The Summer of Dead Toys by Antonio Hill
Recently, I was reading an article about Anthea Bell who, for me, remains one of the best translators of all time. In this, I’m not relying simply upon the magnificence of her work on the Asterix series, but reflecting on a career spent in service to authors and readers equally. In her usual self-deprecating way, she’s always insisted the translator should be invisible, but that allows people to misunderstand the reality of the role. What she means is that the work of translation should not be apparent to the readers. Their experience should be indistinguishable from a book originally written in English. That means something rather more than literally translating the words used by the author. Too often this results in odd vocabulary choices and strange grammatical structures. The natural language translator should creatively attempt to capture the spirit of the author’s intention, and express that in the “foreign” language. At times, this will mean slightly adapting the text to reflect local cultural expectations. In this process, a balance must be struck between fidelity to the original text and the need for people to be comfortable reading the text in the target language.
My reason for starting in this way is my sense the translation of The Summer of Dead Toys by Antonio Hill (Crown Publishing, 2013) which is credited to Laura McGloughlin, is not as good as it might be. Although I have an acquired flexibility to reading more or less anything put in front of me, this feels wooden at times. I found the use of language slightly distracting. This is unfortunate because the plot is a good example of a subgenre growing in popularity. If we’re going to play the game of labels, I suppose we have to consider this Iberian or, more generally, Mediterranean noir. That means we’re dealing with the darker content of trafficking, child abuse, and so on, but some distance from the more traditional Scandinavia. I’m not against the use of these themes. Books benefit from greater realism and social awareness. We would be foolish if, as a society, we only wanted to read about contemporary events through rose-tinted spectacles. Without some degree of outrage at the treatment of women, an alarming number of whom are forced into the sex trade, how can the behaviour of our men in buying their services ever be brought under control? Similarly, without discussing the mistreatment of children, how can parents and authority figures be persuaded to improve their behaviour?
So we start with Inspector Hector Salgado being forced to sit on the bench for a month after savagely beating a man allegedly involved in the trafficking business. Righteous indignation and anger are a necessary part of any serious detective’s character in noir fiction. Naturally, there are hidden secrets in the man’s past which explain his particular horror over the mistreatment of the young and women. To emphasise his different qualities, he’s actually an Argentinian who, as a young man, was sent to Spain to complete his education and elected to stay on. While he’s almost completely assimilated into the culture of his adoptive city Barcelona, he retains some degree of objectivity about that culture. With comparative experience, he’s better placed than locals to see strengths and weaknesses in Catalan society. To complete his profile, his wife has left him for another woman. With both Argentinian and Spanish culture based on machismo, this betrayal and subsequent events were more than usually provocative and, in part, the stressors which triggered his violent attack on the arrested trafficker.
To ease him back into the department, Superintendent Savall gives him a slightly unofficial case to investigate. The Superintendent knows the woman whose son has died and some of the family’s history. He feels morally obliged to be seen to do something. With our hero being acknowledged as tenacious, he’s the right man to decide whether there’s anything suspicious about a young man’s fall from a top storey window. To help, he’s allocated Agent Leire Castro, a rookie who comes with high marks from the training academy. Together they set off into the hinterland of the wealthy which naturally guards its secrets. Meanwhile Sergeant Martina Andreu continues to deal with the fallout from our hero’s assault. She’s not supposed to talk to our hero but, as is usually the case with police departments, there are strong ties of loyalty between the team members and they are soon forced to confront a difficult development.
The two investigations move forward to successful conclusions and the ending is set up for the sequel which has been published in Spain. There are a number of problems. The dynamic for the potential suicide investigation depends on an outrageous series of coincidences. When you think about the two more important elements required to set the ball rolling, you either class this as radical and daring plotting, or it’s an admission of failure, i.e. the only way to make the plot work is for circumstances to be contrived. The second problem is the perfunctory way in which one of the investigations is tied up. Here’s this deep-seated plot, very carefully executed, that contains the seed of its own destruction. How is the seed detected? The detective just happens to see a photograph. . . and on that one fact, she goes to the right place, and finds people there, one of whom spills the beans almost immediately. How convenient that it can all be resolved in two pages!
Nevertheless, this is an interesting book for its view of Spanish culture. We should note the author’s decision to place two women in key policing role, and to have the hero’s wife swing to the other sexual pole. The book also accepts couples will sometimes have quite wide age variations, or that a pregnant woman may not be so distressed if the father decides he needs to go out to buy some cigarettes, and so on. This is a more open-minded version of Spain than I was expecting, albeit one that’s being put together to conform to the noir expectations. In all this, Salgado’s character is portrayed in a very sympathetic way. He walks the line between the powerless passivity of a victim and a man in search of redemption. The result is an engaging mystery puzzle for us to solve. No matter what the triggers are, disentangling the web of motives and activities proves intellectually satisfying. The characterisation is rounded in credible social contexts. The Summer of Dead Toys is worth reading.
For a review of the next book in the series, see The Good Suicides.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.