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There Will Be Dust by Sandrine Collette

June 4, 2018 10 comments

There Will Be Dust by Sandrine Collette (2016) Original French title: Il reste la poussière. Not available in English.

La vie n’attend pas qu’on ait envie d’y mettre les mains. Life doesn’t wait for you to be ready to put your hands in it.

In There Will Be Dust by Sandrine Collette, we are on a small farm in Patagonia at the beginning of the 20th century. Rafael is the youngest of four boys and has always been bullied by his brothers. Their father disappeared one day, never came back and the mother runs the farm with an iron fist.

Her sons are working slaves not better treated than mules and horses. She knows her older sons mistreat their little brother but she doesn’t care. They’re like a pack of dogs, she feeds them, lets them live under her roof but lets the pack find their own leader. She doesn’t give them any affection and Rafael finds solace in his horse and his dog.

Their life is tough, their farm is isolated and only the oldest sons, the twins Joaquin and Mauro are allowed to go to the nearest town with their Ma. The third son, Steban, doesn’t speak and tries to remain neutral between the twins and Rafael.

It’s a hard book to sum up because a lot of it is spend in everyday life and peering into the brothers’ minds. I felt closer to Rafael but also sorry for the others, to live in such dreadful conditions with such a hard mother. Their world is changing fast, there’s less and less room for small farms and they always struggle with money. One event will change their life but I can’t tell more without spoilers.

There Will Be Dust is a very atmospheric novel. It has an incredible sense of place. Sandrine Collette has a style that talks to all your senses. You can imagine the wind, the sun, the rush of riding a horse, the smell of the country. Her descriptions of sheep farming and sheep shearing ring true. She writes about the noise, the smell, the behavior of the sheep.

She takes you to this hard world, into this desperate family of hard working farmers. There’s a lot of violence in their life and Rafael seems to be their only hope for a different vision of life. But how to escape the yoke their mother put on their necks? How will they have a chance to life in a different light and let warmth seep into their interactions instead of the coldness ingrained by their heartless mother?

Their mother is like a dark spider, controlling everything and everyone. She’s a witch with economical and emotional power that she uses freely. Rafael’s natural temper is different and he’s incredibly resilient. His brothers and mother bully him and it should make him change. But he remains softhearted and hopeful and trusting in human nature. He’s their gift, his brothers’ chance at breaking their mother’s spell on them.

It’s an extremely powerful read. It’s a bleak family story in an unforgiving environment. In a way, it belongs to the same family as The Hands by Stephen Orr. Translation Tragedy

La Daronne by Hannelore Cayre

May 6, 2018 8 comments

La Daronne by Hannelore Cayre. (2017) French literature, not available in English. (Yet)

La Daronne by Hannelore Cayre will probably end up on my 2018 best of. Meet Patience Portefeux, 53, a widow with two grown-up daughters, with a boyfriend in the police force, and a mother in a nursing home. She’s an underpaid translator from the Arab for the French department of Justice.

As a translator and interpret, Patience spends hours and hours translating and transcribing conversations between drug dealers and other criminals. She also spends hours at the Law Courts, assisting during hearings and questionings. She struggles financially: her daughters are in university, the nursing home costs an arm and a leg, her job pays indemnities instead of wages, which means no retirement money.

So, one day, she seizes an opportunity and crosses the red line and uses what she hears during her job to hijack a huge quantity of marijuana. She becomes La Daronne, the boss of a small dealing network. (In French, daronne is a slang word to say Ma.)

I was waiting for the paperback edition to read La Daronne, a book that won a prize at Quais du Polar last year. I started to read it while I was standing in line at this year’s festival. I can’t tell you how long I waited, I was too engrossed in the story to complain or get impatient. I was waiting for Hannelore Cayre to arrive and sign her books. We chatted a little bit, she was stunned by the line of readers waiting for her. But after reading La Daronne, I’m not surprised that readers wanted to meet her.

Like I said, I was caught in her book from the first pages. Everything drew me in: Patience’s sharp tone, her unusual background, the other characters around her, the original story and the plausibility of it. Contrary to Arctic Chill, this plot doesn’t sound like déjà vu.

Patience sounds real. She has the problems of her age: she’s sandwiched between university costs and nursing home costs, between her daughters and taking care of her ageing mother. The descriptions of the nursing home are vivid, spot on, crude but without pathos. I loved Patience’s irreverence. Political politeness is not her middle name and I loved it. See an example:

J’ai mis une bonne semaine à la repérer [une aide-soignante] vu que dans mouroirs, c’est comme dans les hôpitaux ou les crèches : il n’y a pratiquement que des Noires et des Arabes qui y travaillent. Racistes de tout bord, sachez que la première et la dernière personne qui vous nourrira à la cuillère et qui lavera vos parties intimes est une femme que vous méprisez ! It took me a week to spot her [a nursing auxiliary] because in old people’s houses, it’s like in hospitals and creches: almost all the employees working there are Blacks or Arabs. Racists of all sides, you’d better know that the first and the last person who will feed you with a spoon and wash your private parts is a woman you despise!

If you want to imagine the tone of this book, its dark humor, its bluntness and its exploration of French society’s dirty corners, think of Apocalypse Baby by Virginie Despentes.

La Daronne is a fast-paced trip into Patience’s life but also a journey into the quotidian of small criminality seen from all sides: the marijuana drug dealers’ ecosystem, the policemen’s never-ending work to catch them and the judicial system to judge them.

Hannelore Cayre is a criminal lawyer. She knows perfectly the ins and outs of the French judicial system. What she writes about the translators’ status is true. And so shocking. Imagine that the Department of Justice, the one in charge to enforce the laws of this country cannot afford to pay social charges on the translators’ work and found a trick to avoid paying them. How is that even possible? Especially when you know that private companies have to check every six months that the suppliers with which they do more than 5000 euros of business per year have paid their social security charges. Imagine the paperwork. And the same politicians who impose these useless checks to the private sector turn a blind eye on the Department of Justice employing only freelances to avoid social costs because of budget issues? Truly, I’m ashamed of the way this country treats its judicial system and of how little money we put in this crucial pillar of our democracy.

But back to Patience. Knowing all this, can we really judge her for crossing moral lines? Hannelore Cayre puts an unflattering light on this corner of our world. It’s eye opening, refreshing, new and engaging. This is the real France, not the postcard one.

It’s a Translation Tragedy book, at least for the moment. I saw that her previous books have been translated into German, this one might make it too.

A last quote, just for the pleasure of it.

Dehors, c’était l’automne. Il pleuvait tous les jours comme sur les planètes inhospitalières des films de SF, alors qu’à la télé les infos diffusaient des reportages pour apprendre aux gens à faire des garrots en cas de membre arraché par une bombe. Outside it was autumn. It rained every day like in inhospitable planets in SF movies. On TV, the news flash broadcasted reportages about how to do a tourniquet in case someone lost a member during a bombing.

Welcome to France after the Islamic terrorist attacks…

The Origin of Others by Toni Morrison

April 18, 2018 5 comments

The Origin of Others by Toni Morrison (2017). French title: L’origine des autres. Translated by Christine Laferrière.

I have one rule on my blog: I write a billet about every book I read, even if I didn’t like it or couldn’t finish it. This rule is a problem when it comes to The Origin of Others by Toni Morrison. It’s a collection of six conferences that she did at Harvard University in 2016. I have read them in French and frankly, I don’t have the vocabulary to write properly about them in English.

They are all about using the concept of race as a way to dominate other people. Her explanations are based on history, on psychology and literature.  Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Artificial Nigger by Flannery O’Connor, The Sound and the Fury and Absalon, Absalon! by William Faulkner, To Have and Have Not or The Garden of Eden by Hemingway and The Radiance of the King by Camara Laye are part of her demonstrations. She shares her own experience of racism, explains what she meant in some of her novels like Beloved.

These essays are fascinating. It’s only 92 pages, it’s thought provoking and clear. I’m not able to discuss them here or to quote them since I have read them in translation. So instead of doing a poor job of it, I will only recommend you to get this little gem and read these conferences. I truly envy those who had the chance to attend them. It doesn’t seem to be available in audiobook but it would be worth it.

Illustration by Alexandra Compain-Tissier for Télérama

The Rose in the Yellow Bus by Eugène Ebodé – 50th anniversary of the death of Martin Luther King

April 4, 2018 10 comments

The Rose in the Yellow Bus by Eugène Ebodé (2013) Original French title: La Rose dans le bus jaune. Not available in English.

In March, Télérama published an article about Memphis, fifty years after the assassination of Martin Luther King. It reminded me that I still had The Rose in the Yellow Bus by Eugène Ebodé on the shelf. Ebodé is a French-Cameroonian writer. He was born in 1962 in Douala, Cameroon and emigrated in France in 1982. The Rose in the Yellow Bus is a novel where Rosa Parks narrates her life, beginning with the boycott of the public buses in Montgomery, Alabama in December 1955. As we all know, segregation was the rule then, thanks to the Jim Crow laws; Rosa Parks refused to get up and give her seat to a white man in a public bus. She was arrested by the police. She was already an active militant for the civil rights with the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People). They decided to use her example to go to court against the Jim Crow Laws and started the Montgomery Bus Boycott , a movement that was pivotal in the Civil Rights movement.

As a child, I had a subscription to a magazine called Astrapi, published by the Christian oriented publisher Bayard Presse. (It still exists) Astrapi used to publish the life of famous people in comic strips, from Sister Emmanuelle to Marilyn Monroe. I remember reading about Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Bus Boycott. I was in primary school and I remember vividly this comic strips: I was impressed by Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks and the participants to the boycott and I was horrified by the concept of segregation. No wonder Ebodé’s book caught my eye when I saw it in a bookshop.

But back to the novel. I’d say it’s good but flawed. It was a difficult mission from the start because it deals with history. Ebodé made three creative decisions to tell this story.

First, Rosa Parks is the narrator, which means that famous leaders like Martin Luther King are a bit in the shadow. It’s an important choice because we focus on the reasons for the boycott and forget the famous leaders. The movement aimed at helping people’s everyday life, to ensure that they had the rights they deserved as American citizens. Rosa Parks shows that this boycott wouldn’t have been a success without a massive participation of the black population. He needed to write from the perspective of someone who had experienced life among the working class.

Second, Ebodé created the character of Douglas White Junior, the white man Rosa Parks was summoned to leave her seat for. Ebodé made him a man with white skin but black origins. One of his ancestors was raped by her owner and his white genes reappeared in Douglas. He’s a complex character, hiding in a white neighborhood, feeling like a fraud among his white neighbors and an outsider in the black community. He’s in an absurd position that stems out of the absurd Jim Crow laws. The awakening of Douglas White is an interesting part of the novel even if I don’t think he was a likeable character.

And third, Ebodé added an African character into the mix. He’s named Manga Bell, a Cameroonian surname, a way for the writer to link his novel to his own history. Manga Bell is the link between Africa and the African-American community. He’s by their side as a representative of their African cousins but also as a reminder that African leaders sold their population to slave traders.

These two fictional characters gave new dimensions to the story, they allowed Ebodé to include these points of views in the story.

In my opinion the novel is flawed because it’s unbalanced. It took Ebodé a long time to introduce Rosa Parks, her husband and mother, her everyday life and to describe the starting point of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. The book is 365 pages long and we are page 235 when the first day of the boycott is over. It was interesting but I would have liked more details about the rest of the fight, the victory and the court battles. The boycott lasted 381 days! The 130 remaining pages cover the boycott from day 2 till the end and Rosa Parks’s life until she’s 81.

The other flaw is that Rosa Parks doesn’t sound American. The book is written in French and she should sound like she was translated from the American. For example, she relates how embarrassed she was to be the center of attention. Je rougissais comme un piment d’Espelette (I blushed and was as red an Espelette chili) I doubt that an American woman would use the Espelette chili comparison since it’s a chili from the South West of France. She’d say something like as red as a beetroot or in French rouge comme une tomate.

Other French expression play strange tricks to the author. At a Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) meeting, someone mutters about Martin Luther King who was only 26 at the time: “Que veut donc nous imposer ce petit blanc-bec venu d’Atlanta?”. In English it becomes something like “What does this little greenhorn from Atlanta want to push us to do?” Except that in French, greenhorn is blanc-bec or literally white-beak, which is kind of ironic when talking about a black man.

Here’s another example: Ces gens-là ne comprennent que les coups de bâton et rien d’autre. A propos de bâton, tenez, à Baton Rouge… (p240) It’s impossible to translate into English because there’s a play-on-word on coup de bâton (blow with a stick) and the city of Baton Rouge, which means Red Stick for a French. It’s not something an American writer would write.

Comparisons, puns and metaphors betray the writer’s origin and cultural references. I’d already noticed that in Un homme accidentel by Philippe Besson. It’s something a writer should take into account when editing their novel. Perhaps I hear it because I switch from the French to the English language all the time and read American lit in translation. It annoyed me a bit, just as it annoyed me that in 1956, Douglas White eats some coussins de Lyon, sweets that come from Lyon but where invented in…1960. I suppose that it bothered me but other French readers might not mind.

What it worth reading? Yes. Definitely. It was interesting to see the launch of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the people and the organization that was behind it. It’s important to read these books to remember where we come from and where we could go back to if we don’t pay enough attention to all the supremacist and extreme right movements that seem to resuscitate these last years.

It’s important to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the death of Martin Luther King and this is why this billet is published today. There’s an exhibition about him at the Lyon Public Library. I plan on taking my children there. Sometimes different unconnected events occur at the same time and happen to be related. I was reading Ebodé, spending time with Rosa Parks when Linda Brown, the little girl of the Brown vs Board of Education died on March 25th, 2018. It made the headlines on the radio here. Then The Origin of Others, a collection of conferences by Toni Morrison about racism was published in French. I read it right away. Meanwhile I had ordered The Kites by Romain Gary from Amazon US and decided to spread shipping costs and also bought Go Tell it to the Mountain by James Baldwin. All these unrelated and small events push the same theme in the forefront, demanding my attention. I hope I’ll have time to read the Baldwin soon. Some battles I thought were won seem to be coming back; the victories were fragile and we need to protect them.

Three theatres, three plays

March 3, 2018 10 comments

As regular readers know, I love going to the theatre and I have a subscription at my local theatre. I choose the plays early in June for the next season. Needless to say, unless the play is a classic or based upon a novel I know, I never remember what I’m going to see when I go to a play I scheduled so many months before. Keep this in mind.

My local theatre, Le Théâtre des Célestins, has two stages, a big one à l’italienne and a small one called Célestine. Usually the big one is for classics and plays with a large audience and the small one is for contemporary plays. The big stage is this gorgeous historical stage.

Théâtre des Célestins. (from grainsdesel.com)

The small stage is such an intimate setting that you can almost see pimples on the actors’ faces. Keep this in mind too.

A few weeks ago, I went to see Cooking With Elvis by Lee Hall with my sister and my sixteen-years old daughter. It’s an English play with the atmosphere of the film The Full Monty, with this very British mix of social misery and comedy. In Cooking With Elvis, we’re in a broken family of three. The father who used to be an Elvis impersonator had a car accident and is now paralyzed. His (unnamed) wife and daughter Jill are left to deal with the aftermath. His wife tries to cope and to live again by being frivolous. She goes out, drinks and has one-night stands. His daughter Jill cooks all the time, trying to bring her father back by cooking his favorite meals. With such a different approach of how life should be going on, it’s not a surprise that mother and daughter fight all the time. Comes Stuart, a young guy who started as one of Mother’s fling but stuck with her and quickly moved in with the family. He was still living with his parents, his age is between daughter and mother, he’s barely more mature than teenage Jill. It is a rather sad setting with an impossible situation for the two women: the man of the family is a vegetable and there is no hope of recovery. The mother looks for affection and sex to escape her reality and as she points out, she’s only 39, her life isn’t over. Plus, her marriage wasn’t that wonderful and she’s not really missing out. Jill will have to accept that the father and Elvis impersonator she loved so much isn’t quite there any longer.

It’s sad, of course but it’s also funny. The director chose to have the father raise from his seat and sing Elvis Presley songs in all his impersonator glory. It diffused the tension and also helped seeing what Jill misses and how irritating it could have been to be married to such a man. It’s a play about sex, food and rock-and-roll.

Now, remember what I told you before about not remembering the play’s blurb, about the pimple-seeing sized stage and The Full Monty reference? Imagine you’re sitting by your daughter and this Stuart character keeps shedding his clothes on stage? Not just prancing in his boxer briefs, that would be too easy, no, showing his full package was apparently necessary. If there was any mystery left for her about male anatomy, there’s none now. I was so embarrassed I think I missed out on the fun. True, it shows well how poor Jill must have felt in real life with her mother’s lovers strutting in the apartment. But was it really necessary? So many times? And the blowjob show? Kuddos for the actor and his courage to play this character because the audience was very close. I’m so glad I wasn’t in the front rows.

I don’t think I’m a prude but I also don’t think that all this nakedness was necessary to serve Lee Hall’s play. Has anyone of you seen this play? Did the director make the same choices about the Stuart character? The topic of a family shattered by an accident was alsi the main theme of Rabbit Hole by David Lindsay-Abaire. Same pitch totally different approach.

 

The next play I saw was in the great Italian room and it was totally different. It’s called Petit Eloge de la nuit. The publisher Folio has this collection of “Little tribute to…” and Ingrid Astier wrote about “the night”. Little Tribute to the Night is made of vignettes about the night in all its forms. It was made into a play by Gérald Garutti who chose Pierre Richard to be the narrator/actor. He’s on stage, sharing Astier’s visions of the night. Dressed in white and tanned, he looks like a explorator ready to take us to a journey into the night. It has literary references but not only. It explores what the night can be: magical, disquieting, fun and full of partying, the kingdom of dreams and nightmares, the host of our anxiety, a moment to stare at the starts, a moment to rest and think.

I wanted to see Pierre Richard on stage, he’s a marvelous actor who’s over 80. He still has a spring in his steps that I hope I’ll have if I reach that age. The direction was good, poetic at times. I thought there were too many videos and pictures on the large screen on the scene. Including videos and picture slide shows seems to be fashionable in theatre these days. Sometimes it fits well with the play and sometimes it just seems lazy. Here, I’m not sure it was always welcome but maybe it allowed Pierre Richard to rest. After all, he’s 83 and he was alone on stage. It was a lovely evening and if you’re in France, it’s worth going to see this play.

 

Last play I saw was The Rivers and the Forests by Marguerite Duras, directed by Michel Didym. It was in another theatre Les Ateliers, a small stage where the play was transferred because the Célestine was damaged by the recent floods.

Duras created three characters who meet on a street in the 16th arrondissement in Paris, a very posh neighborhood. They were on a crosswalk when a woman’s dog bit the calf of a man and another woman witnessed it. The characters aren’t named, they’re strangers that are thrown together because Zigou the dog wanted a taste of the man’s calf. They start talking and the dog’s owner would like to take the man to the Institut Pasteur were he can be tested for rabies. As the dialogue unfolds we understand that the dog’s owner killed her husband, that it’s not the first time that the dog bites a passerby and that she’s so lonely that she enjoys spending time at the Institut Pasteur where the concierge comes from the same provincial town as her. The other woman is stuck in a loveless and maybe abusive marriage and the man is also lonely.

Duras manages to show loneliness in big cities in her quirky and dry language. She also portrays two female characters who weren’t good marriage material in their parents’ eyes and who were pushed into marrying the first man who paid them a bit of attention. The fact that one was much older that their daughter or that the other was violent didn’t deter them from the match. It’s all hidden in little sentences thrown here and there, among acid jokes and apparent absurdity. But when you think back about what you’ve seen, it’s there, this statement about women’s condition in the early 1960s. (The play was written in 1964) The actors were excellent. Charlie Nielson looked like he has been picked from a 1950s movie. Brigitte Catillon and Catherine Matisse were perfect impersonations of 16th arrondissement bourgeoises. The set was nicely put, an exact replica of a Parisian street. My daughter was with me this time too: no naked men to report, only a cute dog.

Next play is Georges Dandin by Molière. A safe bet. (I hope. But you never know. I once saw a Hamlet version where the actor ended up naked too)

The Meursault Investigation by Kamel Daoud

February 25, 2018 23 comments

The Meursault Investigation by Kamel Daoud (2013) Original French title: Meursault, contre-enquête.

Preamble: I downloaded a sample of the English translation on my kindle. All the translations of this post are by John Cullen who translated The Meursault Investigation into English.

The Meursault Investigation by Kamel Daoud is a story based on The Stranger by Albert Camus, told from the side of the victim’s family. The narrator is the victim’s younger brother and Daoud’s novel relates both the murder seen from the Arabs’ side and the consequences of this event on the younger brother’s life.

From the first sentence, the reader knows that The Meursault Investigation is constructed as a mirror to The Stranger. Indeed, it opens with Aujourd’hui, M’ma est toujours vivante. (Mama’s still alive today), a counterpart to Camus’s Aujourd’hui Maman est morte. (Maman died today) In a sense, the book is like a negative in photography.

In the first pages, the narrator mulls over the fact that the Arab killed in L’Etranger has no name. His first mission is to give him his name back, he says he was named Moussa. Our narrator is in a café, drinking wine and telling his story to a stranger. French is the language because this story needed to be told with the language of the colonizer. The pace of the story is in short chapters and often they end with a direct address to the reader, as if he were in the café, listening a storyteller. It’s like Scheherazade leaving cliffhangers to have her audience back the next day. You don’t see it in English, but in French, it’s said with the “tu” form and not “vous”. For me, it’s also a way to remind us that the narrator doesn’t use his native language for this story, that his native language is Arabic were the “vous” form isn’t used in spoken language.

Daoud never mentions Camus in his novel but he’s everywhere. He’s paraphrased in chapters, a mirroring text to the original, a text in reverse, the same way Arabic is written from right to left when French is written from left to right.

As I said, Camus is never mentioned directly and L’Etranger is a first-person narrative. This allows a confusion between the writer and the character, something that is very clear in this paragraph:

Comme tous les autres, tu as dû lire cette histoire telle que l’a racontée l’homme qui l’a écrite. Il écrit si bien que ses mots paraissent comme des pierres taillées par l’exactitude même. C’était quelqu’un de très sévère avec les nuances, ton héros, il les obligeait presque à être des mathématiques. D’infinis calculs à base de pierres et de minéraux. As-tu vu sa façon d’écrire ? Il semble utiliser l’art du poème pour parler d’un coup de feu ! Son monde est propre, ciselé par la clarté matinale, précis, net, tracé à coup d’arômes et d’horizons. La seule ombre est celle des « Arabes », objets flous et incongrus, venus « d’autrefois », comme des fantômes et avec, pour toute langue, un son de flûte. Je me dis qu’il devait en avoir marre de tourner en rond dans un pays qui ne voulait de lui ni mort ni vivant. Le meurtre qu’il a commis semble celui d’un amant déçu par une terre qu’il ne peut posséder. Comme il a dû souffrir, le pauvre ! Etre l’enfant d’un lieu qui ne vous a pas donné naissance. I’m sure you’re like everyone else, you’ve read the tale as told by the man who wrote it. He writes so well that his words are like precious stones, jewels cut with the utmost precision. A man very strict about shades of meaning, you hero was; he practically required them to be mathematical. Endless calculations, based on gems and minerals. Have you seen the way he writes? He’s writing about a gunshot, and he makes it sound like poetry! His world is clean, clear, exact, honed by morning sunlight, enhanced with fragrances and horizons. The only shadow is cast by “the Arabs,” blurred, incongruous objects left over from “days gone by”, like ghost, with no language except the sound of a flute. I tell myself he must have been fed up with wandering around in circles in a country that wanted nothing to do with him, whether dead or alive. The murder he committed seems like the act of a disappointed lover unable to possess the land he loves. How he must have suffered, poor man! The be the child of a place that never gave you birth…

Where does the assimilation between Camus and Meursault begin and end? The man who wrote it can be both Camus writing a novel and Meursault writing his journal. They were both born in Algeria. L’Etranger was written in 1942, before the War of Independence but I imagine that the tensions between the French colonizer and the locals were already palpable. Camus and Meursault were strangers to the land they were born to.

Let’s stop a bit and contemplate this paragraph.

Daoud perfectly nailed Camus’s style. That’s how I felt when I reread L’Etranger. I was dazzled by his words, his perfect way to describe the landscape and the Mediterranean light. Short sentences chiseled with precision. I have a reservation about the translation. When I read the French and the passage about Camus’s style, Daoud only uses the word pierre, not pierre précieuse. And John Cullen translated it with precious stone, and then jewels which takes the Anglophone reader to another path than the one I took. Perhaps Daoud told him that was his intention. That’s not the way I see it. When I read Daoud, I see carved stones, not gem stones. I see the rectilinear lines of buildings at the sea front in Algiers. I see light stones from a quarry, shaped into perfect geometrical stones to build buildings, to set up the inevitable ending of L’Etranger. I don’t see Camus as a jeweler, I see Camus as an architect and a builder.

Daoud also writes Il semble utiliser l’art du poème pour parler d’un coup de feu ! and not Il parle d’un coup de feu et on dirait de la poésie ! which would be He’s writing about a gunshot, and he makes it sound like poetry! In French, the use of art du poème is not natural and I wonder if it’s a way to show that the narrator is not a native French speaker and that he comes from a literary tradition where poetry holds a major place.

The end of the paragraph refers to the awkward place of French colonizers in Algeria. Some came to Algeria from Alsace and Lorraine after the 1870 debacle and the annexing of these regions to Germany. Part of the French living in Algeria were born there; they were not only people sent in Algeria for a few years as a military, a civil servant or an expat for a company. From an individual point of view, it was their country, in the sense of the place you were born. But of course, it was not their land because their presence was based on a conquest that took thirty years and they were living on stolen land, on a lie. Daoud’s words explain that for Algeria, Meursault was a stranger. For the French community, he was an outsider. This is why it’s difficult to clearly choose between the two titles used in English for L’Etranger, which covers both meanings in French.

I won’t tell more about the plot and how far the mirroring goes because it would spoil your reading. Suffice to say that it shows a narrator living in poverty and probably saved by the school system. (Like Camus and in the background, like Meursault) It shows Algeria after the independence, after the terrible decade of the 1990s and how a man who doesn’t comply to religious duties and drinks alcohol can feel as an outsider in his own country. The narrator might have something in common with Meursault after all.

The Meursault Investigation assumes that Camus never named the Arab who was killed because as an Arab, he was a non-entity. I don’t agree with this. I’m sure that a lot of scholars more qualified than me have written essays about it. As a common reader, when I closed L’Etranger recently, I thought this was a universal story and that the Algerian setting was incidental. Maybe Camus missed his place of birth in 1942, in the middle of the horrible WWII. To me, L’Etranger is closer to a Greek tragedy, something set up from the start, a literary machinery that corralled the character into the path designed by a writer who wanted to point out the absurdity of life, the narrowmindedness of his society and show his vision of life through a novel. I don’t read anything into the Algiers setting, sorry.

I think The Meursault Investigation is a brilliant book that left me puzzled. Its construction is skillfully done, Daoud knows Camus’s work inside out. There are obviouns references to L’Etranger but to other works by Camus like Caligula or The Myth of Sisyphus. I don’t fully agree with his interpretation of L’Etranger but Daoud wrote a compelling story and also used Camus’ novel as a stepladder to criticize his own country. I really recommend (re)reading L’Etranger before diving into The Meursault Investigation. It’s only 120 pages long and it will enhance your reading of Daoud’s novel.

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A Certain M. Piekielny by François-Henri Désérable

February 4, 2018 10 comments

Un certain M. Piekielny by François-Henri Désérable. (2017) Not available in English.

Romain Gary is my favorite writer and this is no breaking news for regular readers of this blog. I won’t write about his biography and literary career as I would repeat myself. For newcomers, there’s my Reading Romain Gary page and Wikipedia and there’s this extraordinary article from The New Yorker.

In France, Romain Gary is a beloved writer. One we sometimes study in class. One whose books are made into plays or into graphic novels or into special illustrated editions. One whose books make full display tables in bookshops.

François-Henri Désérable is a young writer born in 1987, seven years after Gary’s death. He used to play professional hockey, which makes him stand out here in France. The hockey league is not as prestigious as the NHL. Here, hockey is an unusual sport for children to play. I’m not even sure you can watch games on TV when it’s not the Olympic games time.

So François-Henri Désérable loves hockey and unsurprisingly, one of his friends wanted to have his stag party in Minsk, Belorussia during a hockey tournament. Four of them were going but there were only three plane tickets left for a direct flight to Minsk. Désérable decided to take a flight to Vilnius, Lithuania and to catch a train to Minsk from there. The Gary fan is already swooning: what? A trip to Vilnius, formerly called Wilno, where Gary spent his childhood? Lucky him.

Désérable got robbed in Vilnius and didn’t have any money or proper identity papers to continue his travels. He stayed in Vilnius, explored Gary’s old neighborhood and thought about a passage in Promise at Dawn. Gary mentions that his mother kept telling their neighbors that he’d be famous one day. None took her seriously but M. Piekielny. Gary explains in his autobiographical-fictional novel that this man once took him apart and asked him to tell these great people he would meet that at number 16 of Grande-Pohulanka, in Wilno used to live M. Piekielny. Gary reports that he kept his promise. Désérable decides to investigate this M. Piekielny and takes us with him as he tries to find out if that man really existed and what happened to him.

This simple idea turned into a triple trip.

It became a historical research because Gary was Jewish and used to live in the Jewish neighborhood of Wilno. And the ghetto was destroyed by the Nazis during the Summer 1941. Désérable compares Wilno’s Jewish neighborhood to Pompeii.

Je commençais à comprendre qu’il n’y avait pas seulement le temps, mais aussi l’espace qui jouait contre moi. La Jérusalem de Lituanie avait été à sa façon ensevelie sous les cendres, mais elle avait eu la guerre pour Vésuve, et comme nuée ardente l’Allemagne nazie puis l’Union soviétique. Et si l’on voulait connaitre son apparence – ou tout du moins s’en faire une idée – avant l’éruption de l’été 1941, on était réduit à la reconstituer mentalement, comme ces temples romains dans Pompéi dont on ne peut qu’imaginer la splendeur, recomposant en esprit architraves, frises et corniches à partir des vestiges de quelques colonnes amputées des deux tiers. I was starting to understand that not only time was against me but so was space. The Jerusalem of Lithuania had been buried in ashes in its own way. Its Vesuvius had been the war and its glowing clouds had been Nazi Germany followed by the Soviet Union. If one wanted to know its appearance before the eruption of the Summer 1941 – or more exactly to make up a picture of it– one was doomed to piece it together in his head, like these temples in Pompeii whose splendor can only be imagined by reconstructing in your mind all their architraves, friezes and moldings from the vestiges of a few columns amputated by two thirds.  

The inhabitants were killed and their lives, their neighborhood disappeared. Wilno was erased and the contemporary Vilnius has only a few traces of its once vivid Jewish heritage. This part of the book is poignant as Désérable digs into archives and reminds us how the entire part of a country’s culture was annihilated.

from Wikipedia

The historical journey is coupled with a literary one. It turns out that Vilnius has a statue of Gary as a child in the street he used to live in. They even have a Romain Gary club who helped Désérable in his quest. His investigation leads him into digging into Gary’s biography. Promise at Dawn is not entirely reliable, so nothing says that the information about M. Piekielny is true. Did he really exist? Gary was a great inventor, an illusionist. Everything has the appearance of the truth, but he twisted it way he saw it fit. Désérable knows it but decides to play around it. Looking for M. Piekielny is an opportunity to immerse himself in Gary’s life, to reread his books and bios about him.

And all along, it’s also a personal journey for Désérable as a writer and as a man. He loves Romain Gary. He admires his writing, but he also feels a personal connection to him. Like Gary, François-Henri Désérable doesn’t have the background of the average Frenchman of his age. He spent a year playing hockey in Minnesota as a teenager before coming back to finish his high school years in Amiens. Spending a year in the USA and playing such an exotic sport make him already stand out.

He also mentions some parallels about their mothers. Like Mina, Gary’s mother, Désérable’s mother also had great things in mind for her son. He had to study law and contrary to his father, she was not so fond of the hockey career. She says that he has a name that sounds like a writer’s name, even to my ears. It’s elegant, the François-Henri sounding old erudite France, like the François-René in Chateaubriand’s name. Désérable is a vowel from désirable. Like Mina, his mother expects him to be successful to live vicariously through him and feel successful in raising him.

That’s what he says. But who knows if this autobiographical part of the novel is totally true. He may be playing with details like his mentor.

Un certain M. Piekielny is an amazing novel right in the continuity of Gary’s work. It’s witty, well-written and it has the flavor of Promise at Dawn. It brings back Gary’s past to life and the horror of the extermination of Jews, not through the horrors of the camps but through the horrors of making a whole civilization and way-of-life disappear. It shows WWII in another angle, something Gary did in his work. How does Humanity survive to such a level of hatred and self-destruction? What did it mean at human level, to be part of that time?

It’s also a wonderful trip through Gary’s multiple lives and literary career. And last but not least, it was a sort of coming-of-age novel for Désérable himself. It’s written in a tone that Gary would have approved of but the substance is a lot like Nothing Holds Back the Night by Delphine de Vigan.

Un certain M. Piekielny was nominated for the Prix Goncourt in 2017. I wish it had won, for François-Henri Désérable himself and his knack at writing a funny, multi-layered book but also for Romain Gary who would have vicariously won a third Goncourt. I imagine him grinning mischievously from beyond the grave, happy to get even with the literary intelligentsia.

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