. It is an inalienable right; whether it is deduced or whether it has to be discovered in any other manner is not of great significance – such questions can only be of ultimate interest to those whose ideological position is served by obscuring the issue. Either we do battle on behalf of the basic principle or we do not.

Kelman wants to link this up to a strand in Scottish philosophical history, encapsulated in the work of Thomas Reid (1710-96) on common sense, in which trusting one’s faculties, investing belief in one’s natural judgment, is fundamental – and a universal given to mankind. As Kelman has it, Chomsky’s Cartesian common sense tradition and the Scottish common sense tradition share ‘a belief in fundamental principles that are inherent in all people. These include the faculty of judgment which lies at the heart not only of reason, but of the will to freedom.’ This position is diametrically opposed to the sceptical rationalism of Locke, Berkeley and – from another branch of Scottish philosophical thought – Hume, which is seen as having produced a specialised and elitist view of education which has led to ‘the ideological behaviourism of those responsible for the global and domestic policies of western civilisation in the past couple of hundred years. It is a world where there are no universal principles, whether of freedom or anything else.’

It might seem a paradox that Kelman’s views on freedom of thought and expression have led him in Translated Accounts to write a series of accounts in which clarity of judgment is often evaded. But his earlier fiction, too, often showed that moments of real political opposition, or of real decisive judgment, are rare (Sammy’s beautiful left hook) and hard to sustain (Hines’s ‘resignation’). The equivalent of Sammy’s punch in Translated Accounts is the thrown pumpkin/watermelon. Kelman is himself a political activist whose commitment shows a belief in the capacity to effect change, but throughout his work is the understanding that there are enormous ideological and practical obstacles to this. As ‘lecture, re sensitive periods’ in Translated Accounts puts it, ‘All may enter into political work thoroughly, coming to understand the repression that exists in the society, in the culture, our community. One individual comes to understand, entering freely into that understanding. Confrontation can be direct. It is honourable.’ The role of the individual understanding is crucial to Kelman because it is vital evidence of that capacity to think and judge ‘freely’, even as the individual is made to realise the weight of the institutional and ideological forces ranged against him or her.

Like James Hogg, whose Confessions of a Justified Sinner he admires, Kelman has long played off Scots against English to demonstrate that you don’t need an education to be able to judge how the world wags. Translated Accounts has a different linguistic strategy, but in its lack of fluency, its momentary pleas – ‘Oh please listen to us’ – lies much of its force. It is a pity, though, that so much of it, even after several readings, is intractably hard to follow. The several male/ female dialogues have a weird stylistic ellipticism that brings to mind a marriage of late Henry James and Samuel Beckett (to whom Kelman is regularly compared). Women are often significant by their absence in Kelman’s fiction, but in a novel where identity is so much called into question the female figures are especially hard to see or to understand.

There are one or two specific references, such as the brief moments of German in account 9, and other features, such as the frequent omission of definite articles in the translations, and – more impressionistically – the cadences of the ‘English’ phrasing, which suggest that this novel might originally have been conceived before 1990 and thought of as situated in an Eastern bloc country. One or two allusions to e-mail and dot.coms pull it up to date, but these have the air of belated additions. The vast political changes in Eastern Europe in the past decade offer a challenge to Kelman’s recurrent suggestion that opposition to the state and to societies operating under ‘forms of martial law’ is rarely effective. But there are also plenty of counter-examples to which Translated Accounts may be said to speak. This is by far James Kelman’s most difficult book. It also achieves the uncanny effect of appearing both dated and prophetic.