LONDON CALLING

MEER LOF VOOR 'SHUTTERSPEED'

Na de "Times Literary Supplement" roemt nu ook de kunstbijlage van "The Financial Times" de vertaling van Erwin Mortiers derde roman "Sluitertijd", door Ina Rilke vertaald als 'Shutterspeed.'
'Een medidatieve roman en vaak gegrepen door de stille melancholie van een vroege film van Bergman,' volgens de recensent, en 'een belangrijk kunstwerk, hypnotiserend in zijn gevoeligheid en met een kracht in de taal die weerklinkt doorheen de excellente vertaling.'

Shutterspeed
By Erwin Mortier

“My father startles butterflies on the flowering hemlock,’’ muses narrator Joris Alderweireldt, in the first paragraph of Shutterspeed, as he gazes at a childhood photograph, “and their motion, like my wonderment, is arrested in mid-air.’’ Shutterspeed is Erwin Mortier’s third novel to be translated from the Flemish, and is the story of a young boy who spends the summer in the Belgian countryside with his uncle and aunt. It is a Bildungsroman – a novel set in a character’s formative years – in this case, the pre-teen Joris. Our young narrator attempts to recover a true image of his deceased father from snatches of information and memories of early childhood and in doing so, passes from childhood to the cusp of adolescence.

The narrative is gentle and episodic. Very little happens in this quiet rural village – there’s a storm, Joris trips up in a Catholic procession, he sees his father in a home movie, a spiteful little girl traps him and forces his first kiss – but what incidents do occur are intensified through the hypersensitive consciousness of a child’s imagination.

Photographs are the portal for recollection and are also the structuring device for narrative in this work. A grown-up Joris draws us into the images, dissolving their two-dimensionality with recollections which flood them with light and life. Photographs are physical artefacts of memory, but unlike the smoke-ring transience of Joris’s memories, photographs freeze time and history. Light, the energetic source of photography, is trapped and held like time in a sentence of words. Language, like photography, can capture and control and Mortier uses it to spin time back and forth like the mechanical model of the solar system in the protagonist’s classroom, “accelerating the years to mere seconds’’ with a few turns of the handle.

The childish consciousness of Joris is uncluttered by experience and enlivened by novelty. It is a kingdom ruled by the imagination; Joris is free to create nations and define words, where he can view death – the entity that robbed him of his father – as a “megalomaniac collector who kept his treasures in cigar boxes buried in the earth’’.

Language excites Joris but also drives him mad, “there were words that set my teeth on edge like grit in poorly rinsed spinach, others that I swallowed whole like aspirin for fear of them tasting vile.’’ It is here that the work feels autobiographical, at least in part. Like James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man or Mortier’s last novel, My Fellow Skin, this is the story of a youth for whom perception and language are of paramount importance, the story of an emerging writer. The last line of the book, “what must out, must out’’ is the raison d’etre of the work and perhaps, of any authentic writer – an expression created not to please an audience, but because it must be articulated.

If you are looking for a book full of incident and eager plot then Shutterspeed is not for you. It is a meditative novel and often gripped by the quiet melancholy of an early Bergman film. It is, though, a significant work of art, mesmerising in its sensitivity and with a force of language that resonates through this excellent translation.

Review by Rowan Somerville

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2007

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