The collective literary wisdom in Kathmandu seems to be that there is a serious dearth of willing, let alone good, Nepali-English translators. Indeed, Narayan Wagle, in his acknowledgements in the English version of Palpasa Café, writes: “This novel was translated by Bikash Sangruala. Unfortunately, the lack of skilled and enthusiastic translators in Nepal is one reason Nepali literature is not more often published in foreign languages.” I know I am not alone in interpreting this as Wagle’s dig at the quality of this particular translation.
But this time I’m not subscribing to that common disclaimer that the quality of this book could be down to the difficulties of translation. Palpasa Cafe is simply a bad novel, and it’s quite clear that even the best of translators couldn’t have rendered it good.
The novel is set some time in the early 2000s, in the midst of Nepal’s ten year long Maoist insurgency. The protagonist and narrator is an artist from Kathmandu, largely shielded throughout the war from its worst effects. He falls in love with a mysterious woman named Palpasa. A friend of the narrator’s is a Maoist sympathiser, and invites him to the hills to witness all that is happening. He thinks that his art can help bring about, and reflect, revolutionary transformation. Events are witnessed, tragedies occur, life lessons are learnt.
I don’t wish to be flippant about the topic of the novel, because it is important. Nepal suffered, it still does, and fiction is one powerful way of telling and disseminating serious issues. But Palpasa Cafe just doesn’t work. Wagle–one of Kathmandu’s most prominent journalists–tries to stretch thin characters too far, rolls out important descriptions of poverty and insurgency in the hills far too quickly and superficially, and relies too heavily on dialogue. Pages and pages and pages of dialogue. Dialogue is used to expose much of the political debate at the heart of this novel (and at the heart of Nepali society), which makes it come across as diatribe, polemic:
“‘Most of the people who’re being killed are representatives of the old power elite. True, some innocent people are getting caught in the cross fire,’ he conceded. ‘But consider how the crisis first arose. Wasn’t it the state which drew first blood? Didn’t the state first arrest, torture and kill unarmed people?'” (p. 92)
And it’s not even good, convincing dialogue. People simply don’t talk like this:
“Though you fall into the reactionary camp, I feel it’s my duty to show you the right path because you’re a creative person and I believe there’s some hope for you.” (p. 96)
I’m willing to concede that this stilted manner of speech may be the fallout of translation, but it’s the only concession I’ll make to a novel with a weak plot, cliched characters and, despite all obvious intentions to the contrary, a banal outcome.
Ironically, a passage of Palpasa Cafe reads:
“I wasted my time reading a bad Nepali novel, a recent release. It took real effort to finish it. It had nothing new in substance or style. I would’ve been better off watching a movie, going to a restaurant or visiting Nagarkot or Kakani. I prefer Kakani to Nagarkot because it’s closer to the mountains and windier; my imagination runs free in the breeze. Standing on a windy hillside, I feel far away from Kathmandu. But the badness of the novel truly upset me. Why had I wasted my money on it? I couldn’t sleep and spent the while night painting. It was morning before I finally went to sleep.” (p. 45)
Nepali-language literature must have greater depths than Palpasa Cafe, and growing its international recognition not just a matter of cultivating competent translators: it’s about choosing the right books to translate.