introduced and translated by Kate Lambert
When SELTA worked on Adrian Perera’s novel Mamma at our workshop in Edinburgh in 2019, we were fascinated, if not obsessed, by the fact that it is written in four different languages. Tony’s parents are divorced. He lives in Finland with his mother, who is from Sri Lanka and speaks a mixture of Sinhala, English and Swedish. She works in a factory and Tony is often alone at home watching his favourite cartoon on video. Tony speaks Swedish with his father while other characters, such as the medical personnel in this extract, speak Finnish, which Tony also understands, to an extent. He provides footnotes on the dialogue, which are sometimes more a commentary than an explanation for the reader, but fear not, there is an appendix at the end that explains what everyone is saying.
However, to concentrate solely on the technicalities of the language aspect is to do the novel a disservice. Perera has called it a horror novel. It is an unsettling read, an effect achieved by the linguistic disorientation and by viewing events through the eyes of a child. Tony is alert to every sensory experience in his environment but how much does he understand of what is going on and consequently how much do we? In not getting the full picture, we are as powerless as Tony’s mother, having to rely on her child to interpret to the health service or bravely, later in the book, trying to get her message across to the police.
The light from the telly ripples over drifts of pizza boxes. The packet of Belgian biscuits is balanced on Tony’s stomach. On the screen, Baloo the bear drops baby bear Kit Cloudkicker, their arms reach out in the air and then Kit plummets into the red abyss and Baloo falls backwards in his chair. The wings of the plane are in flames, peppered by machine gun fire from the villainous Don Karnage.
Tony leans forward and rewinds the video. Don Karnage’s machine gun sucks up the fire from the plane’s wings. Baloo shoots out of his chair and catches Kit Cloudkicker, who flies up from an orange chasm.
His mouth is burnt, rusty with sugar and cinnamon. Tony can see his reflection in the window, the rings under his shirt, his shirt covered with stardust from the biscuit packet.
Outside there’s the fence and the parish office, the black tree trunks, light purple night sky, hints of sunlight beyond the bluish fields.
The key rattles in the lock.
‘Anthony? Sova du inte? Anthony? Aiyoo. Putha, please help. I have some more in the dickie.’
Tony goes into the kitchen.
A box with Omnipac printed on it is on the table next to the flowers. Some of the stalks are bent. There are two more boxes in the doorway, parting the strips of the plastic curtain.
‘No. Last time you promised no more.’
‘Aj, Jesus.’ She drops the box. It hits the shoe rack and the shoes fall out all over the hall floor and into the kitchen.
‘Anthony, pick-it those up! Plocka tack!’
‘No, I don’t want them here! No!’
‘Anthony. Now!’ The half-moons under her eyes melt into the wrinkles on her forehead. ‘Not a word! Living room!’ The bloodshot whites of her eyes are stormy at the bottom of the dark holes. ‘Living room please! I get more.’ The plastic strips in the doorway dance as she leaves.
‘No! Take them with you and go!’
Tony stands behind the box and pushes it.
The cardboard slides under his fingers and his face cracks into a cry. He hits the box. His hands are burning. The Omnipac logo is covered in red marks.
The evening sun is bleeding along his mangled cuticles.
Tony runs to the living room and grabs Jesus.
The picture explodes onto the floor, spreading bits of metal and glass under the TV stand.
‘Anthony! Nä! Stop that NOW!’ She grabs him, her thumb sinks into the palm of his hand, in between the tendons. ‘What is wrong with you? Just like your father!’
‘I don’t want them here! You said no more. You said –’
Her hand flies up. ‘Shut up now!’
The TV flashes.
The theme tune of a new episode starts to play from the speakers. ‘Spin it! Ohee-yeah Talespin! Friends for life through thick and thin, with another tale to spin!’
Her hand floats near Tony’s eyes like the blade of an axe.
On the screen, a seaplane goes into a dive.
The phone rings.
She lets him go. Steps over Jesus. ‘Please clean this.’
‘Hallo? Mummy? Kohomada? Kohomada? How are you? Nä, nä, everything is fine, everything is fine. Taathi kohomada?’
By Tony’s feet, cracks run across Jesus’ lips and hands. Baloo’s plane dives above his burning heart.
His stomach flops over the sheet like a sack. Tony pulls the cover over his head and closes his eyes tight, pretending that the sweat isn’t crawling over his eyelids.
Through the door: ‘eka deka tuna hatara.’
Tony sticks his head under the quilt.
‘Eka deka tuna hatara eka eka eka eka.’
His calf muscles are melting together.
He opens his eyes wide. His shoulder blades stand out in the darkness like fins. Her nightdress tickles his nose.
His kneecaps are glued to the backs of her knees. Skin stretches and sticks, his to hers.
‘What?’ He fumbles for the switch.
‘What? What is it?’
She is lying wrapped up in a nest of sheets. ‘Putha.’ She screws up her eyes and twists all curled up. ‘Please …I need help. Call your pappa.’
Tony looks at the closed bedroom door. The handle shines like a star above the headboard. ‘But the phone is in the kitchen.’
She holds her stomach, the veins in her hands look like wires. ‘Ammaa.’
His feet land on the floor. Tony tears open the door and runs. Hits all the switches on the way to the kitchen with the palm of his hand. The lights blink at his heels.
Jesus smiles. All the light in the picture is sucked into his ironed-smooth head.
Tony swallows tears, flings himself past the Jesus picture and into the kitchen. Tony pulls the phone from the kitchen wall. The plastic cradle creaks. He dials half the number and hangs up.
He bellows back. ‘I can’t, mamma, I can’t.’
Her chest skitters under her nightdress. ‘I can’t breathe.’
Tony runs to the kitchen and dials daddy’s phone number, the sound of the keys bleeping in his ear.
‘Tony? Varför ringer du så här sent?’
‘She’s not very well, daddy. She isn’t very well. What do I do?’ His heart is beating in his throat.
‘Is your mother ill? What’s the matter?’
‘Amma, mata saniipa nää. Aiyoo aiyoo …’
‘What is she saying?’
‘Wait, I have to see.’
He drops the phone and daddy’s voice.
The black cable stretches out, the receiver bangs into the cupboard door.
The bedroom smells musty.
The corners of her mouth are white with dried spit. The bones of her spine stick out between her shoulder blades, like clear ridges under the pink nightdress. ‘Mata okkaare dänenava.’ She sits up and rocks with her arms crossed over her chest. ‘Mata okkaare dänenava.’
‘Daddy is asking –’
‘Mata okkaaree …’
Tony runs. The coffee table gives way to the TV gives way to the door frame gives way to the phone dangling by the kitchen cupboard door.
‘Tony, what is she saying? Does she need an ambulance? Shall I call an ambulance?’
‘Mataochkaree. She’s saying mataochkaree –’
‘What does that mean?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘Bloody hell. Ask if she needs an ambulance.’
Tony runs. Door frame TV coffee table door frame. ‘Daddy –’
She is hanging over the edge of the bed with her mouth open. Greyish-beige bits of meat and peas are running down the edge of the bed.
A lump, heavy and tense, bounces against his chest, slices under his ribs. He holds his stomach until he reaches the phone.
‘She’s being sick, daddy! She’s being sick!’
‘What did she say? Tony?’
‘How hard can it be? Yes or no?’
He runs. Door frame to door frame. ‘Should I call an ambulance?’
‘Nä, nä.’ She smiles, her voice is ragged from being sick. ‘May, putha, mehetä enda. Brandy geenda.’
Her eyelids flutter. Her throat tenses. She bends over the edge of the bed. Her neck gleams yellow under the bedroom light and her hair hangs in front of her eyes. Her arms are shaking.
The rag rug is drowned in stomach acid.
‘Tony, what’s happening?’
Tony stands holding the phone. The cupboard doors are cracked. Bits of paint are missing by the hinge. His finger nails dig into the door so you can see where the veneer is. ‘Daddy, I … She isn’t very well.’
‘What’s going on?’
‘Daddy?’ Tony clutches the telephone receiver. ‘Daddy –’
‘I’m phoning now. I’ll phone you back straight away.’
‘No daddy. Don’t put the phone down daddy. Daddy no.’
‘Everything will be OK. I’m going to phone an ambulance and I’ll be there at the hospital. Can you hear me? It’s all going to be OK. Now you be a brave boy and help your mother and I’ll phone an ambulance.’
‘Voiko rouva nousta ylös?’
Her eyelids show slices of the whites of her eyes. ‘Amma, mata saniipa nää.’ Her nightdress is hanging over her turquoise shell suit bottoms.
‘Ymmärtääkö rouva suomea?’ The sheen of the evening lamp is reflected in their clothes. ‘Svenska? You called an ambulance? Can you stand up?’
‘Aiyoo aiyoo, mata saniipa nää.’
‘Hello? Hello? If you can’t walk, we can bring a stretcher. Do you want us to fetch the stretcher?’ Every time they open their lips their mouths are full of darkness.
Tony rubs sleep out of his eyes. ‘Can you stand? They are asking if you can stand.’
‘Can you stand?’
‘I think so … Ammaa …’ The trousers rustle around her thin calves as she gets up from the bed. Her feet splash on the rag rug.
The paramedics help her to the kitchen. The blue light clings to the kitchen cupboards.
‘What’s your name?’
The sweat glitters on her forehead.
‘Is this your mum? Has she lost consciousness?’
Tony shakes his head.
‘What’s her name?’
Her shoe laces spill over the gravel path. She breathes between her teeth, squashed in between their green uniforms.
‘Constance Gustafsson. Her name is Constance Gustafsson.’
The doors to the ambulance are open. The stretchers shine black and yellow. Green arms lift her up. ‘Constance? Like Konstantin?’
The zip of her handbag is toothless against the back of Tony’s hand. He clears his way through tissues and lip salve, fluffy toffees and cold-edged house keys until he finds the Kela card.
‘Look at that! Constance with two c’s! Well you learn something new every day. Do you want to sit in the back with your mum?’
‘Mama kohetha?’ She is leaning against the metal handle of the bed, surrounded by white walls and ceiling. ‘Putha, api kohetha?’
‘We are at the hospital.’
The doctor swivels slightly in the saddle chair. ‘Mitenkäs tänään voidaan? Hur ni mår?’
‘I not feel good.’ The smooth surface of the sink distorts her reflection, turning her shell suit into a turquoise lake. Bits of her face and hair float in the hand sanitiser.
The doctor shines a little torch in front of her face. ‘If you could undress and sit on the bed?’
‘Anthony... Please help.’
Tony helps her with the bobbly nightdress. At arm’s length using only one hand.
Her stomach, washed-out brown dotted with black moles, hangs over her worn knickers. Darker lines run from her stomach up towards the indentation at her navel, touch the mossy mass of black hair. A dark scar runs from the curly hair upwards towards her breasts. Greying bra straps slide down her arms.
‘Ammaa...’ She staggers.
‘Uh-oh.’ The doctor and Tony catch her. She is soft, her arms like baby food pouches.
‘Thank you...’ The brown paper sheet on the bed rustles.
‘How long you are ill?’
‘Häh? Jesunää!’ She cradles her stomach with her hands, pulls an avalanche of paper from the reel at the head of the bed down onto the floor.
‘I need your medical history, Constance. Can you explain I must ask her medical history? She has allergies? Any illnesses in family? When did you travel last? Go home?’
Bugs Bunny stretches out his arms across Tony’s chest. One of Bugs’ ears is covered in chocolate. ‘We live at home.’
‘Anthony, I can’t breathe. Very heavy. My chest.’
The whole Looney Tunes gang is covered in vanilla ice cream.
‘She says she can’t breathe.’
‘We’ll check her oxygen partial pressure. Onko sillä ollut vatsa...? Har hon magont tidigare?’The doctor presses one blue hand on her tummy, right by her knickers. Taps with his fingers a hairsbreadth from the waistband. Pats three times, presses down, the contours of his nails show through the plastic gloves. ‘Tuberculosis? Does she have breathing problems? Does your mother have keuhkoahtaumatauti?’
He has spilt ice cream over the whole of Looney Tunes.
The doctor leans closer to the bed. ‘You have pain in your stomach?’ His lime green polo shirt is reflected in the steel railing.
‘Ow... Yes. Very hard ...’
‘Eli sillä on ollut vatsakipuja jo kauan. Muistaako se koska ne alkoivat? When did they begin?’
‘He is asking if you’ve had stomach pain long.’
‘Nä, nä. Now it started … Anthony, I can’t breathe …’
Tony’s lips cramp in a smile. ‘Se sanoo, että sillä on vaikeeta hengittää.’
‘Om du kan sitta upp, så kola vi lungorna?’ The doctor swivels round so the wheels on the chair squeak. He stands up. Adjusts his blue trousers and goes to a white cupboard.
She leans forward on the bed with her feet dangling and her thighs squeezed together tightly in front of her like a table. The cracks in her milky heels are reflected on the shiny floor.
The stethoscope runs between her shoulder blades to the doctor’s ears. ‘Hengitä syvään. Breathe in deep.’ She grimaces, her eyes are hidden by cheeks and eyebrows.
The doctor’s sandals creak as he walks round the bed. He presses the stethoscope against her chest. ‘OK. Nothing to be worried about. Katsotaan vielä happisaturaatio … The amount of oxygen in the blood.…’ He turns to Tony. ‘Mä vähän luulen että tämä on paniikkikohtaus. Nothing to be worried about.’
The doctor’s mouth moves. He has a cut under his nose. The doctor puts one hand on his chest and mimes a bellows and closes his hand. Mimes a bellows. Holds up his blue doctor hands in front of his face like two pillars and moves them backwards and forwards ‘But we’ll still do a CTP ihan varmuuden vuoksi. Can you tell her?’
A vein is jerking in her neck, in the moat between the tendons. Attached somewhere to her heart. ‘He says it’s not dangerous, it just feels bad.’
The doctor sticks his thumb and forefinger under the cushions of his glasses and rubs.
‘Status OK. Can you ask if she needs time off work? Orkar hon jobbet? Voisin antaa vaikka pari päivää … What’s your name?’
‘Tony, you’re a big help to your mum. And you know so many languages already. I expect your mum speaks English at home.’ The doctor angles her hand in the light until her palm is more wrinkles than skin. ‘For this test we take blood from here. Valtimo, what’s that in English… the artery. It might feel a bit strange but it won’t be for long. Don’t vorry.’
He stares at the cradle in her wrist, just under the curve of the thumb.
The light runs the length of the needle.
‘Mata epa. Anthony, please say mata epa …’
He brings the needle nearer. ‘Nyt vähän nipistää.’
The needle goes in. Her arm muscles jerk.
The bed shakes.
Her eyes are two black lines.
‘Ja vielä vähän.’
The cannula goes in deeper.
- 1: She thinks I should be in bed.
- 2: She said she wasn’t going to bring home any more horrible boxes from work. I don’t want them here. I don’t want them.
- 3: She’s talking to mommo. Asking how she is and saying everything is fine. I don’t know the rest.
- 4: She says I have to ring daddy but I don’t want to go out there because it’s dark and I don’t want to go out there but she’s not very well.
- 5: She’s ill! She’s ill!
- 6: Brandy? I understood brandy.
- 7: She said mattasannypanaah. They said something about whether she can stand up and she said mattasannypanaah.
- 8: I don’t know. She said I’m going to sleep a bit and then the ambulance came.
- 9: I don’t know what she is saying but that’s the first thing I’d be asking. Daddy is coming soon. Soon. Daddy is coming soon.
- 10: He’s asking how she feels. In Finnish and Swedish. His Swedish isn’t very good.
- 11: His English is terrible. My English is better than his is.
- 12: He’s asking if her stomach has hurt before. In both languages again.
- 13: Where is daddy?
- 14: He says there’s nothing to worry about. Panic something… In Finnish it sounded like panic meeting? Where’s daddy? Why isn’t daddy here?
- 15: Did he say CLT or CRP or SeNP?
- 16: When he tries to speak English it’s still terrible. Where’s daddy?
- 17: She’s saying I’ve got to say something.
Below is a translation of the dialogue in the book that is not in English. Some responses in English are included for context and the translation is more an interpretation than word for word. The appendix is arranged in the order the phrases appear in the book.
Her: Anthony? Aren’t you asleep? Anthony? Aiyoo (an interjection that can have the same function as ouch, ow, or even act as a swearword depending on the context. Still I have chosen not to translate this kind of interjection). My son, please help me, I have more in the boot of the car.
Her: Pick them up please.
Her: Hallo’? Mummy? How are things? How are you? Yes, yes, everything’s fine, everything’s fine. How is dad?
Her: One two three four.
Her: One two three four.
Her: One two three four (turns into a dream) one one one one one.
Her: Ammaaa… (here acts as an interjection to express pain, but can also mean the noun mother depending on the context).
Her: My son.
Him: Why are you ringing this late?
Her: Mamma, I feel sick. Aiyoo aiyoo…
Her: I’m going to be sick. I’m going to be sick.
Her: I’m going to…
Her: Can you hear me, my son, come here. Fetch brandy.
Paramedic: Can you stand up, love?
Her: Mamma, I feel sick.
Paramedic: Do you understand Finnish? Swedish?
Her: Aiyoo, aiyoo, I feel sick.
Kela (Abbreviation for the Finnish national insurance institution).
Her: Where am I?
Her: My son, where are we?
Doctor: How do we feel today? How are you feeling?
Her: Häh? (A Finnish interjection, acts as a question). Oh Jesus!
Doctor: Has she had stomach…? Has she had stomach pain before?
Doctor: Does your mother have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease?
Doctor: So she has had stomach ache for a long time. Does she remember when it started?
Tony: She says she’s having trouble breathing.
Doctor: If you sit up, we can check your lungs.
Doctor: We’ll just check your oxygen saturation…
Doctor: I think this is a panic attack.
Doctor: But we’ll still do a CTP to be on the safe side.
Doctor Can she cope with work? I could give her a couple of days.
Her: I don’t want to. Anthony please tell him I don’t want to...
Doctor: This is going to sting a little bit
Doctor: And a little bit more.
Foreign rights: Adrian Perera
We are grateful to the author for permission to publish this translated excerpt.
Mamma is reviewed in SBR 2020:1-2.
Pappa, a novel that revisits the same characters from a different perspective, was published in Autumn 2020.
Kate Lambert has a degree in Swedish and history and a master’s in translation. After working as an English teacher in northern Finland and as an assistant lecturer in translation, she now translates from Swedish and Finnish, particularly appreciating texts that use historical research skills and. as in this case, where familiarity with Finland is a plus.