BOOKS / The Independent Foreign Fiction Award: A house built on dead wood: Robert Winder on Cathy Porter's view of Grigorij Baklanov

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The Independent Culture
SOME translators are effectively agents for the authors on whom they depend. Others have a more distant relationship. Catherine Porter, one of the latter breed, had quite forgotten about Grigorij Baklanov and his novel. 'Oh, is it out?' she said. 'It's been three years since I did that. I heard nothing, so I rather lost touch with it, got a bit fed up in fact.'

The Moment Between the Past and the Future is set in Russia during the Brezhnev era. Its hero leads a relatively easy life in the cultural elite. But as the end approaches for the government that has sustained him, he slides into fear and confusion. The novel establishes a remarkable atmosphere of stagnation and decay. The house where much of the action takes place is corrupted by a dead tree trunk which workers built in to the foundations. Porter was impressed by the delicacy with which Baklanov depicts all this. 'He loves the word 'secure',' she said. 'And he loves the word 'foundation' - but nothing is secure, and there are no foundations.'

The moment between the past and the future is a prolonged, inert moment, a time when everything to do with hope and memory is frozen. It is impressively dramatised. 'The women are plastered with make-up and disguised,' says Porter. 'They have precarious bridgework and dyed hair; they are defying age, obliterating both the past and the future.'

Porter recalls it as a relatively straightforward task. 'Baklanov is more a film writer than a novelist, so what I found very vivid was his sense of place, people, gesture and dialogue. It was easy to see. The book was very complicated structurally, however, and I did rearrange some things there.'

Porter is a biographer and historian as well as a translator (hers are the English words we sometimes hear broadcast over the Russian bits on Newsnight). For this novel she had to recast a whole idiom. 'In Russia they'd probably call it a satire,' she said. 'But to us it comes across as ironic - not the same thing at all. The Russian book has a tone, a subtle sense of an agreed code and an acceptance of the way the code is being violated which it might be hard for an English reader to understand.

'So it's a problematic novel. But its heart is definitely in the right place. And there's something terribly humane about it. The characters are mainly repulsive, antisemitic liars - greedy Brezhnevite clones who betray their loved ones. And there isn't any redemption. Yet somehow they have this endearing quality.'