It’s hard to judge a translated book. Is an awkward turn of phrase the writer’s fault, or just a stiff interpretation? More than language, culture often gets in the way. Kfir Luzzato’s Crossing the Meadow is strangely formal. Everyday contractions—it’s, you’re, can’t--are strangely absent from dialogue, people hold themselves at a distance even from fond acquaintances, and behaviors are sometimes constrained by inexplicable social mores that could well make perfect sense to the author. So it is at the risk of seeming terribly ethnocentric that I admit to finding Crossing the Meadow a cold, slow read.
That ennui may be intentionally created. From the night Clara meets George, an amnesiac American puzzling over his newfound placement in a coffee shop, it’s clear that neither they nor those like them are prone to passion. It’s also clear, in short order, that both are dead, and share one other thing with the other wandering lifeless ones: a quiet but desperate need to resolve business from their first life. While some of those they encounter seem to be dealing with nothing more than a bad case of confusion, Clara and George share a darker history. The business that binds them is bloody, but needs to be resolved if they are to find peace, and cross the meadow.
A story about ghosts solving a murder should provide ample suspense and thrills. It’s hard to know where exactly the horror is supposed to come in. Clara and George are united by a need to solve the dark secret that ended her life, with proper foreboding being given. But that mystery seems solved within the first fifth of the book, the conclusion obvious from their conversation, which makes their ongoing attempts to “solve” the crime a mystery in themselves. It’s possible to believe that neither is ready to move on until they goad living people into uncovering the eventual physical evidence, but that doesn’t make the mystery any more thrilling for the reader, stuck following the adventures of George and Clara as they discover that – dramatic music — their first guess was correct, and everything they expected was true.
Real mysteries abound around the edges of George’s story. The family living in George’s childhood home is plagued by more than its share of ghosts. That a betrayed wife would haunt her husband’s lover is understandable, and delivers the occasional chill otherwise missing from the tale. Even George and Clara become more interesting when seen as phenomenon in another story, once they decide to start engaging with humans and becoming insistent ghosts in the machine.
Kfir Luzzato has a strange way of making characters less detailed as they get more attention. Silvia, the daughter of the family living in George’s childhood home, is a likeable, detailed little girl. Her occasional intersections with the main story are all dead-end but enjoyable diversions, and her brief meetings with the partly-departed create the aura of the uncanny that George’s occasional fretting about mystery clothes can never summon. The smug professor who brings their case to the light of day, the furious ghost of a jilted lover, the spirit of a lonely barkeep, all show more color in their brief spotlight than George and Clara manage in their long exploits.
Crossing the Meadow is not without merit; Luzzato shows a haunting promise of the passions he can create, and the side stories are almost worth the price of admission. George and Clara do indeed find the meaning in their story; it’s just a shame they can’t share it with us.