When I read The People in the Photo a few weeks ago for Women in Translation Month (#WITMonth on Twitter), I didn’t expect to have time to read another book for the same event, but I’ve had this one on my Kindle for a while and have managed to squeeze it in before the end of the month. The Travels of Daniel Ascher was originally published in French in 2013; I read an English translation by Adriana Hunter.
At the beginning of the novel, twenty-year-old Hélène Roche has just moved to Paris to begin studying archaeology at university. Her great-uncle, Daniel Ascher, also lives in Paris and has offered to let her rent one of the upstairs rooms in his house, but when Hélène arrives she finds that he is out of the country, on a trip to Tierra del Fuego. This is nothing surprising – for as long as Hélène can remember, Daniel has been off on his travels, visiting one exotic location or another – and actually, his absence doesn’t bother her too much as she has always found her eccentric great-uncle slightly embarrassing.
As Hélène gets to know her fellow students, she discovers that most of them are fans of The Black Insignia, a series of novels in which the hero travels the world, having exciting adventures in locations as varied as the Amazon, Machu Picchu and Pompeii. Hélène alone has never read a Black Insignia book, partly because she thinks the stories sound childish and uninteresting and partly because the author of the series is her great-uncle Daniel, writing under the name HR Sanders. Her new friend Guillaume, however, is so enthusiastic about the books that Hélène is persuaded to look at them again – and in the process she makes some surprising discoveries about the life of Daniel Ascher.
The Travels of Daniel Ascher is a very short book (I easily read it in one evening) and I think it’s probably aimed at young adults, although that’s not to say it has nothing to offer an adult reader too. When the truth about Daniel Ascher’s childhood begins to emerge (I’m trying not to spoil anything here) it’s a story which has been written about many times before, but the way in which Déborah Lévy-Bertherat chooses to approach that story feels fresh and different.
I thought the book was generally well written, although as with all translated novels, unless you’re able to read the original, it’s difficult to know whether anything has been lost in translation. I do have a criticism, though, and that relates to the dialogue, which is written without quotation marks and presented as one continuous paragraph, with what one character says separated from the next by a comma. I’m really not sure why so many contemporary authors think this sort of thing is a good idea – I find anything other than conventional dialogue very distracting and unnecessary. In this particular novel, I suppose it helped to create a dreamlike atmosphere, but at the same time it made it difficult to connect with the characters and took away some of the emotional impact of the story.