In the Names of the Fathers

In the Names of the Fathers: Review of Fathers Never Go Away

by Samuel E. Martin

Loss, for these authors, is not something that occurs in translation, but before it: it is a necessary precondition to being able to write in the first place, even as it resists being put into words.

Fathers Never Go Away, compiled and edited by Nevena Dishlieva-Krasteva, translated from the Bulgarian by Ekaterina Petrova. ICU Publishing, 2020, 216 pages, 20.00 лв. ISBN 978-619-7153-81-1

The possibilities of translation are endless, and yet every act of translation represents a temporary foreclosure of all other possibilities. As Olivia Baes observed in Hopscotch not long ago, “You [the translator] choose words, and in doing so keep the text from becoming a thousand times different from what it could have been.” 

The sense of what could have been runs palpably through Fathers Never Go Away, the beautiful anthology of short commemorative prose pieces compiled by Nevena Dishlieva-Krysteva and translated from Bulgarian to English by Ekaterina Petrova, though not because there is the slightest cause to regret the translator’s linguistic choices. Rather, the book’s contributors yearn for what has been irrevocably taken from them: the company of their fathers. “At the end of the day, all we really want is to be given more time with the people we love,” Petrova writes in her own essay at the heart of the book, “Never Not Enough” (110). If Olivia Baes’s words are anything to go by, I imagine that in Petrova’s work as a translator she’ll have long since gotten used to grappling with a daily feeling of irrevocability; together with Dishlieva-Krysteva, she has turned it into the impetus for assembling a deeply moving collection of paternal portraits. 

Fathers Never Go Away is a companion anthology to My Brother’s Suitcase: Stories about the Road, but although it likewise addresses the theme of departure (in the absolute sense, one might say), its title insists instead on the permanence of presence. Not all of the twenty-five authors of this anthology (including editor Nevena Dishlieva-Krysteva) are writers by trade; they also number artists and theater directors, a volunteer and a diplomat. Even among the full-time writers, there is considerable variety. Some are journalists, others are poets, novelists, or screenwriters; still others are academics. Ekaterina Petrova herself is far from the only translator represented. The resulting compilation ranges in tone from the stylistically adventurous and lyrical to the understated and bare. Isidora Angel, in her review of My Brother’s Suitcase, paid tribute to Petrova’s ability to render a wide spectrum of voices, and Fathers Never Go Away is no less versatile. At the same time, the texts in this book bear something of a family resemblance in their struggle to express the seemingly inexpressible – indeed, to know where to begin at all:

It’s eight in the morning on February 4, and it’s been six months since I promised to write something about my father… (Kamen Alipiev, “Mister Tau,” 68)

I don’t know why, but I have to start at the end… (Bilyana Kourtasheva, “The View from Zabriskie Point,” 86)

Now, since we have to start somewhere… (Katya Atanasova, “Uma,” 102)

For thirty days, I’ve been desperately trying to start writing an essay about my father. (Zornitsa Sophia Popgantcheva, “For Bu, There’s No Such Thing As I Can’t Do It,” 132)

Loss, for these authors, is not something that occurs in translation, but before it: it is a necessary precondition to being able to write in the first place, even as it resists being put into words. It then falls to the editor to gather up the scattering of reminiscences, and to the translator of the English edition to lend her voice to each of them in turn. “But maybe that’s what fathers do anyway: they translate – literally carrying you across, they emphasize, they give you the words, baptize you into them, so you can weave a red thread that protects you and prevents you from getting lost” (Vassilena Mircheva, “My Father the Translator,” 208).

And it’s remarkable just how much the authors manage to salvage, how vividly they conjure their fathers once the words start to come. The portraits in the book often hinge on sensory perceptions and unassuming objects – the smell of a leather wristwatch (Maria Kassimova-Moisset), the taste of the tarhana herb (Vasilena Chonova), a slightly unfocused family photo of a fir tree (Ina Ivanova) – from which springs a whole world of memories. Some of the pieces are inscribed within a broad swath of historical and geographical detail: in Keti Ivanova’s opening essay, “Poor Little Orphan,” she tells of weeping for her father when the funeral march rang out at school for the death of Stalin, and paints an evocative picture of village hardship and solidarity in postwar Bulgaria. On the other end of the scale, Valentin Dishev’s micro-essay “Jazz” focuses on the experience of listening to Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald with his father during the two months of the latter’s final illness. However narrow or expansive the writers’ canvases, Ekaterina Petrova always finds the right English words to convey their warmth of feeling.

As coincidence would have it – but it quickly became more than mere coincidence – I read this book while revisiting Graham Swift’s 1996 Booker Prize-winning Last Orders, a novel whose resonance among readers has clearly been amplified these past few years by the emotional toll of the pandemic. Like Fathers Never Go Away, Last Orders is a polyphonic text of remembrance, except the characters are all recalling a sole departed companion and father (Jack, played by Michael Caine in Fred Schepisi’s 2001 film version) rather than many. Yet the dissimilarity is not as great as it may seem: as Nevena Dishlieva-Krysteva says at the outset of her preface, “This is a book containing stories about twenty-four fathers. Although they’re supposedly twenty-four, they’re actually just one – the Father” (9). So I oughtn’t to have been surprised when towards the end of Thea Denoljubova’s swirling text simply entitled “Love,” her reimagining of her father blended with a Michael Caine film, just as Ekaterina Petrova’s words had been intertwining in my head with those of Graham Swift:

… I miss you, wait, please, a little longer, I want to show you something, look, this is Sorentino’s film Youth, Rachel Weisz’s husband leaves her because she’s bad in bed, then her father, Michael Caine, laughs and says that’s impossible, how do you know, Dad, she asks

because you’re my daughter, you say (36-37)

Fathers Never Go Away can undoubtedly bring solace to readers grieving the loss of a loved one, paternal or otherwise – but mourning is by no means a prerequisite for these pages. The vibrancy with which they portray their subjects brings an entire community to life; this reader owes a debt of gratitude to the children as well as to their fathers for the pleasure of their company.

Samuel Martin teaches French at the University of Pennsylvania. He has translated works by several contemporary writers including Jean-Christophe Bailly and Georges Didi-Huberman; his translation of Didi-Huberman’s Bark was a co-winner of the French-American Foundation Translation Prize and was longlisted for the PEN Translation Prize. 

Originally published on Hopscotch Translation
Tuesday, March 21, 2023

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