Updated: Oct 26, 2021
A dystopian classic, a black comedy on male delusions, a sweeping historical work of fiction set in post-war Japan and a spy novel that plays out in the heart of Africa... Our LiT summer reading list is definitely varied, but our quartet of books all have one thing in common: Each in their own unique way, they reflect on the power of language in our daily communications and lives. So, move away from your screen, sit back and relax in the sun and dive into these linguistically-themed reads!
The Orwellian Classic
The ultimate dystopian novel, and undoubtedly Orwell’s masterpiece alongside Animal Farm, Nineteen-Eighty-Four, depicts a totalitarian regime and all the ways it can crush the individual to achieve total control. Starting with, you guessed it, the use of language and how we communicate.
Newspeak is a simplified form of English, constructed entirely by the regime to prevent any kind of critical thought. No ambiguity and no grey areas here: This new language is strictly utilitarian, with a limited vocabulary, in line with the Party’s ideology. The idea is simple and terribly effective: without the word, you cannot develop the concept. A bit like the story of the chicken and the egg, this raises the question of what, between thought and language, comes first. Do you form ideas because you have the words to express them, or do you create words to communicate the ideas already in your head? If there are different schools of thought still debating the matter, Orwell has clearly chosen his answer with chilling effects.
The novel is peppered with details on Newspeak. But you have to reach the very end to discover The Principles of Newspeak, describing in minute detail the workings of the new language. It starts quite simply by using syntax to reduce the vocabulary range, such as by having the same word serve as noun and verb or by using affixes. For instance, you no longer need a term and its opposite when you can simply add the prefix “un-” to one of them: this is how, in Newspeak, “warm” has been replaced by “uncold”. More terrifyingly, an “unperson” is a person who has been executed and whose very existence has been deleted from history. Certain terms like justice, morality, democracy, science or religion are simply removed and covered by the umbrella words “crimethink” and “oldthink”.
It is a reflection of how well-thought-out and powerful Orwell’s use of language is that, to this day, it has influenced our vocabulary. Such terms as “mediaspeak” follow the same pattern as “Newspeak” and “Oldspeak”. Not to mention “Big Brother”, and there I can only imagine how Orwell would feel that the name he chose for his unfathomable, ubiquitous dictator has become the (TV) reality of how we entertain ourselves.
The Delusional Comedy
Back to reality, or so we’d like to think. In Tomcat In Love, be prepared to be taken on a fool-in-love ride. Thomas Chippering, the tomcat of the title, is a womanising linguistics professor,still reeling at the end of his marriage and seeking revenge on his ex-wife. Along the way, he meets Donna Kooshof, a no-nonsense middle-aged woman who accepts to help him in his scheme.
Thomas’ favorite weapon? Language, of course. Whenever he is about to be cornered, he shamelessly uses his expert command of the English language to avoid confessing the truth, without ever technically lying. Needless to say, he doesn’t make for the most reliable narrator. But what a riot to hear him squirm and evade situations through double entendre. Tim O’Brien, the author, clearly relished putting his fickle, shallow anti-hero in tricky situations that keep on revealing his true nature.
Thomas’ mere sense of self as a wartime hero is a savvy construction. Having himself served in the Vietnam War, Tim O’Brien has extensively written on the subject, through a variety of novels, short stories and memoirs. In one of his most celebrated books, The Things They Carried, he reflected extensively on how to write about such a life-altering event as war and relate it to others who haven’t been through that experience. And here he goes again, albeit through a joyfully black comedy, with his faulty protagonist rewriting his own past and exploits to wow his audience. In the end, the greatest fool of all might actually be Thomas Chippering himself, believing in his own stories while trying, unsuccessfully, to convince everyone else.
The Historical Novel
Fancy getting swooped up by the whirlwind of history? Then The Translation of Love might be just for you. The debut novel by Lynne Kutsukake is based on a true historical fact: the over half a million letters that General McArthur received from ordinary Japanese men and women during the occupation of Japan from 1945 to 1951.
Through the eyes of different characters (a Japanese-Canadian thirteen-year-old girl returning to her father’s homeland, her classmate in search of her older sister missing somewhere in Tokyo’s dance halls, their teacher who, for an additional income, translates love letters from American GIs and a Japanese-American soldier in charge of translating the letters sent to MacArthur), you witness a battered nation trying to rise from its ashes and to make the transition into a new, still foreign world.
The influence of the American occupier is felt in many ways, with mixed feelings, which involves language. With the introduction of new terms like “democracy”, new notions start to spread, but their practical meaning tends to remain obscure to the average Japanese, who is (understandably) mostly concerned with getting by. It sometimes feels they use the term more to please their new master, without entirely grasping what democracy actually entails. Put simply, the democratic concept doesn’t yet translate to them.
In this context, the translator is the middleman, bringing together two opposite worlds. Set in an extraordinary time, the novel gives a fascinating glimpse into the challenges and rewards the work of translation can bring. Such is the case of Corporal Matt Matsumoto whose job it is to translate into English a large variety of intimate letters, be it a woman offering to “put my womb to your noble service”, a plea to bring back a son from the battlefield abroad or the last words of a now-dead soldier. Matt has to refrain from judging or from getting emotionally involved, while still conveying the messages faithfully. As a final irony, for all the Corporal knows, McArthur will never actually read the translated letters, let alone reply to them. But, like the original writers of those letters, it is all in the attempt, with the hope that the message will reach its final destination and fulfil its goal:
“Matt understood that the writers of these letters depended on him to render their pleas into English. A mechanical translation would not do. They needed someone to speak for them, and Matt resolved to become their voice - their best, their clearest, their most persuasive voice. That was the job of a real translator.”
The Spy Puzzle
Looking for another history lesson set in a torn country? Well, you might want to open John Le Carré’s The Mission Song to travel across continents and troubled times. The illegitimate son of an Irish missionary and a Congolese woman, Bruno Salvador is a man at a crossroads in every sense of the word. Educated in England, he has made the most of his knowledge of several Congolese languages to become an interpreter. But for all his experience, his natural neutral outlook on the world is about to get challenged when he is summoned to take on a secret job for the British Intelligence Service, with the mission to help bring democracy to the Congo.
From the minute Bruno starts recounting the story of his origins, with the tale of his father’s time in Congo, not without evocating Heart of Darkness, you get swooped into the intricate entanglement of colonisation, post-colonisation and the ravages of war in Africa, while still witnessing the social trickeries of the Western world. With by nature one foot in Africa and one foot in Europe, Bruno is an acutely aware and precise narrator, in full control of his storytelling. His objective, neutral and diplomatic tone makes him strangely aloof, in total (and hilarious) contrast to his new boss’ more colourful and ever so slightly less nuanced discourse.
Through Bruno, we get to see the various facets of a multilingual person, able to adapt to various environments while never quite belonging anywhere. Indeed, each language Bruno speaks brings a different side to himself. To quote the man himself, “as you put on another language, you put on another personality.” Indeed, his choice of language enables him to enter different worlds and develop different connections with the people around him. This simple trick is particularly evident when he first meets Hannah, the Congolese nurse working in a London hospital with whom he has an affair. Effortlessly switching languages, they choose which one to use according to the context of the conversation: English for the factual account of their background, French to make love and Swahili to dream of Africa, with its “playful mix of joy and innuendo.”
Quick extra tip: If you get the chance, listen to the audiobook with David Oyelowo. The British actor of Nigerian origins reproduces with masterful effect the different languages and accents, turning the novel into a near radio-play and bringing to life, and to your ear, the different characters.