Calling Mr King by Ronald De Fao. (2011) Translation tragedy: it’s not available in French.
Calling Mr King is an quirky little book. We are in the mind of an American hit man who is based in Great Britain. He works for an entity called The Firm. When he receives a phone call for Mr King, he knows it’s time to report to the headquarters and take instructions for his next job. When the book opens, he’s back home in London after a rather messed up contract in Paris. He knows he did a poor job and that he probably raised suspicion in his bosses’ head. The truth is: he’s lost his concentration and his magic touch. Do you think he’s actually growing a conscience? Not at all!
I’d been getting a little tired of the steady work, one job after another. No real chance to rest. Here I was traveling from city to city, country to country, and I never had time just to relax and maybe see a few of the sights. That’s the problem with being too good at your job, too talented—you’re always in demand. And it’s hard to say no. It’s not very professional. And it’s also not very wise. You don’t want to be labeled “difficult” or “unreliable” in this business. No, not in this business. It just isn’t healthy. There weren’t too many challenges anymore. I had to admit it. I had gotten so good at my work that the job was becoming somewhat routine, maybe even a little stale. The targets and locations were different but the job was still the same. And things always ended the same way. They had to. I need a bit of a rest, I thought, I have to slow down. I wonder how they’d feel about a brief vacation.
Sounds like the hit man has a little meltdown and I dare say, he’s a little burnt out. He’d like to rest but while he’s enjoying a few R&R days in London, he’s called to another job. This time, the mark is a man who lives in his country house in Derbyshire. The trip out of town leads our hit man to take an interest in Georgian houses, imagining living in one someday. He gets the work done in Derbyshire but he took risks and The Firm sends him back on vacation in New York, before sending him on a delicate job in Barcelona. We follow him in the cities, we get to know him, his present and his past. He speaks about his job as an ordinary occupation.
But the truth is that a man in my profession can experience crummy working conditions too. He can get fed up with bosses just like anybody else. When you come down to it, all of us, in whatever line of business, have to work with or report to some bastard.
Dear God, you’d think he’s about to go on strike. He knows that what he does as a living is weird but he constantly refers to it because it’s been his quotidian for so long. He kills, that’s all he does. He knows that it messes up with his life and his head. Having this time for himself, time to push the “pause” button on his professional life gives him a chance to think about his choice of career. He knows his life is not normal. His profession prevents him from having a normal life and he’s painfully aware of it. (Jesus, I also thought, what memories I have. Other people remember girlfriends and great dates, promotions, terrific vacations, first love, and all that crap. I remember dead bodies in cities around the world.)
This is unsettling especially because the reader grows rather fond of him. We tend to forget that he’s not a regular Joe, that the hit man is ingrained in him. See how he reacts when he learns that his bosses don’t plan on giving him a weapon during his stay in the Big Apple!
I protested. They couldn’t leave me defenseless. I was always on call. You never knew. “All right, all right,” the boss said. “I suppose they’re like condoms with you people. You don’t know if you’ll use them but it’s best to have one or two just in case.” That wasn’t exactly the way I thought of it, but I agreed with the general idea.
In addition to the insight into his mind, it also gives you an idea of De Fao’s funny style. The phone calls he receives tether him to The Firm. A phone cord as an umbilical cord. And now, he’d like to cut it. But how?
We follow our character in London, New York and Barcelona and through his growing angst. He wonders who he really is, after spending years abroad, after years in thisd business.
I knew that I confused people any way I was. I mean, I wasn’t English, but I wasn’t really American anymore either. I think this dawned upon me one day about a year or so ago when I was buying a Tube ticket. In telling the man in the booth my destination, I suddenly realized I was speaking with an English accent.
The confusion the character feels about his identity shows in the random use of British words like bloody, chap, mate…
Our man’s stay in New York City is also an opportunity for him to go back to his hometown, upstate New York. He realizes everything has changed, that nobody knows him anymore and this sorts of erases his existence. He doesn’t have a real existence in London either, as his profession requires that he remains inconspicuous. His visit to his hometown opens the door to memories of his childhood and his family. His father was a sicko who was a gun fanatic, always shooting at targets, still or alive and his mother was obsessed with housework and “was a real churchgoer. And in her handbag she kept a whole collection of cards that had pictures of Jesus and Mary, something like baseball trading cards for the devout.” As he deadpans his parents were Two strange people, one sicker than the other—a woman who wanted everything clean, and a man who wanted everything dead.
Seen from this perspective, no wonder he’s emotionally challenged and he grew up as well as he could. Now he muses, as he sees a dad playing with his son and a kite:
I wondered how I would have turned out had my old man taken me kite flying instead of animal hunting. I wondered if I would have grown up to be a kite flier instead of a professional killer. Yes, I wondered what I would be like today had my father been a kite-flying dad instead of a gun-happy son of a bitch. Then again, I hadn’t followed in his footsteps completely. I knew my guns, of course, but I really wasn’t a mean bastard at heart. Yes, I thought, except for my somewhat destructive occupation, I was really a pretty decent sort.
Well, a decent sort who kills in cold blood. His moral compass is still not wired as ours.
Calling Mr King could be renamed The Blues of the Hit Man. Except that it’s much more than that. The other fantastic aspect of this odd book is the character’s dive into architecture and art. When in London, he started to read books about Georgian houses. On leave in New York, he resumes his study and hangs out in bookstores, public libraries and museums. This leads to hilarious moments, like here when he goes to a book shop and an employee comes to talk to him.
It was another one of those knowledgeable clerks I seemed to be attracting lately. Now that I was growing vaguely intellectual, I was becoming a kind of nerd magnet. Christ. Then again, I tried to sympathize. The world had grown so stupid that people with brains were desperate for brainy company.
He discovers the pleasure of studying, of reading, of finding solace in books. He’s supposed to stay put in his hotel but he can’t. And he starts carrying his books around.
I found it dull to stay in my hotel room and read, so I took my books out with me each day. I took them with me the way I took along my gun. You might say the gun and the books were traveling companions.
Books are becoming equal to his gun, which is a pretty important shift in his mind set. He never goes out without his gun, even if it means he has to wear a jacket thick enough to conceal his holster in the smoldering heat of a New York summer. And now, he can’t go out without his books. He reads in parks, in cafés, in restaurants. New practicalities take precedence over his meal choices.
Now that I had become a reader I usually ordered food I could eat with just a fork, leaving my other hand free to hold a book or turn the pages.
Does that ring a bell to you? It definitely does to me. One of the great joys of the kindle: it remains open on the table. His journey towards culture began with an interest in Georgian houses. One read leading to the other, he visits the Met again and again and the reader is privy to his candid thoughts about paintings.
The paintings were more my cup of tea. Some of them, anyway. They certainly had enough, so you were bound to find at least a few things you liked. I wasn’t big on the Italian stuff, the religious pictures in general, with all these saints and angels flying about. They were usually flying about Jesus Christ, who was usually dying, dead, or coming back from the dead. Who in hell ever dreamed up this hammy character? Christ, give me a break. All I know is if you kill somebody he stays killed. I’d like to see old Jesus survive a few shots from a .45.
Again, we’re brought back to his actual self, a killer. His exploration of Barcelona and his new acquaintance with Gaudi’s architecture brought funny moments and I laughed out loud more than once. (This Gaudí character definitely had a thing for snakes, serpents, and assorted reptiles. And he was, of course, a total nut for tiles.) He’s so funny in his naïve comments about people and sights that I can forgive him for calling us French “frogs” all the time. “Go choke on a snail” is what he’d like to yell at a Parisian taxi driver. His enthusiasm for art is contagious. His newfound thirst for knowledge and culture is endearing. Just when you warm up to him a little too much, he says something that reminds you who he is and what he does for a living. Like here, when he plays tourist in Barcelona:
I approached the Fuster. It was less of a production than the Arabian wedding cake. The guide said that it recalled a Venetian mansion. I myself couldn’t say. I had never been to Venice. I was supposed to go there on a job once, but the mark ended up in Rome instead.
I loved Calling Mr King, it will probably make my end-of-year list. It’s one of those books you’d like to buy for all your friends. It made me laugh and think. I loved the promenades in Paris, London, New York and Barcelona. The sense of place is incredible, I felt like I was exploring the cities with the character. It’s well-written, in a witty style with perfect description of the cities, and insights about the hit man. It rang true.
A big thank you to Guy for recommending Calling Mr King. You can find his review here. Sadly, this little gem of a book is not available in French. Hence a billet filled under Translation Tragedy. However, for French readers who enjoyed the ring of Calling Mr King, I’ll recommend Nager sans se mouiller by Carlos Salem. I think it has the same vibe. That’s another Translation Tragedy because it’s not available in English.
In the Garden of the North American Martyrs by Tobias Wolff French title: Dans le jardin des martyrs nord-américains. Translated by François Happe.
This collection of short stories is another great find by the French publisher Gallmeister, although they had already been published in France before. According to Tobias Wolff’s page on Wikipedia, he worked at Syracuse University with Raymond Carver and had Jay McInerney in his graduate writing program. I’m not sure I should have read that, now writing this billet is a bit daunting.
Tobias Wolff wrote these twelve stories between 1976 and 1981. In appearance, each story is very different from the others. It can be a couple witnessing their neighbors fighting again, a hunting party, a professor at a literary conference, an old married couple going on a cruise. But the more you read, the more you make out a pattern. They all have something in common. The narrators are stuck in their frame of mind and sometimes miss the obvious. Things and people aren’t what they look like. Several stories are told from the perspective of someone who looks down on others. Most of the stories are set in the north west of the United States (Washington State or Oregon) or Canada (British Columbia).
In the first story, Next Door, a couple listens to their neighbors fighting. They think the man beats his wife but they don’t do anything. They think about their flower beds on which the furious neighbors is now peeing on. As the story progresses, it reveals the flaws of this lifeless couple. And the reader wonders who they should feel sorry for: the fighting but passionate neighbors or the quiet but living dead couple?
In An Episode in the Life of Professor Brooke, the said Professor Brooke always acts as if he’s sure of himself, of his place in the world and of his value. He doesn’t hesitate to demolish someone publicly if he thinks he has better arguments, for the sake of the discussion. He looks down on his colleague Riley because he imagines he had an affair with a student and yet he still acts like a good Christian and family man. Brooke is judgmental, he just believes that the student who went out of Riley’s office in tears cried because of their breakup. Then Brooke meets Ruth at a poetry symposium he attends with Riley. And he realizes that he too can behave in such a way that people could misjudge him…
Each story is a little gem for its characterization, its style and its plot. They’re multi-layered, pointing out our small flaws, our little lives. They pierce beyond the surface of what we show to the outside world and how sometimes we manage to keep up appearances. They show the pettiness, the manipulation and the cruelty of human interactions. They put a light on the toll that the quotidian takes on us, making us care for unimportant things instead of focusing on the essential. They dig into the existential questions that linger in our heads.
I guess I was a bit MIA these last two weeks. So what have I been up to? So busy at work that it left me too drained to switch my computer on at night, away during the weekend and helpless in front of the unread blog entries that pile up in my inbox. I think I have more than 150 unread posts and I’m not sure I’ll be able to catch up. My list of “upcoming billets” increases and my priority will be to tackle this pile. Sorry.
I was on a surprise trip to Barcelona, so thanks for the book recommendations I received after my request on Twitter. I discovered our destination at the registration desk in the airport so I couldn’t take my copy of Nada by Carmen Laforet with me. I’ll read it later. Stu recommended Marks of Identity by Juan Goytisolo. The Times of the Doves by Mercè Rodoreda (In French, La place du diamant) came highly recommended and is on now on the wish list. Guy suggested Calling Mr King by Ronald De Fao since part of it is set in Barcelona. I’ve been through the Paris and London parts of the book and now I’m in New York. So far, I find it excellent. It’s so funny and sad at the same time.
The dates for the next Quais du Polar festival have been released. It will be on March 31rd, April 1 &2, 2017. In case you’d like to plan a trip to Lyon during this amazing crime fiction love fest, you are now aware of the dates. Most of the conferences can be heard in English too. You can listen to the conferences of this year’s edition here.
I accidentally discovered that Book Around the Corner is listed in the Hidden Gem category at Sacha’s ANNUAL BLOGGERS BASH AWARDS. Someone must have sent my name for me to get this nomination. Thanks to the blogger/reader who suggested to include Book Around the Corner in this contest. Go have a look at Sacha’s post, it’s an opportunity to discover new blogs in various fields. While browsing through the categories and lists, I saw that a few blogging friends were among the nominees. Marina Sofia is also nominated Hidden Gem. Jacqui and Cleo are nominated in the Best Book Review while Tony is in the Best Overall Blog. Whoever wins this, I think it’s a nice initiative. It must take a lot of time to organize and follow up, so thanks to Sacha for devoting some of her time to these awards.
Last but not least, today was Christmas in May as the postman delivered a parcel of books to me.
I’m going to have so much fun with this Duane Swierczynski marathon. Aren’t the covers gorgeous? I’m looking forward to reading Stripper Lessons by John O’Brien as I loved Leaving Las Vegas so much. The Catherine Wheel by Elizabeth Harrower and Bad Attitudes by Agnes Owens are new to me but the blurbs sound very promising and they were on my wish list. Many thanks to the friend who sent them over here.
And last but not least, my daughter had to read Antigone by Jean Anouilh in school and she loved it. It’s a classic read for collège. (In France, school from 11 to 15 years old.). Oddly, I never read it, probably because my literature teacher of that time was more of a hardcore Corneille and Racine fan. *shudder* My daughter asked me if I wanted to read too and I’m never going to turn down an opportunity of mother-daughter bonding over literature. It beats conversations about makeup and clothes. So expect a billet about Antigone in the near future.
Well, that’s all, folks. I hope you’re all having a nice weekend. Normal service of book billets will resume soon.
Zulu by Caryl Férey (2008) Original French title: Zulu
I picked Zulu by Cary Férey in preparation to the crime fiction festival Quais du Polar. He was invited again and I wanted to try one of his books. Other readers warned me that Zulu was rife with violence. It is, especially towards the end. For some reasons, it bothered me less than the violence in 1974 by David Peace. Perhaps it’s because I braced myself for it after the comments other bloggers had left. Or perhaps it’s because I expected violence from a book set in South Africa in 2008.
So what is Zulu about? Ali Neuman is a black man, now chief of the homicide branch of the Cape Town police. As a child, he was traumatized by what he witnessed during the war that the Inkatha militia led against the ANC. Even his mother, the only other survivor of his family doesn’t know what he endured.
As an adult, he represents the law in a society at war against violence and battling against the AIDS epidemic. The starting point of the novel is the murder of a young white girl, Nicole Wiese. She was slaughtered after ingesting a drug with frightening powers. The investigation will lead Neuman and his two colleagues Dan Fletcher and Brian Epkeen on the path of greed, madness and unadulterated violence.
Férey describes a society undermined by gangs who are heavily armed and ready to anything to defend their territory and their power. The country may have initiated a reconciliation process but the criminals from the past didn’t all pay for their crimes, nor did they change their mindset. The mental Apartheid still exists. Some methods from the past survive and have been passed to others. Drugs are a way to control the mob. We follow the investigation in the poor neighborhoods where kids are snatched in drug trafficking, where too many of them are orphans because of AIDS. It also shows the violence against women.
Neuman is a flawed character with one redeeming quality: he’s a good son. His mother is ageing and he tries to protect her as much as he can. But she’s a free spirit, she goes wherever she wants in her unsafe neighborhood and even when she’s mugged, she’s still not afraid. She puts her nose where it doesn’t belong and Neuman rightfully worries.
Brian Epkeen is also a tortured soul. He has a grown-up child, David but they don’t get along. His ex-wife Ruby divorced him a while ago and he still loves her. It doesn’t prevent him from being a womanizer. His past functions during the Apartheid regime gave him useful skills for his current job.
Neuman and Epkeen are reckless. They have nothing to lose. They know violence, it’s part of their bones. Dan Fletcher is the one with the wife and kids, the one who needs to stay alive and come home to his kids and wife, the one who has fear gripping his guts when he’s on dangerous grounds. And he’s right to be afraid.
Férey pictures a brutal city, in a country where the authorities struggle to contain violence. There’s so much misery, so many basic needs to fulfil in poor neighborhoods (education, drinkable water, safety). And yet, nature is magnificent, a reminder of the stupidity, the vanity and the evanescence of human activities.
Some of the violent patterns had me thinking about reconstruction after a time of violence, be it on the national territory or abroad. It reminded me of France after colonial wars, WWII and of the police force in 1974: what do you do with policemen who were on the wrong side or policemen who used to be in the military and used methods like torture in Africa during colonial wars? If you fire everybody, then you don’t have a working police force anymore. How do you eradicate racism from them, how do you make them drop these methods? How did it work in Argentina or Chile after the dictatorships fell? And in general, what does the new power do with the people who supported and lived off the previous regime?
Caryl Férey is French. So yes, the legitimate question is: how much of this is accurate? At Quais du Polar, he explained how he writes his books. He moves for a while to the country where the book is set. Then he reads, a lot. Thesis and essays. He said that he read a thesis about AIDS and women in South Africa. Some of the second characters were inspired by the interviews used as material for this thesis. He joked saying that beyond the doctorate’s teacher and family, he’s probably the only other reader of some of those thesis but that he loves them for the goldmine of information that they are. He also researched the politics, the history, the customs and the culture of the country. The book gives explanations about the fight of the ANC and the militia they faced against them. It was a quasi-civil war. Férey gives information about zulu rites and the different ethnic groups in the country.
Does is work? Well, I’ve never lived in South Africa, so I’m not sure my opinion matters. I’ll give it anyway because why write a blog if you can’t force-feed others with your opinion through a post? I think Férey’s book is amazing. It is extremely violent but I don’t think this violence is gratuitous. And I shudder to think he might not have invented all of the violent things he describes in Zulu. The sense of place, the pace, the description of neighborhoods, of behaviors, it all rings true. It’s dark, awful but strangely, it doesn’t sound as hopeless as 1974.
Zulu was made into a film by Jérôme Salle. Forrest Whitaker is Ali, Orlando Bloom is Epkeen and Conrad Kemp is Dan Fletcher. I haven’t seen it and I don’t plan to. I won’t be able to stomach the violence I’ve read if I see it on screen.
The Dance of the Seagull by Andrea Camilleri (2009) French title: La danse de la mouette. Translated from the Italian by Serge Quadruppani.
I went on holiday in Sicily and it was the perfect opportunity to read a book by Andrea Camilleri. He’s a crime fiction writer, the father of the commissario Montalbano series. The Dance of the Seagull is the fifteenth book of the Montalbano series. It didn’t matter much that I hadn’t read any of the previous ones.
In this episode, when Montalbano arrives at the police station in Vigàta, he discovers that inspector Fazio is missing. It seems like he was investigating shady business in the habour when he went MIA but nobody knows exactly what he was working on. Is it smuggling, arm or drug dealing? Montalbano is worried about Fazio and starts digging while dodging bullets from his superiors as he doesn’t want to reveal that he’s in the dark regarding Fazio’s work. Montalbano is upset enough about Fazio’s disappearance to forget all about his long-distance girlfriend Livia who comes from Geneo to visit him.
And that’s all I’ll say about the plot. It’s my first encounter with Montalbano and again we are drawn to a set of characters and a location. Montalbano is this middle-aged police officer, grumbling, eating fantastic food in trattorias and riding shotgun instead of driving as often as possible. He only follows the rules when absolutely necessary, not hesitating to forget some of them when it’s convenient.
It was a nice read, I can’t say that the plot was extraordinary but it came second to the setting and the translation. The most fascinating aspect of the book was its translation.
The French translator, Serge Quadruppani, wrote a foreword to explain his translation choices, backed up by the publisher. Camilleri’s language is specific to Sicily and to him. He peppers the book with Sicilian dialect. He uses a lot of regionalisms and his syntax is special because of the Sicilian setting. He also tweaks the spelling of certain words to give back the Sicilian accent. Therefore, the original text has a specific flavor for the non-Sicilian Italian. The French translator and the publisher decided to transfer this experience into the French text. This is why we find in the French translation: strange syntax, Sicilian words, French verbs with a bizarre spelling, regionalisms from the South East and creative spelling to transpose an accent. Serge Quadrippani chose to make his French translation sound like person from Marseille who would be of Italian origins. It works. There’s a similarity between the South East of France or Corsica and Sicily. The Mediterranean landscape is similar and the city of Palermo reminded me of Bastia in Corsica.
For example, Montalbano introduces himself with Montalbano sono, which has been translated into Montalbano, je suis or in English, Montalbano, I am. It’s strange in French but it sounds like the original. That’s for syntax oddities. Then Quadrappani twisted some French verbs to match the original. When Camilleri writes aricordarsi instead of ricordarsi, the French verb se rappeler becomes s’arappeler.
Here are two examples of the first pages and the comparison with the English translation by Stephen Sartarelli. I’ll underline the oddities in French, for foreign readers.
Souvent par chance, il dormait comme ça jusqu’au matin, si ça se trouvait, il faisait tout ça à la file, mais certaines nuits au contraire, comme celle qui venait juste de se passer, au bout d’une paire d’heures de roupillon, il s’aréveillait sans aucune raison et il n’y avait plus moyen d’aréussir à retrouver le sommeil.
|Often he was lucky enough to sleep through till morning, all in one stretch, but on other nights, such as the one that had just ended, he would wake up for no reason, after barely a couple of hours of sleep, unable for the life of him to fall back asleep.|
The word roupillon is more nap than sleep and it’s more spoken language than sleep is. See also the a before the verbs réveillait and réussir.
|Mais il n’avait aucune envie de s’amontrer de mauvaise humeur devant Livia quand elle arriverait. Il fallait passer une heure en rousinant.
Le voyage du matin lui avait réveillé un solide ‘pétit.
|But he really didn’t want to be in a bad mood when Livia arrived. He had to find some distraction to make the extra hour pass.
The morning drive had whetted his appetite a little.
The English doesn’t sound like the French at all. We have another a before a word, the verb rousiner that I had to look up and ‘pétit instead of appétit. The English is flat and factual. Of course, it is a lot easier to do that with the French language, with it being so close to the Italian. It sure isn’t as simple in English. The French sounds like the South, cicadas, characters by Pagnol and a man who speaks like a blue collar.
In the end, what impact did it have on this reader? It is well done, consistent throughout the novel. It is commendable that the publisher agreed to it and went out of the usual path. After a while, I got used to it.
For a French from the North, it reminded me of the sun, the holidays. Reading this while visiting Sicily made me appreciate Quadruppani’s creative translation even more. It enhances the sense of place. However, it’s hard to connect this type of style with crime fiction, with investigations and criminality. But one can argue that it’s probably the same for an Italian from Milan who reads Camilleri.
I would love to hear someone else’s experience with reading Camilleri in French or in the original, so don’t hesitate to leave a comment. Messages in French are welcome too. For readers who are fluent in French, I would recommend to try this out, for the good time with the story but also for this curious translation.