REVIEW: The Employees: A Workplace Novel of the 22nd Century by Olga Ravn

Bearing in mind the fact that September 30, 2020 marks the International Translation Day, we’ve decided to share with you a treasure of translated fiction: Olga Ravn’s masterful novel titled The Employees, which was translated from the Danish by Martin Aitken and will be published by Lolli Editions.

The Employees has been compared to Samuel Beckett’s oeuvre, and it truly builds upon a foundation of a similar grandeur, for Ravn is a remarkable writer – kudos to the translator for managing to transpose the beauty of her style into English. The work is of a fragmentary character, with its magnificently crafted structure revealing information regarding the plot and the protagonists in forms of statements that are being issued over a period of 18 months to a certain committee. As the novel progresses, one becomes aware of the layers of meaning, which are somewhat shuffled, and are slowly being revealed in a non-linear manner. This choice of narration is by no means an ordinary one, it actually represents one of the bravest writing endeavours that I’ve encountered in literature, whose success is located in the tension that’s being built as the statements progress. They are being issued by the crew of the Six-Thousand Ship: humans and humanoids. There are certain ‘objects’ that are being discussed, and the crew’s relation to them appears to be a manner of great concern that is slowly being revealed to the readers.

With the aim of not ruining the plot for you, but letting you delve into this masterpiece, I’d like to point out several topics that are discussed and analyzed in The Employees with great delicacy and insight, and are some of the biggest questions to be posed in contemporary literature, taking into account the blurring of lines between work and free time, and the overbearing idea of unlimited productivity. It makes us probe into what it truly means to be human, as well as to question whether loneliness only constitutes a feature of the human mind, or it can also be felt by fictive humanoid beings whose language becomes increasingly imbued by emotions as the statements progress.

Nearing the end, while reading Statement 174, I was reminded of Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij’s project The OA, which held the same grandeur in my eyes. The sensibility of the three creators: Marling, Batmanglij and Ravn pores into their works, for the two formats are so deeply attuned to the intricacies of the mind and its manifold layers, as well as to the visual element, for Ravn’s novel plays with strong and moving images, and as you progress with the statements, the ‘film’ that’s being played in your mind becomes increasingly chilling, which is also the case while watching The OA.

“Does a thought count? A sufficiently negative thought? For instance, I might start thinking you’re not infallible, that you might be prone to error, but then I feel angry with myself and tell myself it must be me there’s something wrong with. Why do I have all these thoughts if the job I’m doing is mainly technical? Why do I have these thoughts if the reason I’m here is primarily to increase production? From what perspective are these thoughts productive? Was there an error in the update? If there was, I’d like to be rebooted.”

Olga Ravn’s novel undoubtedly pertains to the arena of the most original contemporary novels, and will speak multitudes to every reader willing to listen to its intricate layers, and I could not recommend it more.

Translated by Martin Aitken

Winner of a Jan Michalski Foundation Award

Winner of a Danish Arts Foundation Award

Publication 1 October 2020

Publisher Lolli Editions

Share Button

Sanja Gligorić

Sanja Gligorić obtained her BA and MA in English Language, Literature and Culture at the Faculty of Philology, University of Belgrade, where she is currently studying for a PhD in Literature. She has presented papers at various international conferences and is the author of a bilingual monograph on Virginia Woolf. She enjoys reading, writing and translating.