‘Translation…is highly mathematical. It’s about retaining the feeling, the thing underneath.’
Anisa spends her days adding subtitles to Bollywood movies, when what she really wants to be doing is translating great works of literature. Her Urdu – her mother tongue – isn’t quite good enough, and other than English, she doesn’t speak other languages. That is, until she meets Adam, a polyglot who can converse a dazzling array of tongues like a native speaker. He’s also a white guy, making this particularly unusual.
He’s mediocre in most other ways, poor Adam, but his aptitude for languages is certainly quite the draw for Anisa. After they begin dating, he reveals that his impressive skills weren’t exactly acquired by years of dedicated study. Rather, he tells her, there’s a cutting-edge retreat that promises fluency in a couple of weeks – with a hefty price tag, and a scary-looking NDA that promises jail time for anyone who discloses a word about their experience to anyone else, ever.
It’s a bizarre, cultish experience – the details of which I won’t spoil – but, sure enough, Anisa emerges a fluent speaker of German, suddenly able to digest Goethe and Freud and Nietzsche in the original with ease. The critical acclaim and profile she’s always longed for begins to fall into her lap.
‘Being taken seriously felt nice. I felt that people were listening to me the way they listened to men, carefully, attentively, as if something of great value might drop out of my mouth at any moment.’
But once the novelty wears off, she’s back to feeling a general malaise. And she finds herself increasingly worrying about what really goes on at The Center, and how exactly she was able to absorb a new language at such rapid speed.
I loved the punchy writing and the darkly comedic moments, like when Anisa contemplates how best to protect herself when returning to The Centre: ‘I considered arming myself with pepper spray and a penknife but only thought of it the day before leaving and by then, even off Amazon Prime, they wouldn’t arrive in time.’
This is a deliciously moreish novel. It explores race, privilege and colonialism, the acts of assimilation and appropriation, and takes us on a journey from London to Karachi and New Delhi, noting the rifts between developed and developing worlds.
‘A sense of utility seeps in when you’re exposed, so closely, to the way the world is. In the West, they keep it all at a distance. The old, the poor, the dead – outsourced, deported and dismissed, hospitalized and imprisoned, or else bombed via remote control.’
This book started off as a solid four stars, but there were a couple of things that ultimately held it back for me: the pacing is a little uneven, veering from recounting play-by-play conversations in detail to broad brush strokes where months or years pass. I felt this could have been slightly better controlled so as not to throw the reader off. The next problem is that it overall feels like a brilliant premise that hasn’t been fully developed: we’re left with a lot of unanswered questions and ambiguity, with the sense of the ending having been wrapped up in a hurry and leaving a question mark over what it was really saying. It was trying to do a lot, particularly in the second half, which meant it lost some of the focus and zest it had started with, and wasn’t able to reconcile and tie the themes up in a satisfying way by the end. Nevertheless, it was still a fun and read-in-one-sitting kind of book.
With thanks to Picador via Netgalley for the advanced copy. The Centre will be published in the UK on 6th July 2023. Quoted material subject to change prior to publication.