David Quantick’s The Mule: lost in the world of translation

Murder, romance and the pursuit of the untranslatable make for a curious but satisfying comedy thriller

12 March 2016

9:00 AM

12 March 2016

9:00 AM

The Mule David Quantick

Unbound, pp.288, £14.99, ISBN: 9781783521005

For those who read the weekly music press during the 1980s, David Quantick’s was a name you could rely on. Unlike some of the more Derridean elements at the NME, his reviews of new bands and LPs were both comprehensible and authentically funny. He has gone on to become a successful comedy broadcaster and writer for radio, TV and film: The Day Today, The Thick of It, Harry Hill’s TV Burp. Recently he was part of the team that won an Emmy for the US political comedy series Veep.

The Mule is Quantick’s second novel (his first, Sparks, came out in 2012). It is narrated by an eccentric and somewhat literal translator of European fiction called Jacky, nicknamed ‘the Mule’ by unkind college contemporaries — ‘I abandoned my lunch and went over to the mirror. I studied my face for several minutes. Maybe the large eyes were like those of a mule? I couldn’t see it myself.’ After a seemingly chance encounter with a beautiful and troubled young woman in a bar, Jacky becomes embroiled in a plot involving murder, romance and a set of mysterious texts called the Von Fremdenplatz documents, the origins of which owe something to Borges’s short story ‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’.

The world of publishing literature in translation is not one which has lent itself to hilarity often, but thanks to The Mule’s stubborn narrator, this is frequently a very funny novel. His account of the difficulties inherent in rendering the ‘epiphany face-off’ of A.J.L. Ferber’s Society’s Elephant — ‘which despite its heavy title is in fact the shortest of her books, a comparative novella at 580 pages’ — into meaningful English had me spluttering with laughter.

There’s an enjoyable tension too between the page-turner demands of the comedy-thriller genre, to which the book belongs, and Jacky’s pedantic need to interpret and explain absolutely everything. This could be rather exasperating to read, of course, but the story moves at a lick and the jokes keep coming, so that the reader’s sympathies remain firmly with the Mule throughout.

Jacky is amiably baffled rather than obstinate and Quantick is also shrewd enough to give him some amusingly ghastly antagonists to play off, not least a pompous and fatheaded author called Euros Frant, whose huge ‘anachronistic samizdat’ The Chronicle of Imaginary Worldlets Jacky is called upon to translate: ‘I picked up the manuscript and pretended to gaze at its awesome magnificence. In reality, I was weighing it.’

The publisher of The Mule has compared it to the work of authors such as Andrey Kurkov and Christopher Shevlin. It reminded me of Dan Kavanagh a.k.a. Julian Barnes’s Duffy novels or Martin Waddell’s 1960s espionage caper Otley, subsequently adapted by Likely Lads writers Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais into a film starring Tom Courtenay. Like Otley, The Mule is about an innocent, rather than an idiot, abroad; it is also ingenious, likable, funny and above all entertaining. I hope there will be sequels.

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