The Thai Translation of Olga
Literature, love and political ideology

© Goethe-Institut Thailand

“The novel is similar to Behind the Painting by Sri Burapha, which could actually be titled Kirati in the way that this novel is called Olga.”
A discussion of Olga by Bernhard Schlink in the context of Thai society with Artch Bunnag.

Can you give us a synopsis of the story?
The book is split into three parts. It describes the life of a woman called Olga, who remains unmarried until she dies, though she doesn’t stay a virgin (laughs). Her story is narrated by Ferdinand, which means we have to admit that his opinions of Olga are somewhat biased and prejudiced. The author is also a man, so the book itself is written from a male standpoint.

Since I am from an Asian background and have more familiarities with Asian contexts, so I didn’t take a particular side in the plot and my views were quite neutral.

All three parts of the novel are fairly distinct. The first part is a romance while the second is considered to be more realistic. It’s more “masculine” comparing to the first part. The third part consists of a selection of letters so it’s similar to reading nonfiction, something like a historical record or the biography of somebody famous.

Let’s talk about the characters.
Olga reminds me of Behind the Painting by Sri Burapha, a story of the female protagonist narrated by a male character. Actually, Behind the Painting could even be titled Kirati in the way that this novel is called Olga. Behind the Painting shows a greater level of prejudice because it’s told by Nopphon, who is in love with Kirati, whereas Olga is more balanced.
Even so, Ferdinand is still a unreliable narrator because he was brought up by Olga and he remains fond of her. You will also see that both feature men are unexperienced and fail to understand women deeply.

I’m talking just about the novel and not the author or his intentions. I will just critique the text itself. Other readers are free to develop their own interpretations but speaking personally, I really love bad girls or women antiheroes and I always cheer for them.

The launch of the Thai translation of Olga Photo: Graham Meyer © Goethe-Institut
You’re talking about Viktoria, right?
Yes. Viktoria doesn’t appear a lot in the novel, but I loved her. For me she was a really colourful character. Ferdinand doesn’t actually meet her in person but instead, it’s Olga who tells him about Viktoria. Of course, Olga doesn’t want to make herself look bad. Rather, she wants to portray herself as the heroine of the story. Olga’s backstory actually sounds like that of the heroine of a romantic tragedy. She’s an orphan, she loses her parents, so she has to live with her relatives, but she struggles and fights and she’s desperate to learn things, for example to play the piano and the organ, and she loves to read. It’s all very bourgeois, and at one level, it’s similar to the kind of mainstream Thai literature written by middle-class authors where all this stuff has to be packed in. When you read the book, you also see that it is full of references to literature, that ‘I know this writer’ and ‘I know that writer’ and this is because Schlink wants to highlight the prestige and value of literary culture. This is common in this kind of genre, in what you might call literary fiction.

In mainstream Thai literature, middle-class women authors like to use this trope and to refer to other literature, and this helps to strengthen their status as an author. When we see this in Olga, though, it also works to establish her character as educated and knowledgeable, and to underline her calls for women’s rights and her very clear views on politics. She’s brave, outspoken, forthright; it’s a very modern kind of ideal for women and set against the period that she was born into and the social norms that prevailed then, she’s unusually bold.

At that time, although this was in the West, people were still religious and sex before marriage was not permissible, but in the novel, not only did Olga have pre-marital sex, she also made men fight for her. She even went as far as allowing a man to stay at her place, in the school dorm.

I think most women wouldn’t want to lead Olga’s life, even if the author has made her very beautiful and a kind of ideal woman.
The author has created a character who is really admirable and attractive in many regards, but as I read the book, I’d say to myself ‘Oh no…!’. When I read part three, I started to think she was making stuff up. You will get to read her letters to her lover Herbert, who started the trip to explore the Arctic. At the time, travelling there was extremely difficult, and this may be a clue to his wanting to prove himself to his parents, who really wanted him to marry a ‘better’ woman. His parents were very ambitious and from the way they behaved, you’d think that they were aristocrats but in reality, they were just landlords.

Now let’s talk about Olga. So far, she has only been described through the eyes of men, one of whom is Ferdinand, and he hasn’t really seen through her. In fact, he still sees her as she presents herself, but she imagines things and in reality, she’s cold and aloof.
I’m surprised there’s something like that.
Olga’s letters to Herbert begin by saying ‘Dear Herbert’ but then suddenly there’s one that begins ‘My dear husband’. I read this and thought ‘Hey, wait a minute. Did they get married?’ If she calls him ‘my dear husband’ does that make him one? Does Herbert accept this? They only had a fling, but she imagines he’s her husband. In fact, he’s a bit of a loser and he’s not successful so he runs away to the Arctic and they stop exchanging letters until 1936, when after about a 15-year gap, the letters start again.
The launch of the Thai translation of Olga © Diogenes/Library House
In that missing period, what do you think happened to Olga? Was she trying to come up with a new story?
Well, after 1913, Olga was busy working. She moved to teach in a local school, which she had to look after but when she got old, she was sacked and then she had nothing to do other than a bit of sewing, and so she thought back to her old lover, but when I read this, I thought ‘Eh?’ If she never had a new partner, does that mean she wasn’t so pretty after all? Surely, if she really was good looking, she would have forgotten Herbert by then.

After this long break, Olga wrote to Herbert again, but he didn’t reply so she assumed that he had died. She tried to find out what had happened from a bunch of clubs for explorers and places like that but she couldn’t get any information and she kept on writing to her ‘dear Herbert’ to tell him what was happening... but as I read it, I thought, maybe Herbert’s not dead after all.

He might be in Greenland, where he’s settled down and raised a family while Olga keeps believing he was in love with her until he died. It’s like Kirati saying “I’m dying without the man I loved, but I’m happy to have loved someone”. But did Herbert love her? Kirati painted Mount Mitake for Nopphon, and Olga painted a watercolour for Herbert. The two protagonists really share something similar.
And what about love and political commitments? Actually, we can exclude the love topic because she made things up by herself.
It’s actually a kind of love too. When we’re troubled in love and we phone the love gurus like Siranee or p’Ooy and p’Chod, do we actually expect the solutions that solve all our problems? I don’t think so.

Olga is like that too. She thought that she was in love in the way that she had dreamt. She was intelligent, she knew how to get others to believe in the image that she presented. As for neglecting Eik, that’s because he was disobedient and he didn’t roll over for her. What’s clear is that he had political beliefs that were at odds with hers.

This is similar to what we can see in Thailand’s society now. When people disagree, they unfriend each other because of this. On the other hand, Ferdinand did what he was told because she fed him information and built her own world for him. It’s like she installed some kind of chip in him to control him. And she was successful in this.
The setting for the novel is somewhat distant in time, beginning before the First World War and going up to the Second World War and then on to more recent times
up to the 1970s.

Do you think that this is relevant to the current situation in Thailand?
For our society, yes. There were many points in the dialogue and in Olga’s nagging that were like a slap in the face for both the young and the old in the way that they reflect our current political situation. What really clicks with Thai society now is the age gap between generations and the ideological gap within generations, but you can see that Schlink writes from his own experience with this because these types of problems are ubiquitous in the modern era. The generation gap has been around for ages. It’s not a new phenomenon, and this is true for Thailand, too.

Have you read the book?

I liked Ferdinand’s narration of part two of the novel. It felt very animated and dynamic. I particularly liked the section where Olga and Ferdinand go to meet Viktoria, and she explains to him that Viktoria really knows how to get by, and if it wasn’t for this, she wouldn’t have made it that far.
That’s just what Olga’s like. She knows how to survive so she can criticize others, but in her heart,  she might feel that Viktoria did better than her because she got a rich husband, whereas Olga doesn’t know where hers is, and instead she ended up as an old spinster. You know, at that time, being a spinster was somewhat shameful, so she twisted her story a bit and turned things around, saying that she had been a teacher and really dedicated herself to her kids but when she lost her hearing, she was kicked out of the school. You can see that she changes the narrative of her life to make something out of it, and this is how she manages to turn every crisis into an opportunity.
The launch of the Thai translation of Olga Photo: Graham Meyer © Goethe-Institut
And what do you think about the relationship between love and political ideology, and does this inform Olga’s character?
One thing we have to admit is that both then and now, if your deep beliefs are in conflict, love is not going to flourish. Herbert and Olga could get along well because their political beliefs are similar. That’s why Eik gets a hard time because his are at odds with Olga’s, although when she’s raising him, she tries to make him into the kind of man that she has always wanted.

In the literary norm, there is a term “Pygmalion Complex”. It’s derived from a Greek myth. Its men that create idealized women. But Olga is an exception. She raises someone to be an ideal man. She’s a bit like the professor in My Fair Lady, but in the end, Eik is discarded because he doesn’t turn out how she wanted.

Does this happen because Herbert has disappeared and so she has to create somebody else to take his place?
Yes. In fact, Herbert was moulded by her too, as well as Eik, but Herbert might have felt cramped by the pressure, so he ran away. And then when he came back, he couldn’t stand it, so he left again. Maybe Olga was a bit of a busybody, and he was henpecked by her. If she hadn’t been like that, maybe she and Herbert would have been properly married.

So when her man disappeared, she created a replacement child, but then when he grew up into a young man and she started to be proud of him, he rebelled and started to think for himself. At that point, she discarded him and tried to build another new person. That was Ferdinand, who was the kind of man that she always wanted.
Part two also describes their reading, and it lists a huge number of books. This made me want to go and read all of these, too.

We should follow Olga’s lead in this, right? There are a lot of authors listed who I don’t know, and for some, there are no footnotes either, so I wondered a bit about that, and there’s a climax to the plot that I’m not allowed to expose. When I first read the novel, I thought this is just a romance, and an unsatisfying one at that. I thought, well, maybe this is common for pure literature authors, which is so very boring. But when I got to around page 60...well, if you like mainstream fiction, stick with it to page 60 and then read on. To be precise, on page 63 there’s a turning point to the plot that got me hooked, and after that it was a real page-turner. After that, I sped straight through to part two.
It makes you really want to know what comes next.
Yes, so you keep reading. At first, I thought it was a bit like something by Sandra Brown. While still being in the literary fiction camp, there was a hint of romantic suspense coming in. In fact, a lot of different styles were hinted at but none of them were carried to the conclusion, and that might be the novel’s weakness. The author might have hedged his bets a bit, and maybe he worried that he’d lose his status as an author of literary fiction if he made the plot too racy, but I think that if he hadn’t held back, this would be an international hit. It could easily be a New York Times bestseller because the main plot has what it needs to qualify as popular literature, but fans of literary fiction would still like it. But it’s just not really complete. It needs more...I thought it can’t just end like that. It needs something else.
It leaves you wondering. Maybe they’ll be a fan fiction follow on, or perhaps the author will write a sequel, I’m not sure. But we’ll keep the ending a secret, so we won’t spoil it for others.
This interview is taken from of a talk held on September 26, 2020 at Fathom Bookspace, Bangkok to celebrate the launch of the Thai translation of Olga.

Olga © Library House

Author: Bernhard Schlink
Translator: Janejira Sereeyotin
Published by Library House, Bangkok
The translation of this work was supported by a grant from the Goethe-Institut