The Method by Juli Zeh – reading a translated text.

Sometimes, I wish I could speak every language. At least every language of the books I’ve read or want to read. It is very hard to judge a translated text. I would say that the writing – both the style and the language – of The Method was brilliant. But how much of that was the original, and how much was the translation? The version I read was translated by Sally-Ann Spencer.

The Method is one of my favourite genres; the near future dystopia, where the rights of the individual are subsumed by the collective good of society or government. So, we’re somewhere in the future, but not too far. We’re probably in Germany (Zeh is German and the names feel Germanic), but no nation is ever mentioned. We’ve taken the idea of the nanny state looking after our health to an extreme conclusion. The Method is a form of government where good health is the responsibility of every citizen. No-one feels physical pain, no-one gets ill, and no-one does anything to jeopardise the status quo. Anything bad for the individual and therefore for the state, is banned. Most people drink nothing but hot water. Some, with lemon.

As with all good dystopian novel, society is painted as a utopia, but a single, free-thinking individual is the focus for potential change. Which is the warning to us, the twenty first century reader. Meet Mia. She has stopped submitting her medical data and her sleep records. Turns out her brother has killed himself in prison after being charged with rape and murder. Mia believes him innocent. However, nobody protests their innocence against state evidence. Mia, a scientist, wants to be left alone to grieve. She believes her brother, not the state, although she doesn’t really want to do anything about it. However, the state won’t tolerate that. She must conform. The novel is played out as a legal drama as Mia’s actions threaten the very existence of The Method. Scenes in court and scenes with a celebratory journalist move the plot along at a good pace. The Method is a fairly short novel and there is no fat. Events spiral out of control as the state tries to keep a grip on the behaviour of an individual, but chaos and entropy inevitably lead to terrorism and revolt.

My favourite section is when nature of dissenters is discussed, because I happen to agree with it. People on the outside shout and complain and want to change 13130107everything, but that’s all most of them ever do. The very few who stick it out within the system in order to get to a position of power or authority, fall in line and keep their heads down once there. This is a key concept in dystopian fiction. In reality, people don’t change anything, mostly because they can’t. They can’t from the outside and if they get inside, they’re beaten down. Fictional heroes (or antiheros) tend to live the lives some of us wish we could. Be the focus of change. Revolution.

Zeh writes in the tradition of Bradbury, Orwell and Huxley, but the great thing about The Method is that the conclusion subverts expectations [spoiler coming], and the state, in this case, wins. Mia comes to accept her role as a martyr for the cause against totalitarianism and almost succeeds. However, the clever twist leaves you with a bleak smile.

The Method deserves to have a wide audience. Zeh’s style – and let’s assume it is her style and not something altered by the translation – is very readable. She talks to the reader and moves back and forth in time. She has a formal tone which matches the clinical repression of the future. There are debates and philosophies discussed with a variety of characters, including one imaginary, made up by Mia. Some of the (translated, I know) language is beautiful and highly effective. I wonder if the clipped and fantastical dialogue is deliberate, typically German, or lost in translation. Either way, it was highly effective and enjoyable. The concept is a good one, and in my experience original, if fairly improbable compared with other dystopian futures. I only read this because it was shortlisted for an award (although I do recall reading the review a while ago). It was on the shelf at my local library. I hope more people discover this great read.

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