Translating Transnational Anxiety: Ivana Dobrakovová’s “Bellevue”
By Daniel W. PrattMarch 8, 2020
Bellevue by Ivana Dobrakovová
The Slovak writer Ivana Dobrakovová’s very timely 2010 novel Bellevue, recently translated by Julia and Peter Sherwood, dovetails with these larger trends in North American literature, telling the story of a 19-year-old woman, Blanka, who struggles with the pressures of becoming an adult while dealing with severe psychological issues abroad. Dobrakovová’s narrative, however, is not one of realization and recovery. Unlike most YA novels, Bellevue lacks a happy ending of good conquering evil, a positive growth narrative, or even a defined set of morals.
Instead, Dobrakovová depicts the steady decline of Blanka’s mental stability. The novel is not without hope, but it is significantly more ambiguous than most North American fiction treading on the same terrain. Dobrakovová gives us a viscerally real narrative of a young woman dealing with manic depression, cycling between the fear that everyone hates her and the conviction that she has divine powers that should only be used for good. The novel ends with an unresolved question: could adulthood mean nothing more than learning to ignore the truth of a terrible and terrifying world filled with people who wish us ill?
Bellevue is Dobrakovová’s only full-length novel, although she has written three collections of short stories, including 2018’s Matky a Kamionisti (Mothers and Truckers), which won her the European Union Prize for literature last year. (An English translation is forthcoming in 2021.) She is part of a group of young break-out Slovak authors whose work is gaining attention outside their native land, including Jana Beňová, Uršuľa Kovalyk, and the mononymous Bella. Slovak literature remains one of the least-known literary traditions in Europe, but the strength of these contemporary authors should change that. This newfound global attention is in large part due to the translating duo Julia and Peter Sherwood, who have developed into a powerhouse couple of Central European literature, akin to what Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky are to Russian letters. Their translations from Slovak and Hungarian are particularly welcome (and particularly good) because so little has been translated from those two rich linguistic traditions. Under the skillful hands of this team of experienced translators, Dobrakovová’s lively prose loses none of its power.
A skilled translator in her own right, known especially for her translations of Elena Ferrante, Dobrakovová uses anxiety surrounding language — our ability to communicate with others and to be heard and understood — to underscore the frustrations and horrors of mental health issues. Bellevue begins in Blanka’s voice, narrating her story in the present like a voice-over in a movie. She tells her own story from a distance and then dips into her thoughts, simultaneously a first-person and third-person narrator. The language is matter of fact, although her snark, so characteristic of a 19-year-old university student, makes her a rather charming storyteller. As she falls deeper into her illness, her language becomes more and more frantic, with periods yielding to commas to represent her unending stream of panicked thoughts.
At first glance, Blanka seems like a fairly ordinary university student. She has a boyfriend she likes, but may not love, she is unsure of her future studying French and English, and she possesses a healthy adolescent desire for adventure, which leads her to take a summer internship at Bellevue, a home for the physically disabled in Marseille, to improve her French language skills. Upon her arrival, Blanka meets her fellow interns, a group representing the cultural and linguistic medley of today’s Europe: two Algerians, a Swede, the older Romanian woman Elena, the Italian Luca, the Slovene Drago, and the Czech Martina. She remembers none of their names at first, only able to register their nationalities (and thus their languages). Blanka eventually befriends Luca, Drago, and Martina, all of whom are roughly her age, and they enjoy their free time together, eventually coupling off: Martina and Luca get together, as do Blanka and Drago.
We quickly realize that Blanka is having trouble dealing with the stresses of living abroad and taking care of the patients in the home. She has a panic attack on one of her first days there, rushing out of the cafeteria in the middle of feeding one of the patients. She describes her recurring nightmares to Drago:
The circumstances vary but the essence is always the same, I can’t speak, I’m suffocating, sometimes because a gigantic piece of chewing gum has grown inside my mouth, I struggle all night to try and pull it out but it’s no use, the more I try to get rid of it, the more it sticks to my gums, teeth, throat, or there’s something else in my mouth, a kind of blockage that stops me breathing and talking, like bluebottles, huge dead flies, a whole tangled mass of them explodes from my mouth when I cough, I’m standing in the middle of a narrow room with white walls, no exit in sight, not a single door or a window, and I just keep coughing.
The image of a room with no exit betrays Blanka’s fear of an inability to communicate, thus trapping her inside her own mind. If Blanka cannot connect to another person, then she is doomed to being isolated and alone forever. Drago, in all his sophomoric wisdom, tries to help, but the task is beyond him. He and her other friends offer surface-level remedies, unaware of how deep Blanka’s instability runs.
What sets Bellevue apart from other explorations of mental illness is this concentration on language and the impossibility of expressing the feelings and thoughts of depression, anxiety, and manic episodes. Once Blanka arrives in France, she immediately is thrust into a multilingual world, where Luca yells in Italian, Drago woos her in English, and Martina befriends her in Czech, with many phrases left untranslated in the text. Blanka’s language starts to become muddled, mixing words, and she complains of “confusion, the inability to find the right word to express myself, moments when I felt stuck and helpless trying to remember what it was that I wanted to say and failing.” Despite the sheer number of words at her disposal and the seeming ease with which she switches languages, Blanka fails at communicating. She does not merely experience the linguistic confusion of a person abroad, but rather a more fundamental aphasia, a loss of the connection between words and meaning.
Above all, Blanka fears that this aphasia will come to mirror the speech difficulties of the patients at the home. One patient has an alphabet attached to his wheelchair, on which he spells out each word as clearly as he can; another has difficult pronouncing any word, even if he has two phrases of Slovak that make Blanka fear he can understand her deepest thoughts. The patient that Blanka is most afraid of, however, is Laurence, a young woman close to Blanka’s own age who is confined to a wheelchair and has difficulty physically speaking. Laurence is Blanka’s double, a woman whom no one can understand, trapped inside her head without any way of expressing herself to the outside world. When Laurence not only succeeds in communicating herself, aided by a notebook, but also volunteers to help out in the home, Blanka takes this as both a reminder of her own inability to communicate and a rebuke to her own selfishness for not helping out more.
Blanka’s inability to communicate exacerbates her vicious cycle of manic episodes, frustration, and, at times, violent outbursts. In the period of a single page, Blanka moves from crying that one of the patients hates her, even if she knows “the hatred and how to live with it, the omnipresent hatred, the hatred of the whole world,” to feeling “superior again, it’s the superiority of the healthy over the sick, my smile broadens, it’s almost genuine now, I am sincerely pleased.” (The “almost” in the last phrase is particularly poignant.) In her memoir about her immigration Lost in Translation, the Polish-American writer and critic Eva Hoffman writes about a curse-filled argument she hears on the street:
I hear not the pleasures of macho toughness but an infuriated beating against wordlessness, against the incapacity to make oneself understood, seen. Anger can be borne — it can even be satisfying — if it can gather into words and explode in a storm, or a rapier-sharp attack. But without this means of ventilation, it only turns back inward, building and swirling like a head of steam — building to an impotent, murderous rage.
Without a way of reaching another person, that is, without language, Blanka is left in a hate-filled world with no exit, just like her nightmare.
Dobrakovová ends her tale with a tiny sliver of hope. Back in Slovakia after a short stay in a mental health hospital, this time as a patient, Blanka talks with her friend Svetlana. Her friend agrees that most people in the world are hate-filled, but at least a few people will love her; Blanka just needs to focus on the few that love her instead of the many that do not. Svetlana’s perspective is grimly pragmatic:
You can’t be always open with everyone, that’s what little children are like, but you’re not a little child anymore, you have to keep things to yourself, bury them deep inside, let them settle like sediment at the bottom of a lake […] you have to wait for them to settle, become a part of you until you stop noticing them, that’s what everyone else does.
Svetlana misguidedly attributes Blanka’s mental illness to a continuing adolescence, effectively telling Blanka to just grow up. But Sveltana’s own image of adulthood provides no real closure, just repression, sadness, and perseverance. Unlike North American YA novels that offer either happy endings of good triumphing over evil, or lessons for the young reader, Dobrakovová leaves the reader knowing that Blanka’s struggles with mental health will continue, inconclusively, for many more years.
Daniel W. Pratt is assistant professor of Slavic Languages at McGill University. He is currently at work on two book projects: one on non-narrative constructions of temporality in Central Europe and the other on Central and Eastern European dissent in the 1980s.
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