Between Mountains by Maggie Helwig
A review of this book in The Guardian began: ‘In our increasingly fluid society it becomes ever harder for writers of fiction to find new ways of keeping lovers apart. Maggie Helwig has come up trumps with the issue of professional ethics.’ It is a statement which - unwittingly, I suspect, and the more shockingly for that - contrives to trivialise Helwig’s work in the very act of commending it; and it sheds a depressing light on the state of our literary culture and on the assumptions which govern its reception.
True, a great many novels today treat human relationships as isolated from all other aspects of living: vacuum-packed and arrayed on supermarket shelves for our choosing. But Between Mountains is not like that. Here we find relationships mediated through the work people do; and the work in question is dominated by the horrors and ethical dilemmas of our time.
The book traces the developing affection between Daniel, a journalist specialising in Balkan affairs and stationed in Banja Luka, and Lili, an interpreter providing simultaneous translations for the war crimes tribunal in The Hague. Both are struggling, in their different ways, to tell the truth. Lili is said to see herself as ‘the faithful custodian of language,’ not simply because her job demands it but because the political traumas of her own upbringing have left her with only this faith to cling to.
The structure of the story is remarkable in that the chronological progress is accompanied by a slow spiralling outwards from the local and momentary to encompass an ever wider temporal and geographical span. Everything is told in the third person; but in each segment the narration settles gently, like a bird settling on a branch, into the mind of one or other of the characters. For the most part these are the two main protagonists; but once in a while we are made privy to the thoughts of one of the lawyers, of a refugee in London or - most significantly - of the defendant, Markovi´c. It is in the nature of the events recounted that the burden should fall, more obviously than in most books, on its language. For Lili, as one of the translators, the demands are of an especially stringent and explicitly codified form. (‘The ideal was transparency, a self-effacement thorough enough that no one in the room would remember they were there.’) Daniel, by contrast, is seeking objectivity of a sort which does not require the suppressing of his own sympathies. (‘He wondered what it meant that in some way he did love this city...’) And it is noticeable that their private perceptions are, though very subtly, differently described, Lili’s tending towards the baldly factual, Daniel’s more sweeping and poetic. Issues of protocol divide them; but it would not be too much to say that their relationship founders upon the irreconcilability of two conceptions of the trust which may be placed in words.
While in no way virtuosic, Helwig’s prose is at all times a joy to read. At the core of the narrative, however, lies her attempt to engage with the consciousness of Markovi´c, self-deluded and evading the knowledge of his own guilt. This attempt might reasonably be considered a logical impossibility; and the shadow of such impossibility creeps in upon her account of the thoughts of the others, denying us any comforting assumption - even within the terms of the fiction - of an access to absolute truth. At the same time we recognise Helwig’s style as admirable not only in itself but as measured against something: and that something is the desideratum of truth-to-experience implied in both Lili’s and Daniel’s daily employment. Between Mountains shows the world’s viciousness transmitted through long chains of human contract; and the more honourable the characters, the more vulnerable they are to it. Every event, whether it is sex or whether it is an evening stroll, is told in such a way that we know it would be told differently if the events in Bosnia were not taking place. If in the end this is not depressing, it can only be, again, because of the language - which is ultimately where humanity resides.