Monday, April 30, 2007

Maladies of Interpreters

This collection of short stories marks a wonderful debut by Zoompa LaHeiri and portends good things to come (Note: Her first name is pronounced juhmp pah).

This reviewer enjoyed all the stories was especially intrigued by titles such as, When Mr. Piranha Came to Dine, A Temporal Matter, The Third and Final Lincoln Continental and A Really Smelly Durian. One stands in awe at her assured deftness, her subtle use of lush juxtapositions that, almost ironically, are nearly bereft of metaphors. Perhaps it is her acute eye for pronouns, but one can never really be sure.

The featured story is Maladies of Interpreters in which Ms. La Heiri successfully navigates the hyperkinetic turbulence that inevitably results when a myriad of maudlin characters are thrust in the maelstrom of an unmitigated disaster. The setting is the annual conference for the Global Association of International Translators (GAIT), a normally staid event held each September at the Secaucus Embassy Suites Hotel.

Things quickly go awry when a mysterious illness afflicts conference attendees with symptoms that are a cross between hemorrhagic fever and the heartbreak of psoriasis. Oddly, it is only translators who fall prey. Hotel staff and other guests are totally unaffected.

The translators must be quarantined. It is at this point that the main protagonist, Lila Quincy Jordan Lolita, a world renowned epidemiologist, is introduced. Dr. Lolita, it turns out, is a deaf mute who communicates only via sign language. Ironically, among the two thousand translators trapped in the hotel, not one is fluent in sign language.

LaHeiri deftly avoids most of the tired old cliché involving deaf mutes and translators, using wit and tension in all the right places along with the well timed death scene. She also does a remarkable job of injecting gallows humor in a way that seems totally apropos. For example, the scene where some of the translators recreate the old Firesign Theatre skit, “Beat the Reaper” can only be described as inspired lunacy. Most remarkably, this literary device comes off as natural part of the narrative landscape rather than a mutated or gene altered artifice.

This reviewer is so impressed by Ms. LaHeiri’s writing that he and his wife will likely name their next child, if it is a girl, after her. It should be a lovely namesake and, one suspects, a fascinating story in of itself.