REVIEW by Caroline StockfordNWR Issue 101
Enemy of the Ants
by Stephan Valentin, translated from the German by Moira Kerr
Stephan Valentin’s first novel, Enemy of the Ants
, is a first-person, minute-by-minute account of three days in the life of Jonas, an alienated, friendless child whose mother has taken him out of school and off to his grandmother’s house in the country following an unspecified violent incident in which he was involved. They left town quickly, but not before his mother suffered a black eye ‘like a lunar lake’ at the hands of her latest lover, one in a long line of ‘uncles’. Now Jonas is about to lose his mother all over again to Martin, a new ‘uncle’ who she meets in a supermarket car park within a day of arriving in town.
A line of ants wends its way across the worn-down, shit-brown carpet, vanishes along the way and then turns up again at the table leg, on its way to the target. The honey pot. I sit watching the creepy-crawlies. I don’t do a thing. And then, when they’re busy covering themselves in honey, getting stickier and stickier, that’s when I strike. I squash their armour-plated, hollow skulls, and watch as the news of death makes its way to the end of the line.
Jonas is an enemy of the ants. He tortures bugs, kicks cats and despises all grown-ups bar his mother and his almost-forgotten father, who he imagines is still away on business, sending him ‘postcards from the sky’. He now has to contend with his spiteful grandmother, who seems to have the measure of him, and competition for his mother’s affections in the shape of ‘the football’, his term for his sibling who is at full term in his mother’s belly.
Valentin achieves the feat of presenting us with a non-patronising, authentic voice of a very troubled child, and does it so well that we can step into the mind of this young boy and witness his merciless and misunderstood nature:
Ever since I was two I’ve been lighting all the matches I can get my hands on. I can hear Mother’s voice, ‘Don’t do it, don’t play with fire, come home!’ but home isn’t there anymore. Home’s gone, it’s broken, squashed by the football, and I’m here, somewhere where I don’t know anybody, where grandmother doesn’t like me, and where we wait for the new arrival as though we couldn’t live without it’.
The stream of thoughts in the boy’s head veers from deeply poignant reflections to utter trivia in the same sentence, typical of a child who has not yet learned how to make sense of the world. On meeting Sarah, the daughter of a neighbour, he thinks:
Typical girl. They all think they’re the Virgin Mary. And then they go and let people eat their son every Sunday. The body of Christ. Wild horses wouldn’t get me into a church. Confession’s stupid. What’s the point in doing something if you’re going to tell the man behind the curtain about it afterwards? And the priest wasn’t much help with that uncle. He just sat there in his chair, in the dark, and said there were bad people in the world. Well, I already knew that, and so did Mother. The wrapper won’t come off the ice lolly, it’s all sticky.
When Sarah goes on to plant an unsolicited kiss on his lips, he seems for a brief moment to be transported from his tortured world into reality:
and suddenly her mouth lands on mine. Something tingles, inside me something takes off and brings back all my feelings.
Enemy of the Ants
is translated from the German by Moira Kerr, and the result is so successful that at no time was I woken from the narrative trance by awkward-sounding English. All but one or two idioms in the German were skilfully replaced, and Kerr’s choice of words was spot on in bringing through Jonas’s humour as well as his vulnerability. The image on the dust-jacket, though, lets the book down considerably. This book is about cruelty, abuse, longing and death, and the photograph of a petulant boy’s face on the cover not only seems a cheap marketing shot but also risks giving the reader a false impression of the content. Likewise, it seems sensational to print the whole prologue on the back cover, its lines being the most graphically violent in the book.
My advice to anyone picking this up would be: don’t be put off by the cover, buy it and let yourself be taken to a place we rarely go, which Valentin has crafted with great skill and sympathy, drawing on his years of experience as a child psychologist. And meet a boy who, despite his violence to creatures and his fellow human beings, cries out from every page as a much more helpless victim than his selected enemies.
Caroline Stockford, a translator of Turkish literature, poetry and plays, lives in Aberystwyth. She is a member of the Emerging Translators’ Network and participant in the Cunda Workshop for Translators of Turkish Literature 2013 and the Arvon Foundation Literary Translators’ Summer School 2012. A selection of her translations can be viewed at Word Prism
. She is currently reading for an MA in Creative Writing at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth.
previous review: The North End of the Possible
next review: Bert: The Life and Times of AL Lloyd & The New Penguin Book of English Folk Songs