Compass – Mathias Enard (translated by Charlotte Mandell) – 2017 Man Booker International Prize

Compass1

Early in Mathias Enard’s Prix Goncourt winning novel “Boussole”, translated as “Compass”, our protagonist Franz Ritter references Marcel Proust’s “À la recherche du temps perdu”, translated as both “Remembrance of Things Past” or more recently as “In Search of Lost Time”, the second volume of such, “A l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs”, also winning the Prix Goncourt in 1919.

Using “The Literary 100, A Ranking of the most influential novelists, playwrights, and poets of all time” by Daniel S. Burt” (published by Checkmark Books 2001), as a reference tool, Proust comes in at number 17;

“In Proust’s hands childhood, memory, the complexity of society, and sensibility gain a new subtlety that makes previous treatment primitive in comparison.” (p 63)

Similarly, Enard’s novel breaks ground, referencing memory, complex societies, sensibility and subtlety, unlike any other work on the 2017 Man Booker International Prize list, in fact unlike any work published in the last year.

A novel that takes place in the course of a single night, whilst our protagonist the musicologist Franz Ritter, fighting insomnia, relays his memories, the merging of the Orient and the Occident, and his desires for the unattainable Sarah.

I had slept like a log in a neat little inn in the heart of a village that had seemed to me (maybe because of the fatigue of the journey or the dense fog on the roads snaking between the hills coming from Graz) much more remote that the organizers had said, slept like a log, now’s the time to think of that, maybe now I should also find a way to tire myself out, a long train trip, a hike in the mountains or a visit to seedy bars to try and get my hands on a ball of opium, but in the Alsergrund it’s not very likely I’ll fall upon a band of Iranian teriyakis, opium-smokers: unfortunately Afghanistan, victim of the markets, exports mostly heroin, an even more terrifying substance than the pills prescribed by Dr Kraus, but I have high hopes, high hopes of finding sleep, and if not in time the sun will certainly get around to rising. (p 38)

Throughout there are borders everywhere, Europe to the Orient, the unrequited love Franz has for Sarah, Tehran, Damascus, Aleppo, Turkey and moving to the “far east”. All presented in the long rambling style readers of Enard’s first English published novel, “Zone” (also translated by Charlotte Mandell), would be familiar with. This time not a single sentence work, however an internalised monologue from a struggling man.

You have to be Heine to be able to outline in this way, in ten lines, the story of a defunct love; the fine, witty Henri Heine, as Théophile Gautier calls him, Heine who asks him, as the hashish-smoker is about to leave for Constantinople, in Paris at a concert of Liszt’s, with his German accent full of humour and mischievousness: ‘How will you manage to talk about the Orient when you’re actually there?’ A question that could have been put to all travellers to Istanbul, so much does the journey diffuse its object, disseminating and multiplying it in reflections and details until it loses its reality. (p88)

This complex, but thoroughly engaging work, is a journey into the seduction of the Orient; “The Orient is an imaginal construction, an ensemble of representations from which everyone picks what they like, wherever they are.” A novel that contains stories within stories, as Franz reads old emails, research papers, dwells on moments of joy, sadness. The historical lessons, for example the revolution in Tehran, containing the players the Shah of Iran and the Ayatollah Khomeini, abound. The present-day war in Syria not far from the surface and referenced a number of times.

We remained travellers, closed in the self, capable, possibly, of transforming ourselves in contact with alterity, but certainly not of experiencing it profoundly. We are spies, we make the rapid, furtive contact of spies. (p 233)

Whilst thoroughly engaging throughout, this is not a book that can be easily reviewed, a mere reader like myself, falling deep in the shadows of Enard’s greatness and knowledge. One suggestion I do have, is to play the musical works referenced by the musicologist Franz Ritter as you are reading, publisher Fitzcarraldo Editions have put together a playlist at their blog  personally I simply searched each work as it was referenced and hit “play” (the joys of modern technology!) A novel that is very much of our times (although a retrospective journey of memory);

It’s strange to think that today in Europe one so easily places the label “Muslim’ on anyone who has a last name that’s Arabic or Turkish. The violence of imposed identities. (p 327)

The acknowledgements at the conclusion of the book, including “To the Syrian people”.

This night of insomnia, this search for the turning points in his life, the search for Orientalism becomes “A mystical search without any god or transcendence other than the depths of the self…” (p445). Very much like the referenced Proust this journey of Franz Ritter’s is one that will linger for a very long time, a love story, with a person, with a region, with a country, with a culture, this is a deep and significant contribution to literature in translation.

Personally, I think this is the standout work on the 2017 Man Booker International Prize list, a book that will be remembered for many years to come. If they are rewarding literary merit then surely this should be a certainty to lift the prize, if they are looking at promoting literature in translation, then things become a little shakier, as it is not a simple read, a straightforward narratively driven book, but this is a book for our times. I could easily use the “Literary 100” quote and simply replace Proust with Enard, well maybe not the childhood part as much… “In Enard’s hands childhood, memory, the complexity of society, and sensibility gain a new subtlety that makes previous treatment primitive in comparison.” (p 63)

 

Black Moses – Alain Mabanckou (translated by Helen Stevenson) – 2017 Man Booker International Prize

BlackMoses

The lomglist of France’s pre-eminent literary award, the Prix Goncourt, contained fifteen works in 2015, with two of those books now appearing on the Man Booker International Prize longlist in 2017. Mathias Enard’s “Compass’ (originally titled “Boussole” and now translated by Charlotte Mandell) eventually took out the award with “Black Moses” (originally titled “Petit Piment”, ‘Small Pepper”) making the final eight titles, however not the final four. The Prix Goncourt going through three selection processes before the winner is announced.

For interest sake, here are the four titles that made the final selection listing, Nathalie Azoulai “Titus n’aimait pas Bérénice”, Mathias Enard “Boussole”, Héde Kaddour “Les Prépondérants”, and Tobie Nathan “Ce pays qui te ressemble”. Maybe a few of these will make their way into English over the coming years!

Alain Mabanckou’s “Black Moses” takes place both in and not far from the coastal City of Pointe-Noire in the Republic of Congo, on the central west coast of Africa.

Our protagonist is an orphan, named “Tokumisa Nzambe po Mose yamoyindo abotami namboka ya Bakoko” or “Thanks be to God, the black Moses is born on the earth of our ancestors”, a name given to him by Papa Moupelo, the priest at the orphanage in Loango where he grows up.

The orphanage is ruled with an iron fist by the Director Dieudonné Ngoulmoumako, and once the country falls to a Socialist revolution the much-loved priest Papa Moupelo no longer arrives at the orphanage and his room is emptied, a sign being erected on the door;

MEETING HUT FOR THE NATIONAL
MOVEMENT OF PIONEERS OF THE SOCIALIST
REVOLUTION OF CONGO

Of course religion disappears, and the corruption begins, the nephews of the Director, on his father’s side are promoted, on his mother’s side left to their current jobs.

It does not fall to everyone to become a section leader of the Union of Socialist Youth of Congo. The government sifted through the applications carefully, taking account of the ethnic origin of the candidates. As the northerners were in power – in particular the Mbochis – the leaders of the USYC were also Mbochis, an ethnic group which represented a scant 3.5 per cent of the national population. In other words, Dieudonné Ngoulmoumako had had to fight to fix the appointment of his three nephews, who were not Mbochi from the north, but Bembé from the south. In fact he had only partly got what he wanted because although they accepted his request, the political leaders of the Kouilou region suggested he go halves: his nephews could be section leaders, but under the command of the two nothereners, Oyo Ngoki and Mokélé Mbembé, who in turn would be accountable to the national division at the annual congress in Brazzaville, to be attended by the President of the Republic himself. (pp26)

The story becomes a tale of propaganda, and censored histories and a potted history of Communist rule in Congo and Angola, through Moses reciting the President’s speeches or through his interactions with the adults in the orphanage;

Suddenly serious, she adjusts her glasses: ‘I am the fruit of that one-night encounter, during which my mother may have said nothing, since she spoke no Spanish, and my father kept silent too, as he spoke neither French not any one of the dozens of languages of our country. My father, I’m told, was tall, handsome, with light brown eyes. I get my light skin from him; when I was young I was both teased and envied for it. People made fun of it because you could see straight away I wasn’t as black as the Congolese girls, so I had to be a bastard, “a Cuban”, which meant my mother must have gone with some soldier either because she wanted to have a child who was less black, or because she was secretly working as a prostitute near the military camps on the border, but I favour the first possibility. Yes, she did want to have a child with lighter skin, because at the time that represented a kind of superiority, it was silly, but it was all part of the complex we had about white people, anything white was superior, everything black was doomed, with no future, no tomorrow, are you still with me, Moses my friend…?’ (pp64)

A book that is split equally into two sections, the orphanage to begin with and then the streets of Pointe-Noire to conclude, we follow “Black Moses (or “Little Pepper” if you prefer his other nickname and the original title) through a disadvantaged life. Note – there is a small closing section, however in order not to give away spoilers I will not give details here.

An enjoyable read this is a book filled with references to anti-heroes throughout literature;

Behind the twins and the Tékés, I noticed the silhouettes of the three strange men we called ‘The Three Mosquiteers’, because they draped themselves in mosquito nets from dawn to dusk, convinced that the mosquitoes of the Côte Sauvage were only targeting them.

The Three Mosquiteers? There were four of them actually, if you counted their accomplice, the one-legged stammerer, though he didn’t cover himself with a mosquito net like the others. Since his other leg was missing, the stammerer couldn’t use one of his arms to arrange the mosquito net as it was busy compensating for the absence of his left leg. If he had had the full complement of limbs, he’d have done as the other three Mosquiteers did. That was the evening I realised that we in fact had four Mosquiteers with us, and the fourth, the one-legged stammerer, the youngest and most hot-headed of them, was only fourteen years old… (pp117)

Even the street gangs are open to corruption; “Now I understood why they ‘worked’ less and less and had taken a bit of a bourgeois turn.” (pp137), this is not simply a political or emotionally difficult story, it is also a story littered with joyful, humorous anecdotes;

‘Little Pepper, I’ll be frank with you: I think you need help. Your situation isn’t just serious, it’s completely and utterly desperate…’

For years he would continue to sing this refrain, as my memory problems affected my gait and I started to walk in zigzags because it completely slipped my mind that the shortest route from one point to another is a straight line, which is why, as they say around here, drunkards always come home late.

Using a few details of the biblical Moses’ story, abandoned orphan, exile, and other references that could be spoilers, and mixed with the tale of Robin Hood, a renegade here working for the prostitutes of the east and the “poor”, and blended with a tale of a nation moving from French to Communist rule, this is a very readable novel. The downside being it is yet another African novel set in an orphanage, for some strange reason these seem to be the African works I come across when dabbling with translated works from that continent.

Through a coming-of-age story it is also a metaphor for the maturation of a nation, Black Moses’ story is playful, horrific, enjoyable and moving, all at the same time and it is also a story that contains a glimmer of hope.

Can it win the 2017 Man Booker International Prize? Given the lack of African representation in recent years it may garner a few sympathy votes, but I see it as one of the solid entries that is filling the middle of the pack, just a little short of lifting the main gong. Whilst I rate it highly on my list of longlisted books read to date, I feel it will fall short on the night the winner is announced. Only time will tell…

Minute-Operas – Frédéric Forte (Translated by Daniel Levin Becker, Ian Monk, Michelle Noteboom & Jean-Jacques Poucel)

First up from the American Literary Translators Association, 2016 National Translation Awards longlist for Poetry (geez that’s a mouthful), is Minute-Operas by Frédéric Forte (Translated from the French by Daniel Levin Becker, Ian Monk, Michelle Noteboom & Jean-Jacques Poucel).
Stepping into Frédéric Forte’s work is like stepping into a vast sparse gallery space, open space around you, take time to ponder what your eye has been drawn towards. Broken into two sections, “Phase one – January – October 2001” and “Phase two – February – December 2002”. Each section containing 55 “poems” or creations.
Each poem is “Staged” on the page, where a “simple vertical line of 3 inches (I measured the line thinking it would more likely to be in centimetres, but inches it was, I wonder if this is part of the translation or a US audience too?) separates, what Forte calls the stage and the wings”. Typographically the word creations then perform on this stage created on each page. It is probably best to cite an example.
This example showing the passing of time, the polar opposites of marking off weeks but stating that during a “poem’s construction you never count your days”, ageing and creation (in the wings) whilst the seconds pass on the stage. Complexity all on a single page. To quote the ‘Preface” from “The End of Oulipo? An attempt to exhaust a movement” by Lauren Elkin and Scott Esosito;
The concept of potential literature is founded on a paradoxical principle: that through the use of a formal constraint the writer’s creative energy is liberated. The work which results may be “complete” in itself, but it will gesture at all the other work that could potentially be generated using that constraint.
The poem I have used as an example doesn’t actually fall into the Oulipian section of Frédéric Forte’s work, which in fact comes in phase two, but the concept of the paradox and liberation are stunningly obvious.
This is a collection that forces you to pause, as if in an art gallery, to observe, linger, absorb, reflect before moving on, each poem an artwork in its own right, a creation that can work on numerous levels, artistically, literary, poetically, theatrically or even structurally.
Phase two’s poems come with a “Detailed index of fixed forms” where the poem uses existing poetic forms, either traditional or invented by the Oulipo. Another example for you;

Here the detailed index explains that the poem is a “Quintina. Level-5 quenina. In (central pillar of a house [the title of the poem]) the permutation operates on punctuation marks.” Permutations boundless in this example, I‘ll leave it for you to ponder.
This book is not only a feat of typographical wonder, to even contemplate the translation that would have been required, is a feat in itself. For example, the oulipo ‘heterogram’ “invented by Georges Perec. The letters chosen by the poet (the ten most frequently used in the French alphabet, plus one) cannot be used again before the whole series is completed. In the poem ‘(whistle statue II)’ the letters “SILENTBAROU” go through various iterations as words (eg. Silent Bar: our tale is….) eleven times until they end with the words “burial stone”. How on earth did this originally appear in French and how did the translator make it coherent in English? I’m still astounded, initially upon reading the poem, again when taking my notes, and now when attempting to explain it.
The cover of the book tells us that the content of the poems “also constitute, in their cryptic way, a journal of the poet’s life during the period of composition (2001-2002): his love life, the loss of his father…” unfortunately this depth was something that was personally lost in the translation. Whilst the word games, and cryptic style was extremely impressive, the content, as a cohesive whole, seemed to fall by the wayside.
Phase two of the book containing fifty-five word games for you to explore slowly, wonder upon, stretch your limits, refer to the index and back to the poem, research, ponder. An absolute marvel of potential literature. The first fifty-five poems more structured within the space confines, created by the poet, or simply the limits of the page, but still wonderfully rich and detailed in their construction.

A collection that I think would not be out of place in an art gallery. Illuminating and one I will revisit often, if simply just to be stunned at the creation involved.
In a nut shell this is a book I can’t adequately review, here’s what others have said….if that helps…
“A book as intriguing (by its staging of typographic variations) as it is invigorating (in its micro-narratives).” —Emmanuel Laugier, Le Matricule des Anges n°67 (octobre 2005)
“Extraordinary inventiveness…funny, original, brilliant” —Jean-Michel Espitallier, Caisse à Outils: Un panorama de la poésie française aujourd’hui (Pocket, 2006)
“positively acrobatic, even balletic” – ALTA Blog
How about you buy a copy and see for yourself? I can guarantee literary lovers, Oulipo readers and poetry aficionados will not be disappointed.

Football – Jean-Philippe Toussaint (translated by Shaun Whiteside)

If you follow me on Twitter or if you read between the lines of my review of “Mend The Living” by Maylis De Kerangal (translated by Jessica Moore) and her fictionalised account of a football France vs Italy you would probably know that I am a bit of a football crazy. I watch leagues from around the world (basically the only television I watch), I attend Australian League and local Victorian Premier League matches, however my only “involvement” is watching my two young boys play each week and taking up volunteer linesman duties. So when Fitzcarraldo Editions announced a release in mid-May of Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s “essay” titled “Football” I was straight in the pre-order queue.
It is perfect timing for such a release, with the Copa America kicking off this weekend I can sit down and watch such teams as Brazil, Ecuador, USA, and Columbia, over my weekend (secretly I will be watching all of the matches, just don’t let my wife know that!) before grabbing a few hours shut eye and mulling over the Euro opening weekend with France, England, Croatia, Germany, and a host of others in action in the opening days. Whilst an exciting time my home nation of Australia is, of course, not involved, they already won the Asian Cup in 2015 and if I want to watch my adopted nation play “the world game” then my viewing pleasure is restricted to friendlies or the BIG one, qualification for the FIFA World Cup.
Belgian Jean-Philippe Toussaint has nine works translated into English and published by Dalkey Archive Press (and the short essay “Zidane’s Melancholy” translated by Thangam Ravindranathan and Timothy Bewes in their “Best European Fiction” collection of 2009, the same essay appears in this Fitzcarraldo release as a “bonus” but translated by Shaun Whiteside). There is also the book “Making Love”, the first in the ‘Cycle of Marie’ collection, translated by Linda Coverdale and published by The New Press in 2004. He has also directed four films, and been the screenwriter for three of those and one other, as well as having a number of major photographic exhibitions.
His latest book translated into English is “Football” published by Fitzcarraldo Editions, a plain white cover, as all the non-fiction publications have, as opposed to the plain blue cover for the fiction publications.
This book is a short read, I managed to get through the 85 pages during a single airplane journey, and being a fan of football I was intrigued by the opening page:
This is a book that no one will like, not intellectuals, who aren’t interested in football, or football-lovers, who will find it too intellectual. But I had to write it, I didn’t want to break the fine thread that still connects me to the world.
I have to apologise to Jean-Philippe Toussaint, I did like this book, am I a football-lover who is a little short of being an intellectual? It is a strange way to market a book – “no one will like” it!
Jerseys
I like that moment, going to the stadium, when, climbing the concrete stairs of the stands inside among the crowd of spectators to get to my seat, I emerge into the open air of the terraces and down below I see the absolutegreen of the pitch beneath the powerful floodlights of the stadium. I no longer have the eyes of a child, but I still see the magic of colours at football with the naïve innocence of childhood, the age-old green of the turf and the jerseys of the players, the timeless colours of the national teams, the blue of France or Italy, the red of Spain, the orange of the Netherlands, not to mention the striped sky-blue and white of Argentina. Everything returns to a state of order, nature becomes immutable and reassuring again when I see, as I did at the final in Yokohama in 2002, the Germans playing in black shorts and white jerseys against the Brazilians in yellow and green, but it is with a little twinge of annoyance in my heart, of aesthetic dissatisfaction and metaphysical unease, that I see Brazil playing in dark blue or, even worse, the German players afflicted with that laterally striped red and black rugby jersey (is it Toulouse, is it Toulon?) that they wore for the semi-final of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. I feel wronged, not myself (I’ve seen worse), but the child I used to be, who is deprived of the simple and reassuring happiness of seeing for all eternity the Germans moving in black shorts and white jerseys on football grounds.
A book that moves through Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s childhood associations, his recollections and experiences of World Cups (lucky man has attended them!), his moments of angst and anguish. Simple everyday activities that take place during a game, and let’s face it football is a game (heresy?), become artful and exquisite recollections and personal experiences come bubbling to the surface when explained by Toussaint’s pen.
A book that I believe the intellectuals will actually like as it can be read as one man’s obsession, a journey through his childhood, his rejection, addictions, or as a football lover you can simply relish in the memories of past World Cups (the addition of “Zidane’s Melancholy”, a musing on his actions in the World Cup Final is worth the purchase price alone, even if it is only four and a half pages long) or find a little piece of yourself in Toussaint’s actions at the matches, or his frantic rearranging of speaking engagements to watch or listen to a match. An enjoyable read as my Man Booker International Prize and Best Translated Book Award reading came to a conclusion (there are still reviews pending for those – I am miles behind).
This coming weekend I will be watching the yellow and green of Brazil when they play Ecuador, next week the black and white of Germany as they take on Ukraine and in a small part of my mind the detailed expression of Toussaint’s love affair with the wonderful game will be watching with me.
  

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Ladivine – Marie Ndiaye (translated by Jordan Stump) – Man Booker International Prize 2016

And so she said nothing.
Readers of translated fiction would probably have come across Marie NDiaye through her 2009 Prix Goncourt winning work “Three Strong Women, the work also making the shortlist of the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award in 2014 (the Award won by Juan Gabriel Vásquez’s “The Sound of Things Falling – translated by Anne McLean). The English translation of her latest work Ladivine, just being released in the United Kingdom and is scheduled for release in the United States next week.
If you were to read this book looking for a linear narrative, or a simple plot, you would be disappointed, whilst basically we can follow the lives of three women, Ladivine, Clarisse (or Malinka) and Ladvine, the work is a lot more complex than what appears on the surface.
In the opening pages we learn about Clarisse Rivière, who travels incognito to Bordeaux on the first Tuesday of each month to visit her mother Ladivine, but Clarisse isn’t actually Clarisse, she’s Malinka, and she’s ashamed of her past;
Where Malinka’s mother was born, a place Clarisse Rivière had never gone and never would go – though she had, furtive and uneasy, looked at pictures of it on the Internet – everyone had those same delicate features, harmoniously placed on their faces as if with an eye for coherence, and those same long arms, nearly as slender at the shoulder as at the wrist.
And the face that her mother had therefore inherited those traits from a long, extensive ancestry and then passed them on to her daughter (the features, the arms, the slender frame and, thank God, nothing more) once made Clarisse Rivière dizzy with anger, because how could you escape when you were marked in this way, how could you claim not to be what you did not want to be, what you nevertheless had every right not to want to be?
Whilst not explicit, Ladivine is dark skinned and Clarisse light skinned, Malika, becoming Clarisse and attempting to escape her heritage, is this a story of displacement, but one where our protagonist wants to be displaced?
A novel that is rich with emotion, here’s a few words taken from a single page – intelligence, ingenuity, strategy, stubborn, immovable, failure, resolute, evasive, fear, compassion. A roller-coaster of family manipulation, personal highs and lows and confused self-awareness.
As a reader you move through extremely touching sections, where you feel the daughter’s rejection of her mother, a woman who called her only child “my princess”, a single mother who worked as a servant and cleaner to raise her daughter, and then to be rejected!
A theme that runs throughout is rejection, whether it is of your own family, of your roots, of your culture, of your partner, and this theme isn’t only restricted to Clarisse and her rejection of her mother, she is also hiding behind a façade;
How she loved her face in the morning, powdered, serious and inanimate!
That was how Clarisse was meant to be in the eyes in the world, a wonderful girl whose good points were all you ever saw, because there were no bad ones. And how that Clarisse was loved!
Here I’ve really only touched on the opening sections, quite soon thereafter, her daughter has moved out, her husband has left and she cannot share the pain with her mother, as she keeps her mother a secret from her family, she keeps her family, and even her daughter, a secret from her mother. She cannot share her pain, and conversely she could not share the joy of having a daughter.
Her daughter Ladivine, who telephoned often, and her co-workers at the restaurant, and Richard Rivière himself, who dutifully called once a month and wired her money she never spent, they were all doing their best, discreetly, affectionately, sometimes with openly expressed concern, to rescue her from humiliation.
But she had never felt any such thing. Nor was she humiliated that people thought her humiliated, only vaguely surprised.
The novel doesn’t simply cover the mother Ladivine and the daughter Malika/Clarisse, it moves to the story of the daughter/grand-daughter Ladivine, and her relationship with her father and her husband and children. Although the main character women in this novel (the two Ladivine’s and Clarisse) are “storng women” I feel their nonchalant behaviour, accepting manner, working continually to simply fit in makes this novel “Three Benevolent Women” not “Three Strong Women”. The opening quote I used is one that does crop up a few times and it does define these women, they simply say nothing.
Ladivine had met him after two aimless years at the University of Bordeaux, which, on a whim and a friend of a friend’s vague promise of lodging, she’d left for Berlin, with no great enthusiasm, under the illusion that time and life would go by more quickly if she moved on, stupidly, because she had no plans, no hopes, because at twenty-one she felt tired and worn, and she saw Marko at the watch counter of the Hermannplatz Karstadt, where he’d recently found work, and realised that a young man like him, with his long hair, his big glasses, his delicate, kindly, clam, endlessly patient face would never feel the need to hurt anyone at all, that there was a kind of glory about him that he didn’t work at and didn’t believe in, that that word would have made him laugh, as he was a practical man, and this serene scepticism was an element of his grace, since he had no knowledge of that grace, since he had no access to it.
As per usual I would rather not give too much of the plot away here, so I am quite restricted in the amount of information I can share here, doing my best to stay within the boundaries of the book’s blurb and inner sleeve description. Although I will say I was wondering how the novel was going to sustain the story of Ladivine and Malika/Clarisse for 300+ pages when it was moving quite rapidly in the first 100!!!
This is a novel that has a blend of genres, a melting pot of styles, making it a difficult work to simply categorise, that is not a bad thing, fresh voices and young writers pushing the literary boundaries are more than welcome on my shelves. In fact I’ll review another recent release by a female writer in translation in the next couple of days that very much so pushes the boundaries.

A worthy inclusion on the Man Booker Prize Longlist, in my top few? Probably not, but it is still alive and kicking for the Shadow Jury’s main prize so we will know more in the coming weeks.

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Mend The Living – Maylis De Kerangal (translated by Jessica Moore) – Man Booker International Prize 2016

Today you’re going to come across something that happens very infrequently on this blog, a review of a book that I struggled to finish. Occasionally I come across a book I don’t like and more often than not I simply don’t review it. There are a number of reasons for this approach;

  • A writer has spent a significant amount of their life on bringing this work into being,
  • For the majority of books I read there is also the translator’s efforts to be taken into account, like the author they have dedicated a substantial amount of their time bringing this work to an English speaking audience,
  • Who am I to judge the relative merits of a book? What I may despise others may love! I’m a casual reader, not formally educated in “fine literature”, not officially qualified to be a stick in the mud, why does my opinion even matter? Then again, why would it matter for books I love too?
  • What value is there in caning a book? My insignificant view on the world stage will possibly impact the purchasing power by one or two copies.

As a Shadow Jury member for the 2016 Man Booker International Prize I am attempting to read and review all thirteen longlisted novels, and if I am being honest there is no way around giving my opinion on each of the books on the list.
Onto Maylis De Kerangal’s “Mend The Living”, a book that, although clunky in language style, actually starts out as an engaging and potentially compelling piece. The story opens with three mates, waking very early, unlike their usual teenage behaviour, so they can fulfil their insatiable surfing addiction. Amongst the three is Simon Limbeau, soon to be deceased.
It’s time. Beginning of the day when the shapeless takes shape: the elements gather, the sky separates from the sea, the horizon grows clear. The three boys get ready, methodical, following a precise order that is still a ritual: they wax their boards, check the leashes are attached, slip into thermal rash guards before pulling on their suits, contorting themselves in the parking lot – neoprene adheres to the skin, scrapes and even burns it sometimes – choreography of rubber puppets who ask each other for help, requiring that they touch and manipulate each other; and then the surf boots, the hood, the gloves, and they close the van. They walk down toward the ocean, surfboard under one arm, light, cross the beach in long strides, the beach where pebbles crash beneath their feet in an infernal racket, and once they’ve arrived at water’s edge, while everything grows clear before them, the chaos and the party, they each wrap a leash around an ankle, adjust their hoods, reduce the space of bare skin around their necks to nothing by grabbing the cords at their backs and pulling them up to the last notch of the zipper – it’s a matter of ensuring the best possible degree of waterproofness for their teenage-boy skin, skin that’s often studded with acne on the upper back, on the shoulder blades, where Simon Limbeau sports a Maori tattoo as a pauldron – and this movement, arm extended sharply, signifies that the session is starting, let’s go! And maybe now, hearts get worked up, maybe they shake themselves inside thoracic cages, maybe their mass and their volume augment and their kick intensifies, two distinct sequences in one same pulsing, two beats, always the same: terror and desire.
I’m not giving anything away by explaining that Simon dies soon after the novel commences, as a novel exploring the merits, pitfalls of organ transplants would require a character to die in order for their organs to be harvested.
Early on in the book, the post-accident helplessness, the grief of family members, the detachment of the hospital staff, is wonderfully rich and I was trusting that this theme would continue throughout:
She heads for the main door that opens slowly, far off; four figures cross the threshold and come toward her, figures that soon emerge from the blur cast by her myopic eyes: it’s the parents of the other two caballeros, Christophe and Johan, the four of them in a line, and again the winter coats that weigh shoulders down, the scarves rolled into neck braces to hold up falling heads, the gloves. They recognise her, slow down, and then one of the men quickens his step to break rank and when he reaches Marianne folds her in his arms, and then the other three hug her in turn. How is she? Chris’s father is the first to speak; the four of them look at her, she’s paralysed. Murmurs: he’s in a coma, we don’t know yet. She shrugs her shoulders and her mouth distorts: and you? the boys? Johan’s mother answers: Chris, fractured left hip and fibula; Johan, both wrists and clavicle fractured, also his ribcage, but none of his organs were pierced – she remains sober, of an outrageous sobriety, meant to show Marianne that the four of them are aware of how lucky they are, of their monster’s ball, because for them, it’s only breakage – their children were wearing seat belts, were protected from the shock, and if this woman minimises their anxiety to this extent, abstaining from any commentary, it’s also to show Marianne that they know about Simon, know that it’s serious, very serious even, a rumour that will have run from the I.CU. to the department of orthopaedic and trauma surgery where their sons are, and that she won’t have the indecency to add anything, and finally, there is this distress she feels, this guilt that holds her back, because the choice was between their two sons, for the seat belt – Chris had to drive, so it could just as easily have been Johan in the middle and then she would be the one in Marianne’s place at this instant, exactly in her place, swaying before the same terrible abyss, disfigured in just the same way, and she’s suddenly dizzy at the thought, her legs go weak and her eyes begin to roll back, and her husband moves closer, feeling her wavering, puts an arm under hers to steady her, and as Marianne sees this woman capsize, she, too, perceives the abyss between them, between herself and the rest of them, this chasm that separates them now, thank you, I have to go, we’ll keep you posted.
We have the same incident viewed though many lenses, as the characters begin to pile up, we have competing priorities, differing emotional reactions, different time pressures, then the self-interest starts to boil to the surface, as a reader who do we emotionally attach ourselves to? The mother, the father, the nurse, the surgeon….?
Sean and Marianne sit side by side on the couch, awkward, curious even though they’re shattered, and, on one of the vermilion chairs Thomas Remige sits down too, with Simon Limbeau’s medical folder in his hands. But even though these three share the same space, participate in the same time period, nothing on this planet could be further apart than these two beings in pain and this young man who sits before them with the goal – yes, the goal – of obtaining their consent to recover their child’s organs. On one side: a man and a woman caught in a wave of shock, at once swept off the ground and crashed down into a dislocated timeline – a continuity that Simon’s death had ruptured, but a continuity that, like a headless duck running in a farmyard, continued on – total madness – a timeline woven of pain, a man and a woman gathering all the sorrow of the world upon their two heads, and on the other side: this young man in a white lab coat – committed and cautious, prepared to conduct the meeting without skipping any steps, but who has set a timer in a corner of his brain, conscious that once brain death occurs, the body deteriorates rapidly, and that this has to be done quickly – caught in the same torsion.
However the further we get into the book, the more distracting the clunky language becomes, it is not only the melding of tenses, nor the rambling sentences, or the ridiculous word usage (more on that soon), but to me the never ending introduction of yet another bit player just became ridiculous, and adding some “fat” to their character was totally uncalled for (why have page after page describing France vs Italy in a soccer match? Oh that becomes slightly relevant once a new Italian surgeon is introduced, however Italy has NEVER beaten France 1-0 in Paris, and if you are going to have a fictitious football match then don’t name real players. Why a whole chapter dedicated to the purchase of a goldfinch? Is that just so there can be a corny reference to the rarity of its song? Why an imbalanced fiery actress lover? More pages? Who cares about the hovering nurse’s night before with an oft missing lover? More filler material?)
To explain the use of language, or more specifically word choice, here is a short quote about a (yet another) bit player who doesn’t not want to have dinner with her daughter:
…or maybe it’s the couple that frightens her, this couple that, in less than two years, has swallowed up her only daughter, disintegrated her into a sure, emollient conjugality, a balm after years of solitary nomadism: her spirited, polyglot daughter has become completely unrecognisable.
?????? And we have 100’s of examples of similar word choices throughout, not at all endearing, nor does this make for an enjoyable read when you need to stop each paragraph and decipher a word or two.
Here’s another example, this time, of unnecessary words, with the page references so you can see how often they are repeated (and I can assure you this is not an isolated example):
P 138 – One liver, two lungs, two kidneys. And a heart.
P 139 – Marthe Carrare enters all the medical data for Simon Limbeau’s heart, lungs, liver and kidneys into a web interface
P 142 – Responses for the liver, the kidney and the lungs come one after the other.
Given the majority of the story is given over to the “heart” wouldn’t “the other organs” suffice for “the liver, the kidney and the lungs”, given we then have a detailed explanation of who is going to receive each organ, further along page 142?
A book that has an interesting premise, this doesn’t lift beyond a poorly scripted version of an American television drama, with minor, irrelevant characters, clunky language, ridiculous word choices (wait until you get to the technical “harvesting” sections) and non-closure for so many of the “featured” players, this is an absolute mish-mash.
Sadly I was intrigued for about 70-80 pages and pushed through the language idiosyncrasies, I shouldn’t have bothered. One that left me completely flat, needless to say it won’t be featuring on my shortlist.

POSTSCRIPT – The Translator’s Note at the end of the novel, explains De Kerangal’s use of obscure words, she also explains the hidden references in the character’s names or the struggle with French language words having multiple meanings and not as easily translatable into similar English words. Whilst an insight into the struggle of the translator it doesn’t really change my mind as to the struggle I went through to finish this book. For people who have read this book, you may be interested in where I hit the wall, it was once Marthe Carrare the “short woman, around sixty, olive-skinned and round, auburn hair, voluminous breasts and abdomen stuffed inside a tight camel-coloured cardigan, spherical buttocks bobbing in brown wool trousers, and then a pair of rather skinny legs and tiny feet bulging inside flat loafers”, was introduced.

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Rochester Knockings (A novel of the Fox Sisters) – Hubert Haddad (translated by Jennifer Grotz)

Spiritualism, another subject I know nothing about. Like most I know of those people who claim to be able to contact spirits, but the huge following it achieved in the 1800’s, the role that the Fox sisters played in the movement and the sensation that the women caused by running public shows where they “communicated” with spirits was something I knew nothing about. Step up Algerian writer Hubert Haddad, who writes in French, to give me a learning of the spiritualism movement.
Our fictional account of the Fox sisters opens with vivid descriptions of the 1800’s in the United States;
We arrived in the village without knowing any of its dramas. But children are quick to reveal everything to you. Lilly told me of the unfortunate Joe-Charlie Joe, the son of a former slave of a Mansfield ranch, who was hung form a great oak in Grand Meadow for taking a walk in the valley with the beautiful Emily. Before committing their crime, the lynchers would have obtained her vow that he had kissed her. If every stolen kiss of the young warranted the rope, there’d be none of us left to marry. It’s true, not everyone is black. The beautiful Emily Mansfield was full of remorse. Because of her, a black man hardly twenty years old went to heaven with a kiss for his last rite of Viaticum.
The date March 31,1848 is often set as the beginning of the spiritualist movement, as on that date, Kate and Margaret Fox reported that they had made contact with a spirit, the spirit making loud rapping noises, witnessed by onlookers. Early on in the novel the young sisters, Maggie and Kate, move with their mother and father to Rochester, into a house that creaks and moans and is rumoured to be haunted.
We were alone with Mother last night when the knocks started up again. Katie, who was pretending to sleep, sat straight up as if spring-loaded. I am always just as terrified when she gets up and walks toward the window or staircase with her arms outstretched, eyes rolled upward. But this time it wasn’t a case of sleepwalking. In the darkness of the bedroom, I could easily see her crafty look, almost cruel when she smiled. Kate is adorable, all slim, with the pretty figure of a theatre actress, but there is a bit of a demonic look to her. It could be said that anywhere she finds herself – in the forest, in the village, in the house – she is looking for the secret behind things.
Written in the first person, from the view of the sister, and the third person, this is a well-researched work, with most chapters ending or containing an 1800’s nursery rhyme, indigenous song or poem. The language painting a very vivid picture of the times, and the style making you feel as though you are reading a work written in the 1800’s.
Besides raw opium or the chandoo imported in brass boxes, they also serve absinthe among other alcohols, and black tea.
This is a novel full of bit players, free pardoned slaves, two bit lawyers, coroners, this is a multi-populated picture of the USA in the late 19th century, something from a Tarantino movie, or an HBO TV series?
As Spiritualism is the main theme the novel also captures the religious fervour of the time, from numerous Christian faiths through to the “Celestial Free Spirit and Universal Love” cult, who of course practice free love (well free love for the men folk!).
A novel that exposes the uncertain times of a nation being forged, moving from slavery, a work peppered with religious and spiritual thought, the definition of freedom and a nation moving towards such times.
The two main Fox sisters (Maggie and Kate) have a much older sister, who had moved out prior to their youthful times and their discovery of their ability to talk to the spirit world. She returns to the fold and takes advantage of their skills, creating a sideshow to pacify to inquisitive masses. Shows in large theatres, wealthy folk wanting to connect with lost ones being most vulnerable and of course great targets to build up the Fox family wealth and renown.
Press correspondents gave considerable coverage to the event, though their reports contrasted wildly. Whereas the papers of the South and Midwest spoke of the shameful deception of abolitionist clans and women’s rights movements, the New-York Tribune, under the pen of a young follower of transcendentalism, in fashion with progressives in the North, announced it a fundamental discovery proving nothing less than the immortality of the soul. The article ended with a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson; “There are persons, from whom we always expect fairy tokens; let us not cease to expect them.: The Quakers on their end were heavily engaged in the spiritualist path, in competition with the Mormons who had the aim to recall, by their lawful baptized name or with good reason, all the souls that ever lived on Earth since Adam and Eve, without neglecting anyone.

A thoroughly well researched novel, however I am sure there would be spiritualist coverts or followers today who would poo-poo this is trite and shallow, however to a person not well versed in the history of the movement it gives credence to the characters pivotal in the movement’s beginnings, it layers this with a wonderful depiction of the era and the colourful characters of that time as well as enlightening the reader about a world now forgotten, a world where industrial and personal advancement was taking place at such a rapid rate that the plausibility of now being able to contact the dead is not too farfetched. An interesting novel, considering it is set in the USA but written by an Algerian, a work that reads as though it could well have been written at that time.

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