Four Star Review, orginally posted here on January 5th, 2016.
For whatever reason I have read a whole bunch of memoirs over the past couple years, and I always find myself facing the tricky question of how much we should be evaluating the story vs how much we should be evaluating the writer. When the author is clearly a writer by trade (Naked, Glass Castle, Angela’s Ashes), it’s pretty easy to treat the memoir like any other book. But when the author is clearly not a writer (I Am Malala, When Hell was in Session, Solo: A Memoir of Hope), things get murkier. I generally wind up trying to mainly evaluate the story for the story, and only pay attention to the writing style if it detracts or adds in a notable way. For example, I Am Malala should have been a 5 star book based on content, but the terrible writing dropped it to 4 Stars for me (still good, but could/should have been better), and When Hell Was in Session had kinda straightforward neutral writing except for at the end when the author went off the rails with a crazy over-the-top unrelated epilogue which dropped it a notch for me.
I’m bringing this all up because Suddenly, A Criminal had me contemplating these same issues, but with the added questions mark of translation. I am pretty fluent in Latvian (the original language for this memoir), but my reading comprehension is pretty poor, and I can barely work my way through newspaper articles, let alone entire books. For this reason I was very happy to discover this English-language version of a Latvian memoir. But there definitely seem to be many things that are lost in translation. And it is very difficult for me, the reader, to work out where the writing stumbles because of the original manuscript, where it stumbles because the content simply does not lend itself to being translated, and where it fails because of the shoddy work of the translator. Is it fair to evaluate a translated version of a memoir as though it were a regular book? How much leeway should be allowed before just admitting that something is not as good as it should be?
In the end, I wound up treating this book the same way that I did Malala’s memoir: that is, give it 5 stars for content, but drop one star for style. The story told in this book is INCREDIBLE. Some of the things that Vanags shares with the reader are simply beyond comprehension, especially to modern westerners who are unfamiliar with Eastern European and/or Soviet history. But at various times the writing was so distracting or confusing that it detracted from the story to the point of making parts incomprehensible. I assume that the blame for this confusion lies with everyone involved to some degree: Vanags herself for poor story structure, the translator for poor wording choices and a failure to smooth over bumpy translations (for example, the word “portend” was used over and over again despite not being on common usage, and the word “Daddy” was used to affectionately describe the author’s husband even though in the west women generally do not call significant others’ “Daddy” unless used as sexual innuendo), and the two languages and setting involved, which sometimes are merely incongruent and would require extra explanation (for example, a western reader probably doesn’t understand why people are putting plants on their head for midsummer).
The writing and/or translation was very uneven, as if the author and/or translator worked in starts and stops, sometimes in the groove, and sometimes not. This means that sometimes the writing distracted me, and sometimes I didn’t even notice. For me the beginning was the very hardest part, as I was trying to figure out who the characters were and how they were related to one another (that damn term “Daddy” definitely added to the confusion). Throughout the book I had a hard time keeping all of the characters straight, mostly due to the high volume of people mentioned, to the point where I made sure to remember the names of the most significant character (like her son) and just let the rest of them blur together into a general character. I was also very confused by sections where the author spewed venom about her brother’s new girlfriend. The author hated this woman who she had never met, claiming she was some sort of evil gold-digger, and, when she was finally warmly invited to visit their home, she mocked the tacky décor of her brother’s new family. I could not for the life of me understand where this hypocritical criticism was coming from. It just seemed so out of place amongst a tale of survival, oppression, and humanity, and I was left scratching my head and wondering whether the disconnect lay with me the reader, me the uneducated westerner, the original manuscript, or the translation.
All that being said, I nevertheless LOVED this book, despite some challenges with reading it. I was simply blown away. It is difficult to put into words just how powerful and moving this story is, especially without using cliché terms like moving and powerful. But there it is- this book was moving and powerful and affected me in ways that no other book ever has, and I am not exaggerating. Part of this is my obvious connection with the material and events described. I am Latvian, and around the same time that the author was being deported to Siberia, my family was escaping to the west in order to avoid being deported to Siberia. Vanags does a commendable job conveying just how crazy that time period was in Latvia, and how unknown anyone’s future was at that point. Any one of us could have escaped (like my family did). Any one of us could have been randomly deported to Siberia, either straight to a death camp or to a work detail. Any one of us could have been conscripted into any one of various armies. Any one of us could have remained in latvia, only to have our homes taken away. Vanags follows along with various family members who are each sent to the assorted ends, underscoring to me just how lucky I am to have wound up here, in America, living a life of comparative ease.