Bellevue by Ivana Dobrakovová: Women in Translation Month

The book and the reading both start out innocuously enough: Blanka, a young Slovak woman, takes a summer job in Marseille, at the Bellevue centre for people with physical disabilities. Her main reason for applying is the chance to practise her French in an immersive environment. She doesn’t really seem to have considered the work involved, and that’s where her problems start. 

The environment of Bellevue is indeed immersive, but not in the way Blanka may have been thinking. She really struggles to be around the disabled people at the centre, to cope with people unable to look after themselves. To an extent, she struggles to see them as people. 

There are gradual signs that Blanka’s mental health is being affected: a panic attack, then this… 

…deep inside I had always known it, sensed it, but now I could suddenly give it a name, was able to articulate it, the words now pounded right in my chest, we all hate each other, suddenly nothing but this truth, this knowledge, or rather the realisation that there’s nothing but hatred in this world, that to grow up means to understand and accept all the world’s hatred directed at every single person, and therefore also at me.

Translation from Slovak by Julia & Peter Sherwood

As the novel goes on, we come to understand more of Blanka’s background, and see her continue to unravel. This is particularly harrowing because Blanka doesn’t articulate what is happening to her. Dobrakovová (in the Sherwoods’ superb translation) shows it through the changing shape of Blanka’s language: her narration frays along with her mental state. We go directly to the heart of Blanka’s experience, and the effect is powerful. 

Published by Jantar Publishing.

2 Comments

  1. This sounds interesting, David, and thanks also for introducing me to the publisher, Jantar, who I hadn’t heard of before. Looks as if they don’t distribute their books through the usual channels – I couldn’t find a copy of this book anywhere but on their website. Interesting strategy.

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