The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain – C’est l’Amérique!

May 18, 2019 21 comments

 The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain (1876) French title: Les aventures de Tom Sawyer.

Tom Sawyer is so well-known that I’ll do us a favor and skip the summary part of my usual billets. I’ll focus more on my thoughts.

You might wonder why the title of this billet is The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain – C’est l’Amérique. Well, it explains why I’ve only read this classic now. Tom Sawyer is etched in my childhood memory as a Japanese anime I used to watch. The theme song was very catchy with a chorus that said “Tom Sawyer, c’est l’Amérique”. It’s the kind of sticky tune that stays in you mind all day when you’ve barely thought about it. Believe me, most of French people of my age remember this anime and know this song. And it was quite difficult to distance myself from the images flooding back and see Tom, Huck and Becky differently in my mind eye.

Reading Twain in the original helped keeping the anime images at bay but it was sometimes a challenge. Twain’s use of dialect made me pause and read carefully. I have a French translation of it and all is lost in translation and worse. The dialect is gone and the boys speak like a grammar book. In English, Huck makes a lot of grammar mistakes and comes from an outcast family, he can’t speak like an educated child but in French, he does. See an example here, an excerpt from the scene in the cemetery.

“I wish I’d said Mister Williams. But I never meant any harm. Everybody calls him Hoss.”

“A body can’t be too partic’lar how they talk ’bout these-yer dead people, Tom.”

This was a damper, and conversation died again.

Presently Tom seized his comrade’s arm and said:

“Sh!”

“What is it, Tom?”

And the two clung together with beating hearts.

“Sh! There ’tis again! Didn’t you hear it?”

“I –”

“There! Now you hear it.”

“Lord, Tom, they’re coming! They’re coming, sure. What’ll we do?”

“I dono. Think they’ll see us?”

“Oh, Tom, they can see in the dark, same as cats. I wisht I hadn’t come.”

“Oh, don’t be afeard. I don’t believe they’ll bother us. We ain’t doing any harm. If we keep perfectly still, maybe they won’t notice us at all.”

“I’ll try to, Tom, but, Lord, I’m all of a shiver.”

– Oui, j’aurais dû dire monsieur Williams. Mais je n’ai pas voulu le froisser : tout le monde l’appelle le vieux.

– On ne fait jamais attention à ce qu’on dit des morts, Tom.

La réflexion de Huck jeta un froid ; le silence régna de nouveau. Tout à coup, Tom saisit le bras de son camarade.

– Chut!

– Qu’est-ce qu’il y a? demanda Huck, le cœur battant.

– Chut! Tiens, on entend quelque chose. Tu n’entends pas ?

– Si. Ils viennent, ça c’est sûr. Qu’est-ce qu’on va faire ?

– Sais pas, tu crois qu’ils nous voient ?

– Pas de doute ; ils voient dans le noir comme les chats. Je voudrais bien être ailleurs, moi.

– Allons, du cran. Je ne crois pas qu’ils nous en veuillent ; nous ne faisons rien de mal. Peut-être que si nous ne bougeons pas ils ne nous remarqueront pas.

– Je veux bien essayer de rester tranquille, Tom, mais je ne réponds de rien : je tremble comme une feuille.

I know that dialects are hard to translate but using spoken language. Here’s my suggestion :

– Oui, j’aurais dû dire monsieur Williams. Mais je n’ai pas voulu le froisser : tout le monde l’appelle le vieux.

– On ne fait jamais attention à ce qu’on dit des morts, Tom.

La réflexion de Huck jeta un froid ; le silence régna de nouveau. Tout à coup, Tom saisit le bras de son camarade.

– Chut!

– Qu’est-ce qu’il y a? demanda Huck, le cœur battant.

– Chut! Tiens, on entend quelque chose. Tu n’entends pas ?

– Si. Ils viennent, ça c’est sûr. Qu’est-ce qu’on va faire ?

– Sais pas, tu crois qu’ils nous voient ?

– Pas de doute ; ils voient dans le noir comme les chats. Je voudrais bien être ailleurs, moi.

– Allons, du cran. Je ne crois pas qu’ils nous en veuillent ; nous ne faisons rien de mal. Peut-être que si nous ne bougeons pas ils ne nous remarqueront pas.

– Je veux bien essayer de rester tranquille, Tom, mais je ne réponds de rien : je tremble comme une feuille.

– J’aurais dû dire monsieur Williams. Mais c’était pas méchant, tout le monde l’appelle le vieux.

– On doit toujours faire attention à ce qu’on dit des morts, Tom.

La réflexion de Huck jeta un froid ; le silence régna de nouveau. Tout à coup, Tom saisit le bras de son camarade.

– Chut !

– Qu’est-ce qu’y a, Tom ?

Ils se serraient l’un contre l’autre, le cœur battant.

– Chut ! Tiens, on entend quelque chose. T’entends pas ?

– Euh…

– Là, t’entends pas ?

– Mon Dieu, Tom, ils arrivent ! Ils viennent, c’est sûr. Qu’est-ce qu’on va faire ?

– Sais pas, tu crois qu’ils nous voient ?

– Oh Tom, pas de doute ; ils voient dans le noir comme les chats. Si j’aurais su, j’aurais pas v’nu.

– Allons, n’aie pas peur. Je crois pas qu’ils nous en veulent ; on fait rien de mal. Si on se tient tranquille, peut-être qu’ils nous verront même pas.

– J’veux bien essayer de rester tranquille, Tom, mais Bon Dieu, j’ai la trouille.

Feel free to comment, I’m always interested in discussing translation matters. I’m not surprised that the dialect disappeared, it’s frequent in French translations. After all, peasants from Wessex speak like a French bourgeois.

Besides this translation that I explored later, I enjoyed reading Tom’s adventures. I loved Twain’s sense of humor and side remarks scattered along the book, like this one:

If he had been a great and wise philosopher, like the writer of this book, he would now have comprehended that Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do, and that Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do. And this would help him to understand why constructing artificial flowers or performing on a tread-mill is work, while rolling ten-pins or climbing Mont Blanc is only amusement. There are wealthy gentlemen in England who drive four-horse passenger-coaches twenty or thirty miles on a daily line, in the summer, because the privilege costs them considerable money; but if they were offered wages for the service, that would turn it into work and then they would resign.

As a reader, I felt as the accomplice of the writer, watching Tom’s adventures unfold like a movie. I didn’t remember the dark passages, about the murder in the cemetery, the trial and Tom and Huck’s subsequent fears. Tom is a loveable character, a mischievous child. As a parent, I sympathized with Aunt Polly but it’s hard to stay mad at Tom for a long time. His heart is in the right place.

Maybe the theme song of the anime was spot on: Tom Sawyer represents a kind America. Nature around St Petersburg is exotic for us, with the Mississippi river flowing by. I’m not a historian but what Twain describes seems different from life in France at the same time. Religion is very important in the village’s life. Sunday school gathers the children and Aunt Polly adds religious times of her own at home:

The sun rose upon a tranquil world, and beamed down upon the peaceful village like a benediction. Breakfast over, Aunt Polly had family worship: it began with a prayer built from the ground up of solid courses of Scriptural quotations, welded together with a thin mortar of originality; and from the summit of this she delivered a grim chapter of the Mosaic Law, as from Sinai.

The characters of Jim and Injun Joe are also typically American. The way Twain drafted “Injun Joe” made me cringe but I can’t judge a book written in 1876 with today’s set of values. And I don’t think it should be censored but it should come with a foreword to explain the historical context. These books help us see where we come from.

But if we set aside the setting, it remains a childhood book. Tom plays with his friends, imagines he’s a pirate, a robber or Robin Hood. He enjoys his freedom during the summer and dreads going to class. He loves wandering in the country around him and explore. He has a crush on Becky. Is he very different from the young narrator in La Gloire de mon père by Marcel Pagnol or the boys in War of the Buttons by Louis Pergaud?

In the end, Tom is a symbol of childhood, with its dreams, its own vision of the world, its innocence and its freedom of mind. Maybe that’s why a Japanese firm made The Adventures of Tom Sawyer into an anime that was so popular in France. His childhood has become part of mine.

Geek Love by Katherine Dunn – The Freak is Chic

May 8, 2019 8 comments

Geek Love by Katherine Dunn (1989) French title: Amour monstre. Masterfully translated by Jacques Mailhos.

If you’ve never heard of Geek Love by Katherine Dunn, forget about nerd techies and Star Wars aficionados. The geek here means more freak as in Freak Show. I started to read it in English but had to switch to French because I couldn’t picture what I was reading and didn’t know whether it came from my English or something else.

Something else it was.

Al and Lily Binewski inherited of the flailing Fabulon carnival show, had trouble keeping freaks on payroll to attract an audience and decided to breed their own freak show. Al would tinker with Lily’s pregnancies so that Lily would give birth to their own troop of freaks.

I’m sorry for the long quote that will follow but I don’t know a better way to introduce you to the Binewski family and give you a taste of Dunn’s brand of crazy prose.

First, this is how Al and Lilly took matter into their own hands and started their family:

The resourceful pair began experimenting with illicit and prescription drugs, insecticides, and eventually radioisotopes. My mother developed a complex dependency on various drugs during this process, but she didn’t mind. Relying on Papa’s ingenuity to keep her supplied, Lily seemed to view her addiction as a minor by-product of their creative collaboration.

And then the outcome was *drum roll*

Their firstborn was my brother Arturo, usually known as Aqua Boy. His hands and feet were in the form of flippers that sprouted directly from his torso without intervening arms or legs. He was taught to swim in infancy and was displayed nude in a big clear-sided tank like an aquarium. His favorite trick at the ages of three and four was to put his face close to the glass, bulging his eyes out at the audience, opening and closing his mouth like a river bass, and then to turn his back and paddle off, revealing the turd trailing from his muscular little buttocks. Al and Lil laughed about it later, but at the time it caused them great consternation as well as the nuisance of sterilizing the tank more often than usual. As the years passed, Arty donned trunks and became more sophisticated, but it’s been said, with some truth, that his attitude never really changed.

My sisters, Electra and Iphigenia, were born when Arturo was two years old and starting to haul in crowds. The girls were Siamese twins with perfect upper bodies joined at the waist and sharing one set of hips and legs. They usually sat and walked and slept with their long arms around each other. They were, however, able to face directly forward by allowing the shoulder of one to overlap the other. They were always beautiful, slim, and huge-eyed. They studied the piano and began performing piano duets at an early age. Their compositions for four hands were thought by some to have revolutionized the twelve-tone-scale.

I was born three years after my sisters. My father spared no expense in these experiments. My mother had been liberally dosed with cocaine, amphetamines, and arsenic during her ovulation and throughout her pregnancy with me. It was a disappointment when I emerged with such commonplace deformities. My albinism is the regular pink-eyed variety and my hump, though pronounced, is not remarkable in size or shape as humps go. My situation was far too humdrum to be marketable on the same scale as my brother’s and sisters’. Still, my parents noted that I had a strong voice and decided I might be an appropriate shill and talker for the business. A bald albino hunchback seemed the right enticement toward the esoteric talents of the rest of the family. The dwarfism, which was very apparent by my third birthday, came as a pleasant surprise to the patient pair and increased my value. From the beginning I slept in the built-in cupboard beneath the sink in the family living-van, and had a collection of exotic sunglasses to shield my sensitive eyes.

Despite the expensive radium treatments incorporated in his design, my younger brother, Fortunato, had a close call in being born to apparent normalcy. That drab state so depressed my enterprising parents that they immediately prepared to abandon him on the doorstep of a closed service station as we passed through Green River, Wyoming, late one night. My father had actually parked the van for a quick getaway and had stepped down to help my mother deposit the baby in the cardboard box on some safe part of the pavement. At that precise moment the two-week-old baby stared vaguely at my mother and in a matter of seconds revealed himself as not a failure at all, but in fact my parents’ masterwork. It was lucky, so they named him Furtunato. For one reason and another we always called him Chick.

The narrator is Olympia, the hunchbacked dwarf. We see her in present time (1980s) with Miranda, her daughter. Only Miranda thinks she’s orphaned and Olympia takes care of her financially and observes her from afar and is about to step into her life. (I won’t tell more to avoid spoilers). Olympia also tells us her family story, something so extraordinary that I struggle to sum it up.

Let’s say that the Binewski siblings were raised by nomadic parents who operated the Fabulon Carnival, founded by Al’s father and developed by Al himself and then Arturo. The siblings are raised in the idea the freakiest you are, the more love-worthy you are. They compete for their parents’ love through their earnings in the carnival. Whose show brings in the most money?

After a while, Arturo takes over the management, expands the carnival and soon reigns over a big crowd. In a sense, he promotes the concept of Freak Pride and call the other humans the norms (for normal people) He becomes a sort of guru, inside and outside his family. His siblings would do anything for his affection.

Geek Love is a crazy book that won’t let you indifferent. I wondered how the author’s brain came out with such a story. There are a lot of weird side characters in Geek Love and Dunn managed to design a coherent world. The details she gives about the carnival help build up her world, just like all the details about Hogwarts reveal the school of Witcraft and Wizardry in our minds and give it substance. It comes to life under our eyes.

It’s an alternative world where beauty, power, adoration and wealth are in the hands of the deformed. Obviously, it goes against the dictatorship of beauty. But if you go behind the curtain of strangeness, it’s a story of rivalry between the siblings and out-of-norm love. It describes the functioning of a close-knit clan who lives in their own world, with their own rules and bring the spectators in for the time of the show. Human nature remains and the quest for love, approval and a sense of self-worth are the same for the Binewskis as for anyone else.

Dunn questions a lot of human behaviors in her Geek Love. It challenges our reaction to physical differences. It points out our fascination for abnormalities. The Fabulon carnival wouldn’t exist without its constant influx of awestruck spectators, as if the public was at the same time repulsed, riveted and relieved that these deformities are not theirs.

Al and Lily’s actions are also questionable. Are parents allowed to interfere in a pregnancy to have the baby they want? Is it right by their children? The question is even more pressing nowadays since the medical techniques have developed tremendously since Geek Love was published.

Geek Love was our Book Club read for April and we had a lot to share about it. It’s disturbing to the point of nightmares. We agreed that we wouldn’t want to see it on a big screen as some images are better tamed in one’s mind when they come from words than from film. I know blocked things and scenes I didn’t want to imagine fully. I didn’t like the Binewkis very much but some of us found them touching in their own weird ways.

I’m eager to talk about this book with other readers. If you’ve read it, please leave a comment and don’t hesitate to share your thoughts. Spoilers are allowed if readers are warned. I’m looking forward to discussing aspects of the book I couldn’t put into this billet. Thanks in advance for sharing your thoughts.

PS: The French title of the book, Amour monstre is perfect. Monstre as a noun covers the word Geek and monstre as an adjective means huge and this fits the story. Amour monstre means both Geek Love and Huge Love and this applies to the love Olympia feels for Arturo and Miranda.

The Speech by Fabrice Caro – hilarious, bittersweet and spot-on

May 1, 2019 5 comments

The Speech by Fabrice Caro. (2018) Original French title: Le discours. Not available in English

Fabrice Caro is better known under his penname Fabcaro and for his BDs. (comic books) I recently posted a billet about Zaï Zaï Zaï Zaï, one of his most successful BD albums.

Le Discours (The Speech) is his second novel. We’re in Adrien’s head, he’s currently sitting through lunch at his parents’ house with his sister Sophie and his future brother-in-law Ludovic. He’s heartbroken because he recently broke up with Sonia. Their relationship lasted one year and she left him 38 days before. He’s sitting there, alone with his misery when Ludo asks him to give a speech at his and Sophie’s wedding. Poor Adrien doesn’t dare to refuse and he starts panicking about The Speech.

The whole novel is set during one Sunday meal and Adrien is going through breakup angst. Shall he text Sonia? What to text? And after it’s sent, when will she answer? He checks out his phone, goes to the power room to regroup and look at his messages. He’s on pins and needles and overanalyzes everything. He reminisces the stages of their relationship, how they met, how they were together and when things started to fall apart. It rings true because Adrien is going through spot-on little details and his pain is palpable to the reader. It’s one aspect of Caro’s novel. It’s bittersweet, funny at times because of Adrien’s self-deprecating sense of humor but my heart went out to him. Poor Adrien.

While his whole being screams of pain because of his breakup, he manages to engage in the small talk around the table and to worry about The Speech. His mind wanders and he imagines himself at the wedding, speaking in front of everyone. He writes drafts of his speech in his head and it varies according to the tone and the topic of the conversation at the table. These parts are hilarious.

The third aspect of the novel, the one that interested me the most is the family dynamics. The parents regularly invite their children to share a meal. The siblings wouldn’t spend time together otherwise. Sophie takes Ludovic to her parents’ house but Adrien never brings any girlfriend. The meal is like a perfectly orchestrated symphony with each family member knowing their role, their score and playing their usual part. It’s classical music, not jazz and impro is not allowed. Each member sticks to their score. The dishes are a family tradition. The repartition of tasks between the parents and the children are set. At the table, each guest plays his role, brings his topics and share their news.

It’s also a perfect picture of the French middle class with perfunctory meals where nothing important is said but they still glue the family together. The affection is there, deep but silent. Fabrice Caro was born in 1973 and Adrien is forty. Author and character are from the same generation and have reached a stage in life where parents start ageing. The roles are shifting, children feel the need to take care of their parents, they realize their parents won’t be there forever. Here, Adrien remembers a time he drove them to diner at Sophie’s.

Sur le trajet, ma mère, assise à l’arrière, m’avait demandé de rouler moins vite parce qu’elle avait un peu le mal de mer, et j’avais repensé au vomi sur l’auto-stoppeur, et cette inversion des rôles m’était apparue comme le symbole d’une tristesse infinie, une preuve tangible de plus que j’étais entré dans la seconde moitié de ma vie qui consiste à faire pour eux ce qu’ils ont fait pour moi dans la première moitié : m’inquiéter, les chérir, les épargner, rouler moins vite pour éviter qu’ils ne vomissent. On the way, my mother, sitting in the back, had asked me to drive slower because she had motion sickness. I recalled throwing up on a hitchhiker and this reversal of our roles seemed like a symbol of utter sadness. It was another proof that I had entered the second half of my life, the one that consists in doing for them what they did for me during the first half: worry about them, cherish them, spare them and drive slower so that they wouldn’t throw up.

Adrien also remembers his thirtieth birthday. Another breakup and he had come to his parents’ house to find solace. Although his parents did not provide any tangible comfort, the fact that this house exists, with his teenage room intact, his craft done in school on the kitchen wall is already something. He may make fun of himself and his successive breakups, softly joke about his parents’ routine and decoration, his childhood home remains a safe haven. Even if he’s forty, it eases his pain to think that in time of need, this is a place he can turn to. His parents will welcome him. Even if he knows they won’t give him advice because they won’t have heart-to-heart conversations, he knows they love him and show their affection differently.

Le discours is a lovely book and a nice picture of how families get together. Of course, you can read Caro’s description of Adrien’s family dynamics and think they’re pathetic. There’s no deep conversation, Ludo sounds like a jerk, Sophie and Adrien have nothing in common except a childhood in this house and with these parents. I didn’t take it that way. I just thought that going through these rituals is how this family expresses their affection. They’re not touchy-feely but they’re there for one another in times of need. And in the end, that’s what matters the most.

Adrien has a wicked sense of humor and sees everything through biting humorous goggles. It’s self-deprecating sometimes and it borders on sadness. Often, the comic side of the book comes from Adrien’s wild imagination. His mind wanders from a banal topic or sentence. He starts thinking out of the box, exposing the ridicule of something and his thoughts get crazy and out of the usual paths. It’s huge fun, and it’s Caro’s brand of humor, the one that made me laugh so much when I read Zaï, Zaï, Zaï, Zaï. Adrien has also a devilish sense of observation. His thoughts are sarcastic and hugely entertaining.

Le discours is a sad and a funny book at the same time. This combination makes it deep and light. Adrien’s feelings, the description of the family meal and his depiction of his relationship with Sonia, everything rings true. It isn’t bleak but it doesn’t discard Adrien’s raw pain under fake jolly farces. It’s a lot more subtle than that.

Warmly recommended.

And Then, Their Children by Nicolas Mathieu – Prix Goncourt 2018

April 28, 2019 8 comments

And Then, Their Children by Nicolas Mathieu (2018) Original French title: Leurs enfants après eux.

And Then, Their Children is my translation of the title of the Prix Goncourt 2018, Leurs enfants après eux by Nicolas Mathieu. As far as I know, it’s not available in English yet but it will probably be translated soon, being the winner of the Goncourt. I’ll use the French title in my billet.

Nicolas Mathieu was born in Epinal in 1978. Epinal is a town in the Vosges mountains, part of the former Lorraine region in France. (Administrative regions have changed in 2016) This region was made of four départements, Meuse (where Verdun is), Meurthe et Moselle (Nancy), Vosges (Epinal) and Moselle (Metz). These four départements have a long and different history. Nicolas Mathieu comes from the Vosges and his novel is set in Moselle.

The Moselle département is close to the borders of Germany, Luxembourg and Belgium. It was the Lorraine part in the Alsace-Lorraine loss of the 1870 war, the one featured in La Débâcle by Zola. This means that it was under German administration from 1871 to 1918. This has left traces in today’s society, with a different social security regime, two additional public holidays and various legal specificities. The Moselle département has also cultural differences with its neighbors. It’s more of German culture, with a patois coming from old German. It’s also a département half-industrial, half-rural. The industrial part is one of those traditional industrial areas we’ve had in all Western countries and that have collapsed after coal mines, iron mines and steel industries closed down. In the early 20th C, lots of immigrants came to work here and the Italian and Polish communities were the most important ones. Later came people from Spain, Portugal and North Africa.

Leurs enfants après eux is set in the Fensch valley, an area near Luxembourg and that was rife with steel industries until the 1980s. (For French readers, that’s where Florange is) It was a very populated area with cities that grew with the factories and were made to accommodate their needs. It bears the traces of old capitalism, the one in which the workers’ lives were arranged by the factory like houses, sports clubs, libraries, summer camps and sometimes food. It shaped the landscape with pipes, railroads and street names. (Steel Street, Plant Street, Blast Furnace Street…) In the 1980s, the plants shut down, lay-offs were everywhere. Unemployment skyrocketed. People aged fifty and more were put in pre-retirement. Large noisy plants became industrial wasteland, quiet steel monsters becoming ruins. Meanwhile, Luxembourg’s economy thrived with the financial industry and French workers started to cross the border and work there. Today, there are between 60 000 and 100 000 French employees in Luxembourg.

Why such a long introduction? You need a bit of background to understand Leurs enfants après eux.

The 2018 Prix Goncourt tells the life of three people during their formative years in four remarkable summers, all symbolized by a song.

1992, Smells Like Teen Spirit. Anthony is 14, Stéphanie is 16 and Hacine is 16 too. Anthony is killing time by the local lake with his cousin. They decide to steal a canoe to cross the lake. They get acquainted with Stéphanie and her cousin. Anthony is attracted to Stéphanie who doesn’t give him the time of day. Hacine is part of a group of adolescents who is into marijuana trafficking and small delinquency.

We’ll follow them during three other summers: 1994, You Could Be Mine. 1996, La Fièvre, by NTM, a French rap group. 1998, I Will Survive, the totem song of the French soccer team, the one who won the FIFA World Cup with its Black-Blanc-Beur team.

The main character is Anthony, a typical child of a working-class family that could come out of a Ken Loach film. His father is self-employed after he lost his job. His mother works as an entry-level employee. They live in a housing development and work hard to pay their mortgage. Stéphanie comes from a richer family, she lives in a bigger house. Hacine lives in a council flat with his father. The three of them represent the social classes of the city. Their lives intersect during these summers, leaving indelible marks on their lives.

Nicolas Mathieu describes the formative years of these three adolescents and their backgrounds. It’s a picture of the French society, the one of the Yellow Vests and the roundabouts. It shows the class system and the fact that, despite de country’s moto claiming Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité, equality is an illusion. Not everyone has the same chance to achieve their potential, especially working-class children. Stéphanie’s parents know the codes to help her make the best of the school system. Anthony is average and lacks parental incentive to work harder in school. Hacine is on his own, his father doesn’t speak French well enough. Each of them dreams of leaving.

Nicolas Mathieu paints an accurate picture of working-class and middle-class life in France. It’s a good depiction of its pop culture, its way-of-life and its ups-and-downs. He shows the end of the dream of the Post-war economic boom. Now, the social ladder is broken. Children remain at the same level as their parents or go down and people make do. We see how one generation reproduces the life of the previous one. In that respect, Leurs enfants après eux is a brilliant book. Nicolas Mathieu is the same age as Anthony. It’s his generation and I liked that he put the spotlight on this world, one that is far from the Parisian salons but makes most of the population of this country.

I didn’t like the undercurrent idea of the end of the book. Nicolas Mathieu hints that if you stay in your hometown, live the life of your parents, you failed. The ones who didn’t manage to escape are losers. My question is: why should “escaping” be the goal? What would happen if everyone tried to leave? Where would they go? Populate the Parisian suburbs? Why is having a small life in a little province town a prison? I thought that the tone was a bit judgmental in the end. I wonder how the Parisian literary elites read this. Like anthropologists?

Leurs enfants après eux was a rather emotional read for me. I come from Moselle, from a town like the Heillange of the book, not in the Fensch valley but from a nearby one. I know the place where Leurs enfants après eux is set. I kept seeing the places in my mind eye. I’m from the same generation as Anthony, Stéphanie and Hacine. I “escaped” through the school system and thanks to parents who pushed for school achievements and paid for education. Nicolas Mathieu comes from this world too and “escaped” the same way, thanks to parents who paid for a private school. Even if it’s not his own story, it’s based on people around him and on his own experience. It shows the classes who come out bruised and battered by liberal capitalism.

Leurs enfants après eux is written in spoken language, one that reflects the social classes it describes. It rings true but lacks the regionalisms you’d expect from people of the Fensch valley. I noticed it because it’s my home but it’s not visible for other readers. I guess it wouldn’t have brought anything to the story anyway.

I’m happy that Leurs enfants après eux won the Prix Goncourt because it pictures real life and the prize will ensure it gets a lot of readers. It’s a political novel in the best sense of political, like books by Richard Russo, songs by Bruce Springsteen or films by Ken Loach.

Burning Bright by Ron Rash – compelling

April 26, 2019 8 comments

Burning Bright by Ron Rash (2010) French title: Incandescences

I discovered Ron Rash at Quais du Polar and bought (and got signed 😊) a collection of twelve short stories, Burning Bright. Unfortunately, it took me two years to read it. As always, it’s difficult to write about a collection of short stories. Write about all of them? Boring. Pick one to three favorites? That’s an option. Have an overview of the collection? That’s my choice.

The stories in Burning Bright are all set in the Appalaches, where Ron Rash comes from. Ron Rash was at Quais du Polar this year too and he said that he writes about his region again and again because it’s home, because he wants to tell about this land and its people and because he thinks that if he digs deep enough in one place, he’ll reach the core of the human soul and his stories will have a whiff of universality.

His exploration takes us in different times. A story is set during the Civil War (Lincolnites), one during the Great Depression (Hard Times), one just at the end of WWII (Return) and the others are set in the last decades. As you can see, historical stories happen at a pivotal moment of the history of America. In the others, the timestamp is less clear. A way to reach universality, probably.

Several stories picture people at a rough moment of their lives. Money is tight and they’re one step away from poverty. A brother has to evict his nephew and his junky friends from his brother’s house. His brother and sister-in-law are stuck in a trailer, scared to death of their violent and drug addict son. A farmer and his wife struggle to survive during the Great Depression and discovering who or what snitches eggs in their henhouse is vital. A child steals valuable objects on the victims of an airplane crash to his worthless parents in order to sell them and put food on the table. A man digs up in tombs of confederate soldiers, looking for belt buckles and other tokens to be sold to people who collect such items or like to reenact battles of the Civil War. He needs money to pay for his mother’s medical bills. These stories show to what length humans are ready to go when their survival is at stake. Some become nasty, selfish and tend to lose part of their humanity in the process. Some keep their dignity and kindness and do what needs to be done but feel guilty.

Ron Rash describes a tough world where people struggle to survive in a region where the economy was based on the wood industry and coal mines. At Quais du Polar, he explained that people have hard lives and live on and off the land. Their lives are intertwined with the land.

His great aunt had been born on this land, lived on it eight decades, and knew it as well as she knew her husband and children. That was what she’d always claimed, and could tell you the week when the first dogwood blossom would brighten the ridge, the first blackberry darken and swell enough to harvest. Then her mind had wandered into a place she could not follow, taking with it all the people she knew, their names and connections, whether they still lived or whether they’d died. But her body lingered, shed of an inner being, empty as a cicada husk. (Into The Gorge)

In Into The Gorge, Rash describes an old man who wants to harvest ginseng in a place that used to be communal woods, where everyone could help themselves and is now a National Park, where it’s forbidden to pick anything. It’s hard for him to accept that the land where his great aunt had died, where his father had planted ginseng is now off limits. His relationship with the land that provides his living runs deep. He earns enough from his tobacco plot but would like to earn a bit more by selling ginseng, to have a bit of money in case of emergency.

Ron Rash also writes about old beliefs. In the Corpse Bird, an engineer who has trouble sleeping hears an owl at night and he remembers that it is said to be the death bird. When he hears that their young neighbor is suddenly ill, he becomes restless, unable to find logical reasons convince her parents to bring her to the hospital. They think he’s nuts but his unease remains.

Burning Bright is a compelling collection of short stories. Rash’s prose is beautiful and he also writes poetry. He says that he reads his texts aloud to hear how they sound. Each word is valuable and I wish my English was good enough for me to hear everything he put in his words.

Comparisons are always dangerous in literature but these stories reminded me of Annie Proulx’s short stories. They have the same rough edges, the same understanding of the roots of America. The stories are dark but not bleak. They put common people in the spotlight and shows how they cope with what life throws at them.

Highly recommended.

PS: The English cover of Burning Bright goes better with the stories than the French one.

Iphigénie by Jean Racine – Unexpectedly modern

April 24, 2019 10 comments

Iphigénie by Jean Racine (1674)

Picture by Hélène Builly

After I Took My Father On My Shouldersbased on the classic The Aeneid, I saw another classic, Iphigénie by Jean Racine, directed by Chloé Dabert, inspired by the eponymous play by the Ancient Greek tragedian Euripides.

The plot of Iphigénie comes from an episode of The Illiad. The Greeks are on their way to Troy and they’re stuck in a harbor because there is not enough wind to sail to Troy.

The Greek army is posted there, restless, eager to go to war. The king Agamemnon is there with his troops, along with Achilles and Ulysses. The oracle says that a princess must be sacrificed to appease the goddess Diana and have favorable winds. Only Iphigénie, Agamemnon’s daughter, seems to fit the bill.

Ulysses has convinced Agamemnon that the reason of State prevails and that Iphigénie’s death is necessary. Agamemnon has given in and has summoned his wife and daughter to join him at the military camp under the pretense of hastening her wedding to Achille. Now he regrets this decision and wants to delay their arrival.

Photo of the set by Victor Tonelli

The whole play is about Iphigénie and her death: is it necessary? Should Agamemnon sacrifice his daughter? Must Achille accept the death of his betrothed for the sake of war and glory? Must Iphigénie accept her fate as a princess?

To be honest, I’m not a great fan of Racine. (Or Corneille) It’s hard for me to relate to what their characters live. Here, the director Chloé Dabert chose a sober décor, modern but neutral enough to be timeless. The actors were dressed in today’s clothes but she didn’t overplay the modernization. It helped me see how modern the text is.

Agamemnon’s dilemma is between his duty as a leader and his feelings as a father. But he’s also haunted by other demons. Is the war against Troy worth it? Is going to war because Helen left her husband a fair cause? Winning this war would mean a lot of fame for Agamemnon and this perspective feeds his ego. It made me think about how WWI started with the alliances between countries. It reminded me of the war in Irak, based on fake information that were more a pretext to start a war and give a son the opportunity to finish his father’s business than anything else. Are wars based upon fair causes?

Achille is torn between his love for Iphigénie, his loyalty to Agamemnon who leads the army and his personal quest for glory. Iphigénie is the most dignified character of the play. She remains a princess through and through, ready to do her duty and sacrifice her life.

The striking part of the play is the oracle and its power. The crux of dilemma stems from the oracle’s sentence and no one challenges what it says. They believe it’s true and are ready to make a great sacrifice to please the gods. They think it’s worth it, even if the gods are always thirsty, even if the demand is horrible. I mulled over the terrible acts people are ready to commit because they think their god demanded it. Blind obedience to messages from gods is a recipe to disaster and there are enough examples to illustrate this fact. (In my opinion, blind obedience to anything is a recipe to disaster.) This questioning is still part of today’s world, even if this play was written in the 17th century.

Photo by Victor Tonelli

Iphigénie is also a stunning character. She’s like a ball thrown from one player to the other, her weak and ambitious father, her fiancé in search of military glory, her fierce mother Clytemnestre and her rival Eriphile, who’s in love with Achille and wants her out of the way. She keeps her dignity all along, putting duty before her wishes and her fears. In the play, women are clearly pawns and victims of a world ruled by men. They are trump cards that the men decide to play or not and Iphigénie’s life depend on it.

Chloé Dabert’s direction builds a bridge between the text and us. We watch a play written under King Louis XIV, set in Ancient Greece and based upon a play written by an Ancient Greek tragedian. And yet it speaks to us. The powers at stake, war, glory, ambition, pride, religious beliefs are still at play in our century. The desire to conquer, to get revenge over a rival, to abide by religious commandment are rooted in Western culture. And unfortunately, they still rule the world.

For French readers, if this play comes on tour in your city, you might want to get tickets, it’s a good way to get acquainted with this classic. For foreign readers, there might be versions on YouTube or in any case, you can read the play.

Tropic of Violence by Nathacha Appanah – a chilling and highly recommended novella

April 23, 2019 11 comments

Tropic of Violence by Nathacha Appanah (2016) Original French title: Tropique de la violence.

We, French from mainland France, tend to ignore what happens in the overseas territories. Away from the voters’ sight, away from the politicians’ preoccupations. There’s a huge scandal about a pesticide in used banana plantations in Martinique and Guadeloupe that’s barely spoken about. The pollution is widespread, it’ll stay for a long time and will heavily affect the health of the inhabitants of these islands. In Tropic of Violence by Nathacha Appanah, we are in another overseas French territory, Mayotte.

It’s an archipelago near in the Mozambique Channel, near the Comoros Islands and Madagascar. It has 256 000 inhabitants and in 2009, a referendum was organized and Mayotte became a French overseas département. It means that, from a legal and administrative point of view, living in Mayotte is like living in any département of mainland France. Mayotte became part of the EU. One of the consequences is that it faces a huge influx of illegal migrants from Madagascar and the nearby Comoros Islands. It creates tensions between the local population and the newcomers. They are too numerous for the island to absorb and integrate these additional inhabitants.

Tropic of Violence opens with Marie’s story. She’s a nurse in France and falls in love with a fellow nurse, Chamsidine. He’s from Mayotte and they both move to Mamoudzou, the prefecture of Mayotte. Their marriage falls apart and Marie tells us how her adoptive son Moïse came to live with her. Moïse’s mother, an illegal migrant who arrived on a boat in Mayotte one night, abandoned him to Marie. Moïse has wall eyes, one green and one black and in the local popular belief, it means that he has jinn eyes. He has something to do with jinns and he brings bad luck. Marie trades divorce papers with Chamsidine against a recognition of paternity and she gets to keep Moïse and raise him as her son.

He’s a preteen when he starts asking questions about his identity and hanging out with the wrong crowd in school. He’s already rebelling when Marie suddenly dies of a stroke. He finds her in their kitchen and instead of asking for help, he leaves the house and joins a gang led by Bruce, the king of Gaza, a shantytown in Mayotte. He reigns over a people of homeless kids and organizes band thefts and drug trafficking.

We follow Moïse’s fate as he becomes Mo and lives under Bruce’s commandment. He obeys like a well-trained pet. He quickly looses his humanity and Appanah shows the degradation of body and mind under harsh living conditions. Not enough food. No place to sleep. No place to feel safe and relax. No place to shower. No clean clothes. The dehumanization process is implacable.

Moïse becomes Mo and this new and shorter version of his name is symbolic. He becomes a shorter version of himself as poverty and violence strike. He’s no longer Marie’s little boy, the one who used to live in a loving household.

Tropic of Violence is a powerful book. Appanah switches of point of view between Marie, Moïse, Bruce and the representative of France. (Educators, police forces, politicians) They all live on the same territory but their daily lives are so different that they could be living on different planets. The ending is bleak and moving.

The shantytowns really exist in Mayotte. As I said before, there’s a major problem of violence on the archipelago. The locals are exasperated. There aren’t enough public services to cope with the incoming illegal immigration. People die trying to reach Mayotte in makeshift boats. It’s Lampedusa in the Indian ocean.

Out of sight, out of mind. French people never hear of the overseas territory unless there’s a riot, a strike and a blockage. That’s how I knew about this issue, there was a general strike in Mayotte in 2018. Nathacha Appanah transforms a faceless problem heard on the radio into a personalized one with Mo. And that’s one answer to the timeless question “What’s the use of literature?” Well, it gives a face to human dramas and forces us to look them in the eyes.

Tropic of Violence is a political novel but also a symbolic one. Moïse is the French for Moises and it is not a common name for a French child. Like Enée in J’ai pris mon père sur les épaules, it’s a meaningful choice. There must be a parallel between Moïse and Moises.

In the Bible, Moises is a clandestine baby as Pharaon had commanded that all male Hebrew children born would be drowned in the river Nile and his mother placed in an ark on the river. He is rescued from the Nile by Pharaon’s daughter and raised as an Egyptian.

In Tropic of Violence, Marie adopts him when his birth mother arrives in Mayotte after a shipwreck. Rescued from the water. His birth mother is an illegal migrant, from a people not welcome in France and tracked by the police. Marie—another biblical name—is like royalty on the island. She’s white and comes from mainland France. She’s a nurse at the local hospital and has a comfortable life. Moïse is adopted in a privileged home and raised like a French little boy. Marie’s death throws him back to his people and its suffering.

So far so good, I can see the link between Moïse and Moises. But then I’m blocked. After Moïse leaves his house and joins Gaza, I don’t see the reference between Moïse and Moises anymore. So, if anyone has a clue about that, I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

I didn’t include any quote in my billet but I could have. Appanah’s style is haunting, like her story. I think Moïse will stay with me, probably because the fate of children is more striking like in Small Country by Gaël Faye. The different points of views give a lot of power to the scenes she describes and they engage the reader in the story. It’s not surprising that Tropic of Violence won the Prix Femina des Lycéens in 2016 just like Small Country won the Prix Goncourt des Lycéens. Highschool students recognized something important in these two political novellas who involve preteens.

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