Hard Times for Socrates’ Footsteps

Govinda Raj Bhattarai’s masterpiece Sukaratka Paila has recently been translated into English, and published as Socrates’ Footsteps. In this sense, the content is not new, though a review of the translated version is pertinent for a few reasons. First, the author claims in foreword that the book "has been rendered into English with a view to promoting Nepali literature." A critical judgment of whether the translated version manages this tall task is in order. Second, when ordinary works are translated, they might be casually accepted. But when masterpieces or at least the most acclaimed works of an author are translated, the readers’ expectations tend to be high, and hence, the translation very, very risky. Third, reviewing a translated version can allow the readers to measure the losses and gains that are inevitable during any translation.

Footsteps is set against the time when the Maoist insurgency was at its peak. There are demonstrations and protests denouncing political regression, and demanding restoration of democracy. The book is rife with destruction—arson, kidnapping, torture and death. Amid this terror and uncertainty, the characters bump into innumerable troubles and end up either in destitution or dying. A macabre chronicle of the most heinous crimes man is capable of, the novel questions the worth of political propaganda that call for a sacrifice of people’s lives to meet certain objectives.  

Ananta, the central character, is a tad schizophrenic, like most hopeful youth in present-day Nepal. He is forced to leave Narphok, the village that nurtured him into a hopeful youth, like the thousands of Nepali youths who leave their homes for distant cities. His life in Kathmandu is turbulent, vacillating between study and politics. Above all, the death of Purnima, his beloved, in a cold-blooded combat during the ‘people’s war’ drives away all his hopes; he ends up mutilating himself one cold winter morning in his Kirtipur residence.

The novelist questions academic and political rationalities and pedagogical polemics about life. Sukrat, the university professor and guardian of Ananta, is a helpless figure, offering advices to many but seeing none of them put into practice. Times have moved out of his hand, and his hollow, pedantic prescriptions evaporate before they rest on anyone’s mind. Paradoxically, this martyr of knowledge lives offers wisdom to all. Not even his marriage that comes very late in his life gives him solace. His marriage to Nilima rather seems to rob him of his freedom, his only real wealth. Ananta and Sukrat, two of the most pathetic and forlorn characters in the novel, both occupy that narrow space between dream and reality. Both live in two worlds, the ideal and the real, but belong to none. Theirs are vexed existences, dangling between the fringes of life and death—Sukrat bent more towards and former, and Ananta more towards the latter. Yet, ‘to be or not be’ is their fundamental question.

At a time when human values count for little, ideals and cherished philosophies make little sense. Ananta moves from the village to the city, from the university to politics, dreams of foreign employment—but fate has something else in store and he is forced to kill himself. Sukrat’s education, philosophical insights and experiences are so futile that he can neither inspire Ananta to love life, not embellish his own. This name, which alludes to the great Greek philosopher, is a great paradox.

Other minor characters are victims of equally terrifying dictates of cruel times, when everyone turns hostile. Chitrakhar and Bhaktaman, two rustics from Narphok, are forced to leave the village. The cold city of Kathmandu sells them false hopes. They write to their families to sell everything to put together enough money for their travel to Qatar. The families do so and even borrow money on interest. When the brokers get the money, they simply disappear. They two are forced into taking their own lives, hanging from the same noose in Swayambhu one gloomy day.

A scansion of a series of incidents, each leading the characters from one failure to another, and ending up in death or dejection, suggests that the author is engaged in exploring a serious existential conundrum. Pessimism permeates every page, and the hollowness of theories and philosophies surge to the brim in every section. The author has no prescription, but subtly suggests that everything becomes an anaemic grand narrative if there is no regard for human values and ethics.

A passing remark on the translation seems pertinent. Great attempt has been made to keep the spirit of the original text intact

and to lend vividness to each description. Many precautions have also been taken to prevent the evitable loss that translation at times forces. However, in many places, the uses of articles and prepositions are all wrong. A couple of sentences have wrong placements of relative clauses. There are constructions like "you will have teach" and "he had ran into" that violate fundamental grammatical rules. Constructions like "Most importantly, each human being has to live the course of their life regardless of sufferings whatsoever" and "But if anyone destroys their life in the middle," bear similar incongruities.

A rendering like "he was detained and was executed by drinking poison" is logically fallacious because Socrates’ was a case, not of drinking poison, but being forced to drink the same. The word greatness in "His friends and followers waited outside, dwelling upon the greatness of the calamity" belittles the gravity of the situation, while the claim that a million people came out into the street and "at the same time, there appeared the armed police, equal in number" makes a hollow, unbelievable claim. There too are many punctuation and typographical errors, and wrong selections of determiners, particularly quantifiers. Such slips need corrections so that full justice will be done to Bhattarai’s original novel that has earned itself a prominent place in Nepali literature.

(Paudyal is a member of the faculty at the Central Department of English, TU /  Article first appeared in The Kathmandu Post)