Thursday, October 21, 2010

Last Night in Montreal

This summer on Morning Edition, I heard librarian Nancy Pearl review Last Night in Montreal in glowing terms, so I ordered it from another library ($13000 was removed from our library's book-buying budget by the director, so purchasing books is a rarity these days).

Maybe I just expected too much after hearing that Pearl was "entranced" by this book's characters and language and "breathtaking" ending. But I only found this book good, not great (and yes, I realize that this is yet another situation in which I prove just how picky a reader I am). I had trouble connecting with the characters, and so much of the book felt like everything (plot, character, etc.) was stuck at a standstill.

One of the elements I did enjoy was when the protagonist discusses his seemingly neverending thesis on endangered and extinct languages. Here's an excerpt from p. 17 where Eli's explaining his thesis:

"Three thousand languages, destined to vanish. He'd become obsessed with the untranslatable: his idea, and the subject of his thesis (or what had been a thesis, some years earlier, before it suddenly imploded and went unfinishable on him overnight), was that every language on earth contains at least one crucial concept that cannot be translated. Not just a word but an idea, like the French déjà vu: perfect and crystalline in its native language, otherwise explainable only by entire clumsy foreign paragraphs or not at all. In Yup'ik, a language spoken by the Inuit along the Bering Sea, there is Ellam Yua: a kind of spiritual debt to the natural world, or a way of moving through that world with some measure of generosity, of grace, or a way of living that acknowledges the soul of another human being, or the soul of a rock or of a piece of driftwood; sometimes translated as soul, or as God, but meaning neither. In a Mayan language, K'iche, there is the Nawal: one's spiritual essence but separate from the self; one's other, not exactly an alter ego or merely an avatar but a protective spirit that cannot be summoned."

And in an example of NPR completing this circle, just this past week on Radio Times I heard this program on endangered languages and what they're able to convey in one word that no other language can do so succinctly. Life imitating art imitating life...

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