Monday, September 07, 2009

Significant names plus a question for readers

Yesterday I awarded a copy of Arnaldur Indriðason's The Draining Lake to a reader who knew that the name of Arnaldur's protagonist, Erlendur, is also an Icelandic word meaning foreign.

The coincidence struck me and not just because Arnaldur occasionally writes about Iceland's uneasy accommodation of its recent immigrant population. More to the point, Erelendur is not always at ease in his own country. Thus, I thought, his name may be thematically significant.

Imagine my excitement last night when I read the following, in Arctic Chill, about a boy named Niran:

"`Niran,' Erlendur said to himself, as if to hear how the name sounded. `Does that mean anything in particular?'

"`It means
eternal,' the interpreter said.

"`Eternal?'

"`Thai names have literal meanings, just like Icelandic ones.'"
Niran is nowhere to be found at this point in the story, and his brother has just been found dead, likely the victim of a stabbing. Eternal is a bitterly ironic name for a child who at this moment may be anything but, just one more piece of evidence that a name is more than just a name for Arnaldur.

(Arctic Chill was short-listed for the 2009 CWA International Dagger Award for best translated crime novel. The award went, as this award often does, to Fred Vargas and translator Sîan Reynolds, for The Chalk Circle Man.)
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And now your question: You've just met characters whose names mean foreign and eternal. Both these names are at least partly ironic. What other characters have significant names?

© Peter Rozovsky 2009

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20 Comments:

Blogger seana said...

Marco, are you maddened yet?


v word=beeteri, which sounds like the kind of dining establishment that would have limited appeal, except here in Santa Cruz, where there might be enough devoted vegans to actually keep such a place afloat.

September 07, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

That reminds me of the Scotch tape boutique in an old Saturday Night Live skit. I have one crime-fiction acquaintance who has moonlighted as a professional dominatrix. Phonetically, if not orthographically, beeteri could have an entirely different meaning for her. It could be a chain of cut-rate shopping-mall dungeons for when fetish goes mainstream.

Marco, thank you for inspiring me to rediscover my love of questions.

September 07, 2009  
Blogger seana said...

That's right, Peter. One small vowel changes the whole context. And one small consonant could have changed this into something repugnant to vegetarians of every stripe--a 'beeferi'.

September 07, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Or a Bob Dylan song, "I Shall Beeferi No. 10."

September 07, 2009  
Blogger seana said...

I know I know this song, but I can't quite hum it from the lyrics.

Now you're probably wondering by now
Just what this song is all about
What's probably got you baffled more
Is what this thing here is for.
It's nothing
It's something I learned over in England.


If I'd read this closing stanza at the time, I would have said, 'This guy is never going to make it.'

Yeah, I've been known to be wrong before.

v word=ighte, which is a lighter that is slowly beginning to fade out.

September 07, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

v word=ighte, which is a lighter that is slowly beginning to fade out.

Oh, what a gorgeous image.

Odd you should happen to write what you did about "I Shall Be Free No. 10." I was thinking as I copied the link that, even though it is one of a number of bad or embarrassing songs that Bob Dylan has written, folks would persist in analyzing it or taking it seriously. It takes nothing away from "Like A Rolling Stone" or "Shelter From the Storm" to say that "I Shall Be Free No. 10" is a snippet ot not terribly funny adolescent whimsy or that "Desolation Row" is bloated and far too self-serious for your own good.

September 07, 2009  
Blogger marco said...

Hercule Poirot. Is name is ironic because his strength is not in the muscles but in the mind.

September 07, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Here is further exploration of the roots of Poirot's name. I confess that the name has always made me think of a small, perfectly formed pear.

September 07, 2009  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

I remember reading a very funny critical essay on Tolkien once about the use of Z in his character names - anyone with a Z in his name was a bad guy if I recall correctly.

September 07, 2009  
Blogger Philip said...

Endeavour Morse, (V.)Iphigenia Warshawski, and, if this encompasses surnames, John Rebus.

September 07, 2009  
Blogger Maxine said...

"Varg" in Gunnar Staalesen's books - his name (depending on the translator) means "Wolf" or "Outlaw", reflecting his profession as a private eye (with the usual maverick, "outside society" connotations)

September 07, 2009  
Blogger seana said...

It doesn't say much for me that I have never for a moment thought about the significance of Hercule's name.

The questions may frustrate you, Marco, but you still have good answers.

September 07, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Adrian, did the essay pronounce it "zed," or "zee"?

September 07, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Philip, the question does encompass surnames, and I've always liked Rebus'. I had known neither Morse's first name nor what V.I.Warshawski's middle initial stood for. It's hard to imagine a name more saturated with significance than Iphigenia, particularly for a protagonist created by a woman. A name that means "born to strength"? The sacrifice? That has all the nobility and self-dramatization that any good fictional detective needs.

September 07, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks, Maxine. Either of those translations of Varg would satisfy any significance-hunting crime-fiction reader. I read and enjoyed The Writing on the Wall, and I had no idea of any significance attached to the name except for its notably harsh sound.

September 07, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, I join you with respect to the inactivity of my little grey cells in the matter of Hercule Poirot's name. Perhaps I was lulled into complacency by the name's Gallic lilt.

September 07, 2009  
Blogger marco said...

Yeah, but I should have thought about Rebus. In my defense, I didn't think about it too much in order not to be maddened too much.

September 07, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I shall try to drive you close to the edge without ever pushing you over. You'll find no question in my most recent post.

Apropos of these names, it must take a confident author to name a character Iphigenia or Hercule or "Foreign." The risk is great that the name will seem a gimmick. But Arnaldur and the authors named in the comments make the significant-name device work -- a sign, I suppose, that each has created a character strong enough to bear the name.

September 08, 2009  
Blogger seana said...

Yes, you'd think Rebus would be too much. But somehow it isn't.

September 08, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I have heard it said that one should not give characters zany names unless one is Charles Dickens. Names like this run similar risks, but these authors all carry the task off nicely.

Of course, it helps that in some cases the names are concealed, as in V.I. Warshawski's middle initial. I guess that if an author is good enough, he or she can edge toward mythic overtones of the name-is-destiny variety.

Now, let's see Ken Bruen's second Jack Taylor novel is The Killing of the Tinkers ...

September 08, 2009  

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