NIGHT SCHOOL: A READER FOR GROWNUPS BY ZSÓFIA BÁN, TRANSLATED BY JIM TUCKER
Jim Tucker’s translation of Zsófia Bán’s 2007 story collection, Night School: A Reader for Grownups, doesn’t read like a translation at all. Nor does it read like anything you’ve ever perused—unless you’ve read Night School in another language. A frenetic homage to the textbooks Bán once encountered in German class that “skipped from transportation to the Holocaust to Gummy Bears—in that order,” Night School takes readers on a wild romp through a kaleidoscope of postmodern fairy tales. We learn the just-so story behind Kahlo’s The Two Fridas, encounter the 19th-century naturalist Henri Mouhot trekking through the Laotian jungle, and find ourselves privy to an email exchange between the characters of the 18th-century epistolary novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses. All flaunt their meta-awareness: Mouhot’s wife quotes Heart of Darkness, which had not yet been written, and predicts his impending death, as Victorine Meurent predicts Manet’s, and Laika the Dog stoically predicts her own.
Night School might not seem to lend itself to translation, so bursting with slang, neologisms, tongue-in-cheek zingers, and off-the-cuff historical and literary references, yet one cannot deny the sheer Dadaist power and Seussian flare of lines like this one from “Motherwhere”: “They searched for her […] in the cold turkey clinic, in the Wild Turkey still […] in the market square, in the market research center […] in the ash cans and trash cans, under the bumps and in the sumps.” Assignments and images litter the collection and frequently, we are instructed to argue pro or con. Bán’s humor transcends language barriers, and Tucker’s translation never leaves us wondering what we’ve missed out on by not speaking Hungarian. A must-read for anyone who needs a break from the grim currents of contemporary literature, yet still craves the heady thrill of a really smart book.
—Review by Mekiya Walters