Handicapped by a limping language

<i>Crazy</i> by Benjamin Lebert, trans Carol Brown Janeway (Hamish Hamilton, &pound;9.99, 175pp)
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The Independent Culture

As if written by a wise old man, Crazy discusses the eternal problems of youth with incredible insight. The young German writer Benjamin Lebert deliberates on identity, faith, friendship and sex, asks questions and only answers with suggestions. He even challenges the reader as to why they might be interested in this autobiographical story of a half-paralysed teenager. Amazingly, none of this comes across as self-pity.

As if written by a wise old man, Crazy discusses the eternal problems of youth with incredible insight. The young German writer Benjamin Lebert deliberates on identity, faith, friendship and sex, asks questions and only answers with suggestions. He even challenges the reader as to why they might be interested in this autobiographical story of a half-paralysed teenager. Amazingly, none of this comes across as self-pity.

Hugely successful in Germany, Lebert's début negotiates the philosophical concerns at a young person's heart with logic, ease and relevance. Lebert is also foolish, particularly about his first sexual encounter. Still, what are the young if not occasionally foolish? Problems arise where they arise for teenagers: with identity. The lines between Lebert the author and Lebert the protagonist are not clearly drawn; it is unsure what he wants to say about himself. Is he the bookish type, or a closet extrovert? It could be argued that his indecision was devised to blur the reader's perception of the real Lebert - a calculated expression of youthful confusion.

Lebert has said he regrets having given the hero his name. Not all of Crazy is true. So what was his motivation? Is the autobiographical style a symbol of the confessional nature of society today, or of an urge to represent the lives of the disabled, the imperfect? It can be safely assumed that Crazy first appealed to a sense of voyeurism: of not knowing what goes on inside the minds of handicapped people. Lebert points out that it's everyday stuff, and is masterful in his uncluttered handling of universal issues.

The greatest problem, however, has less to do with what Lebert wants to say and more with how the English-speaking world will read it. "Literature," he says, "is where... you feel you could put a little mark under every line because it's true" - a line that deserves a little mark itself. Unfortunately, this cannot be said for the inelegant translation. For all its philosophical merit, Crazy is not a work of Kantian complexity. A successful translation should have been a breeze.

Yet the text is littered with crass substitutions of German words with English ones that leave the original syntax untouched. American-English terms hamper the flow of the dialogue. Granted, German youngsters tend to speak an English flecked with US colloquialisms. But this translation sounds more like an inconsistent impersonation of a German's faltering English.

In a word, the language is wrong. It seems such a shame that this great début by a young literary sensation should have been scuppered by someone so much more experienced.

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