The Critics’ Corner
Into the Middle Game
by Don Webb
The Dohani War begins in issue 508.
Readers who have a copy of Martin Kerharo’s Dohani : Guerre will notice something odd about the format of the English-language version, which is currently in progress. It’s the epigraphs.
Each chapter begins with lyrics from popular music that foreshadow the theme of the chapter. For example, chapter 1 begins with:
Time to move along
Everything’s gone wrong
Better catch that bus
— The Primitives, Run Baby Run
And that’s exactly how the epigraph appears in the original. What’s so funny about it, then? The epigraph is in English, but the novel itself is not.
Now, the author kindly translates the lyrics in an appendix to the novel. For the sake of consistency, then, a translator might well consider substituting the French versions of the epigraphs, thus:
Il est temps de partir.
Tout s’est passé de travers.
Ferai mieux d’attraper ce bus.
The use of one language in the epigraphs and another in the text underscores the major theme of the novel: the struggle to achieve communication between people who do not speak the same language — and who, in this case, do not even use the same kind of language.
Why not use French epigraphs in the English translation? For two main reasons: First, the original lyrics are in English. Second, the author can reasonably count on his readers’ being able to understand — or at least to decipher — what the English texts mean.
Can a translator do the same; that is, count on English-speaking readers’ being able to understand the French version of the song lyrics? In Canada, most certainly. In the United States, the very thought would be laughable if it weren’t such a sad joke.
* * *
The struggle to communicate is the major mystery in a novel pervaded with mysteries. Humans have captured some Dohanis, but the more humans learn, the more puzzling the Dohani become. Not to spoil anything — readers can surely foresee the development by now — there’s even worse to come. As the novel progresses, it will become clear that neither side really knows why they are at war in the first place.
In the first chapter, Lieutenant Dexter Zimski’s commando squad captures someone who looks for all the world like a human girl. But is she human? Her eyes are pure Dohani. And she speaks no human language. In fact she appears to speak no language at all.
A doctor gives the captive the name “Jane Doe.” And Jane looks like a 16-year old girl. But is that what she is? The assumption is based on appearances alone. And even if verbal communication were possible, how could anyone ask her how old she is? “Sixteen” — or any other number — is easy enough, but “year”? What is a year to a Dohani?
And would it help to know? If a human being and a Dohani were the same age in absolute terms, what would that mean in physical and cultural terms? Dexter Zimski and the others know what Jane looks like, but that’s where it ends. And the more they learn about her, the more they realize how little they really understand.
* * *
The Dohani War relies heavily on the reader’s imagination to visualize the settings; to that end, popular familiarity with science fiction films will suffice amply. The narrative technique is reminiscent of a film or stage script combined with that of illustrated fiction. Readers are told everyone’s location or movement in space, and, perhaps most strikingly, who is looking at whom, and with what expression.
The character of Dexter Zimski provides a first-person interpretation, and it is by turns ironic and cautious: Eliza, Charts and the readers themselves are often ahead of him in understanding the meaning of the action. The author is scrupulously absent, and the text shows strict respect for one of Bewildering Stories’ guidelines: “Tell the readers what they need to know, but do not do the reading for them.”
* * *
In the first seven chapters, many characters put in an apparearance, but four take center stage: Jane and Dexter are supported by Charts and Eliza. As Dexter’s bodyguard, Charts not only represents the official military position but occasionally supplies information and insight not available otherwise. Eliza supports Dexter’s role by acting as an intermediary between him and the command structure, and she makes it possible for him to nurture a relationship with Jane.
In what amounts to a psychological experiment, the human characters gradually find out what Jane can do. And what Jane does — in addition to displaying superhuman physical powers — is turn the tables in a series of role reversals:
At the end of chapter 1, Jane defeats in single combat the entire unit that has captured her. She is overcome only by force majeure in the form of volleys of tranquilizer darts fired from a distance.
At the beginning of chapter 4, Jane is officially a prisoner and Dexter Zimski is her guard. At the end of the chapter, Dexter becomes the “prisoner” and Jane is his “guard” for all practical purposes. At this point Jane establishes once and for all that a prisoner and guard relationship is unacceptable; she insists on being treated as an equal.
In chapter 5, Dexter tries to save Jane from the station commander’s misguided gas attack, but in the end Jane saves Dexter.
In chapter 6, Dexter tries to teach Jane a spoken proto-language, but Jane reverses the procedure: Dexter and the others become the students and Jane, the teacher.
In chapter 8, Dexter completes an emotional trajectory. He had begun by thinking of Jane as a child, possibly one who is autistic, but hard experience gained over an unspecified but sufficient length of time has taught him otherwise.
Dexter’s successive roles of guard, protector and equal create a bond between him and Jane. And Dexter very reluctantly begins to realize that he has responded emotionally to her attraction to him and that he is falling in love with her. However, even that role is called into question by a reversal: the emergency that requires recharging the battery of Jane’s neural implant reveals that she is, despite eerie similarities to humans, even more Dohani than anyone has suspected.
In terms of character, Dexter has moments of impatience, but his main role is that of peacemaker between Jane and Charts as well as the other military personnel and the technical staff. Now that Jane has displayed “photographs” of her homeworld, her role must begin to shift — even in the eyes of the military — from that of a captive combatant to that of interstellar emissary.
Meanwhile, two mysteries remain: Why was Jane attracted to Dexter in the first place, rather than to someone else or to no one? And why did the Dohani go to great lengths to try to recover their asteroid base?
To make an analogy with chess, the opening of the game is concluded. Charts and Eliza have taken their position on the board as knights, while Dexter and Jane might be opposing bishops. In chapter 8, the middle game begins.
Copyright © 2013 by Don Webb