“The Stages” by Thom Satterlee


Thom Satterlee is a poet, novelist and translator.

You might guess all that from reading his book The Stages, a mystery combining the historical and modern that should appeal to those who appreciate smart, textured crime stories featuring complex characters. If you like Fred Vargas, for example, you’ll feel right at home here.

The Stages should also appeal to language and translation geeks, fans of Kierkegaard, and those who enjoy being messed with a little, who crave something tricky but at the same time substantial. To get the always-dodgy mainstream taste comparisons out of the way, Satterlee displays a talent for inventing worlds rife with secret passageways and hidden rooms that at times recalls David Foster Wallace or Haruki Murakami.

That is to say, if you’re a rabid fan of either of those authors to the point of turning up your nose at everything else, stop trying to be so cool and go read something else already! Like The Stages.

The plot follows Daniel Peters, an American translator of Kierkegaard living in Denmark who happens to have Asperger’s, as he struggles to mourn the death of his old girlfriend and boss, Mette, who has recently been murdered.

A Kierkegaard manuscript Daniel had been translating is discovered to be missing after Mette is killed, and a mystery unfolds around her death, the manuscript and the possible connection between the two.

It’s clear that Daniel’s condition colors the way he reacts to his circumstances, but at the same time it doesn’t always seem clear, to him or to us, which parts of his behavior are due to his Asperger’s and which are just him.

One of the most interesting things about the character is that he himself appears translated at times, or rather we’re given to understand that he’s constantly having to “translate” human behavior into a language that’s comprehensible to him. This is a simple, obvious metaphor addressed directly in the text, but it’s also a parallel that plays out on many levels.


For an example of this, I’ll bring up Haruki Murakami again. One scene in particular, between the main character and Susannah, a young woman who Daniel tries to consult for help while seeking answers about Mette’s murder, seems weirdly scripted and over-the-top in a way that reminds me of a Murakami scene translated into English (no one in particular, just generally). I’m willing to wager that to a certain extent, Murakami just writes that way, and perhaps Satterlee does as well. But when it turned out later that Susannah also had Asperger’s, I thought this was a point worth noting.

I’m not saying that Murakami has been translated badly, nor that the scene in The Stages is badly written. I’m saying that there’s a certain difficult-to-describe quality to language that sometimes seems to result from translation. It’s not exactly foreign-sounding. It’s somewhere between the pejorative “generic” and the positive “universal.”

Any translation is a compromise. Sometimes, even if the translator manages to strike the “right” balance between literal and clunky vs. altered and smooth, it still just sounds translated.

So I wonder if this phenomenon and a social situation involving two characters who view social situations atypically could draw the same result.

Suffice it to say, The Stages raises many interesting questions about translation, language and humanity.

If you’re like me, you might find yourself more interested in these questions than in who killed Mette and stole the manuscript. But that’s okay, because Daniel has the same problem. He has to remind himself not to talk people’s ears off about his work during the investigation, and his days, even at their most unusual and stressful, are punctuated by the simple pleasure of food and drink: Cakes and pastries, hot dogs, and strong, well-sugared coffee à la Kierkegaard.

The Stages is available both in print and on Kindle, and set to be released in hardcover by Crooked Lane Books later this year. It is also, of course, available in Danish, if you swing that way.


Photo by Markus Spiske (licensed under CC BY 2.0)