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December 7, 2014

The Return by Dany Laferriere, and books in translation

the-returnFor all kinds of reasons, I am so pleased to have finally read Dany Laferriere’s The Return. Not least because Laferriere is one of Canada’s most internationally celebrated writers—in its original French, The Return won the Prix Médicis (France) in 2009, the International Literature Award (Germany) in 2014, and Laferriere was elected to the Académie française a year ago, the first Haitian and Canadian writer to receive this honour. It was kind of ridiculous that I’d never read him before.

I’m pleased mostly to have read The Return because I liked it so much, a novel that blurs boundaries in all kinds of ways—between fiction and autobiography, poetry and prose, home and exile, belonging and displacement, and also bridging the extremes in common perceptions of Haiti. It’s a novel whose prose is both stirring and lulling, easy to read and rich with wonderful lines. It begins when Dany, our protagonist, receives a phone that tells him his father is dead, a father he hardly knew, and even still, this begins a journey out of exile, back to the Haiti that Dany had fled decades before, to bring the spirit of his father home. So he goes back to a home that is no longer home, driven by a relationship with his father mostly constituted of absence and silence. It’s not a straightforward journey, and nothing is ever merely one thing or another, and I love that.

I love also how the book is so curious in its construction, how it tears down and reconstructs all my ideas of just what a novel is shaped like, which is what I wanted to have happen when I resolved to read more books in translation in 2014. And so I am also glad to have read The Return because it’s one more translation on my reading list, to which I can point now and say that my 2014 goals were met in a way that was not entirely half-assed. Just a modest success, but I did so appreciate the books in translation I read this year—and I like that most of them were Canadian, translated from French (The Return, by David Homel), French via Inuktitut (Sanaaq), and Chiac, an Acadian-French dialect spoken in New Brunswick (For Sure). I also read The Dinner by Herman Koch, translated from Dutch, which I liked a lot, and Viviane by Julia Deck, translated from French and first published in France.

So 5 books out of a hundred and some, which is a bit meh, but alas. I’m going to keep seeking out books in translation in 2015, and I already have a copy of Dany Lafferriere’s I am a Japanese Writer waiting to be read.

June 12, 2014

Viviane by Julia Deck and Linda Coverdale, trans

vivianeViviane by Julia Deck, translated by Linda Coverdale, is a spectacularly deceptive novel in a variety of ways. A small book, at just 149 pages, I figured it would be a quick read, but it wasn’t because I read it twice, and then skimmed it again. Deceptive too because I thought I knew what I was getting into, but I didn’t. I’d recently read The Dinner by Herman Koch, and Viviane was comparable—a narrative voice whose grasp of reality is hard to gauge, is she the problem or is it the world? But while Koch’s unhinged narrative comes at his story with a terrifyingly cold sense of control, Deck’s Viviane has lost control and scarcely even realizes.

She knows something is amiss though–“You are not entirely sure, but it seems to you that four or five hours ago, you did something that you shouldn’t have.” (The narrative moves between first, second and third person, employing also the informal second-person that would be clear in the novel’s original French, and the first person collective–this movement signifies Viviane’s tenuous hold on her own self and her story.) She seems to think that she’s just killed her therapist, cold blooded murder, but then she’s torn between hiding her crime and going back to the scene to find out exactly what had happened. Throughout all this, she’s caring for her 12 week old infant daughter on her own, having just left her husband and a disastrous marriage. She’s been on maternity leave from her job as a communications executive at a cement company, and she’s terrified that she’s being edged out of her job just as she was forced from the marriage.

It’s a disorienting novel. Viviane dashes around Paris, stashing her infant wherever she can manage. She tracks the other figures in the murdered therapist’s life, scours the papers for details, haunts her ex-husband and maintains a complicated relationship with her mother who may or may not be dead. It is never clear whether her reports are accurate–she starts one day twice, seemingly with no memory of the other. Her grasp of time and place is clinging and desperate. The baby herself is not a convincing presence, though nor is she for Viviane herself, or any mother of a newborn:

“There’s this child in our hands and we wonder how it happened. The babysitter handed her over without a fuss, pretending to believe she was our legitimate property. We sneak off with her… Once safely in the sixth-floor apartment, we settle into the rocking chair and observe the child for a very long time, waiting for a response, a revelation.”

Viviane is deceptive also because it’s rife with mysteries that are never solved. What went wrong in the marriage? Is she experiencing postpartum psychosis? Is the child in danger? How much can we believe of what she tells us, particularly since she doesn’t really believe any of it herself. And yet even without answers, Deck weaves an intriguing web of possibilities.

Viviane made a huge impact on the French literary scene when it was published in 2012, winning the French Voices Award, and Nominated for the Prix Femina, the Prix France Inter, and the Prix du Premier Roman for a first novel. 

March 9, 2014

For Sure by France Daigle, trans. Robert Majzels

for-sureFor two weeks, I was reading For Sure by France Daigle, a 719 page novel that doesn’t have much of a plot. However plotless though, For Sure is more useful than most novels I encounter—with its help, I taught my daughter to swim. Seriously. And not just that, but for those two weeks as I lived with this book, a giant doorstop, and its people, strange connections were made between the happenings in their lives and the occurrences within my own. Which is precisely what France Daigle wants me to think. She has no truck with characters or their stories staying within the confines of their pages.

Not least of all because this is the fourth book in her series about a group of people who live and work in converted lofts in Moncton, New Brunswick. In its original French, Pour Sur won the Governor General’s Award for French Literatre in 2012. Though it wasn’t French exactly, but instead Chiac, an Acadian-French dialect mixed with English and Aboriginal influences, spoken by Acadian communities in southeast New Brunswick. Which has been translated into English by Majzels as French-accented English with a Newfoundland bent–“fer sure” for “for sure”, a lot of “dat dem dare.” 

The novel is made up of twelve sections, each section broken into fragments, assigned a number code and category. A sense of progression comes from moving through the code rather than the fragments themselves, whose connections are often elusive. (I just mistyped that as “allusive” but I kind of mean that too.) There’s a lot about Scrabble, colours, the names of colours, the colour of letters, attempts to quantify the abstract, apply methodology to slippery things (like novels). An attempt to write the book of Chiac, to put the colloquial down on paper, articulate its rules and laws, but then language is as slippery as a novel after all. And life itself.

There are people here too. At its heart, this is a novel about Terry and Carmen and their small children Etienne and Marianne, and their friends at the lofts where they live, and where Terry works at a bookstore and Carmen co-owns a bar (called Babar). There are little plots, small mysteries, and even a murder (on the periphery). Terry worries about being a good father, they wonder whether their kids might grow up to be gay, they take a holiday, do crosswords, and define their language through acts of every day life. All the characters in the book ponder the mysteries of language and words, and search for meaning in their patterns. Just as the reader of For Sure seeks to put the pieces together in her own right,  connect the dots, come up with a whole.

What is most compelling about these characters is their goodness, their aspirations toward such things. And yet that they’re compelling all the same—this is something. They’re flawed too enough to be real, so much so that when France Daigle herself (so we assume) sits down with these fictional people for a chat, and they discuss their place within her narrative and her control over their fates, the conversation is completely plausible, as is the fictional existence of Daigle herself.

More for plausibility: Terry teaches his son to swim by imploring him to try to drown. The boy tries, finds it’s impossible and begins having faith in his buoyancy after all. Which is the same trick I tried the next day after reading this passage, in the swimming pool with my daughter whose relationship to swimming lately has been of an adversarial nature. And it worked! 30 minutes later, she was swimming without clutching another human body for dear life, which is huge. And to think we owe it all to Terry Thibedeau.

It is worth nothing that in reading this translation, rendered in a made-up dialect, there is an enormous gap between what we’re reading and what Daigle and her novel intended. And yet, I think this gap only underlines the novel’s central thesis, which is that precision of language is something of a fallacy. That anything expressed in language is going to be a muddle, a translation. That in reaching toward precision, the reach instead of the precision is always going to be the point.

February 2, 2014

Sanaaq by Mitiarjuk Nappaaluk

sanaaqWhile I loved Keavy Martin’s review of the Inuit novel Sanaaq by Mitiarjuk Nappaaluk (transliterated and translated from Inuktitut to French by Bernard Saladin d’Anglure, and translated from French to English by Peter Frost in this new edition by University of Manitoba Press), a review which placed the novel in its context but also took it beyond the context—this is not “merely” a novel written by somebody who’d never read one, but a work of literature onto itself, something to be understood or even just experienced rather than contextualized—, I do think she overstated the challenge this book poses for the inexperienced reader. All set for a challenge was I, but instead I found myself enjoying myself, not so lost in an unfamiliar environment. The novel comes with a glossary of terms, but I could deduce most words by how they were used. The novel’s foreword by Bernard Saladin d’Anglure set the story up well for me, and in terms of the novel’s episodic nature? Well, obviously this was just an Inuit version of Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City (I am only being half facetious here), so I knew what I was getting into.

Sanaaq is a young widow with a little daughter living as part of a semi-nomadic community in Northern Quebec. The novel’s 48 episodes show the rhythms of their daily life and its seasons, with all the usual drama implied–marriage, love, familial strife, hardship and loss, tragedy, and happiness. Oh, and tea. These characters are as preoccupied with tea, its having and its making, as characters in any English noel I’ve ever read, so I actually felt quite at home. For the reader unfamiliar with Inuit culture and traditions, the stories contained in this novel are rife with interesting details–about the hunting and storage of food, for example, or how the women in the book are always sewing and repairing their boots, and the logistics of Igloo-building. It’s not a portrayal of an Arctic idyll—life can be difficult and dangerous; I found it interesting to see how the dogs were regarded as pests, forever getting into food supplies and causing trouble, having items thrown at them. At one point in the story, Sanaaq is a victim of spousal violence, injured so badly by her husband that she must be flown to the south for medical treatment, and this is treated in the text with unflinching detail of the emotional complexity of the matter. But there is humour here too, and genuine human connections.

As we move through the novel’s 48 episodes, changes in Inuit life become apparent through contact with the qallunaat (non-Inuit people), which begins first with the sound of an airplane overhead, and then becomes more regular and embedded in ordinary experiences—Sanaaq’s husband is taken away to the south for work, her daughter becomes a Catholic convert, old people begin receiving social security payments.

The narrative skirts omniscience in a way that seems curious to the reader who is accustomed to the English novel. There is a matter-of-factness to the telling, perhaps related to its origins—it was written in a shorthand that can be written as quickly as it is spoken, and so this written novel has an oral nature. There is also a simplicity to its delivery that only comes across as such because a whole layer of the narrative is inaccessible to me as a reader (and I think that this is the challenge for this reader that Martin was writing about in her review). Saladin d’Anglure’s foreword makes clear that the apparent simplicity of Nappaaluk’s novel is undermined by the Inuit symbols and stories referenced, as well as details of Nappaaluk’s own life and members of her community. In short, this is only a straightforward story because I’m not smart enough to know it isn’t otherwise. 

Sanaaq can and should be discussed beyond the story of how it was written, but the story is still pretty fascinating—Mitiarjuk Nappaaluk was asked by a missionary to write down phrases of the Inuktitut language so that he could develop his vocabulary, and what she delivered him instead was his long work of fiction, which she completed over many years. As Martin writes, “Mitiarjuk’s work has long been celebrated in Inuit communities, and… she received major honours before her death in 2007—she was awarded an honorary doctorate from McGill and was named a Member of the Order of Canada.” And now finally her work has been made available to be read by English readers, for pleasure just as much as enlightenment.

January 20, 2014

Consolations & Translations

for-surePeople have been so kind in response to my sadness over the closing of my beloved local bookstore. Anyone who thought I was being melodramatic and ridiculous has kept that information to himself. This is a loss that has been experienced by many avid readers in the last few years, and I really appreciated their sympathy and understanding. I am operating with an optimistic spirit, that Bloor Street won’t be bookshop-less for long. And in the meantime, venturing further afield for my book-buying pleasures will a) possibly save me thousands of dollars and b) allow me to not take for granted such things. I am hoping that good things are ahead also for the Book City employees too, and that each will find a place where his/her skills and expertise are valued.

And in the meantime, I went shopping. In a few weeks, the shelves will be bare and all will be depressing, but there is still plenty to choose from so I allowed myself a rare pleasure for a bookish sort like me who always knows exactly what she’s looking for. Last week, I bought the new Jane Gardam novel, The Ice Cream Store by Dennis Lee, and this wonderful book of maps for kids. Buying discounted books at the going-out-of-business store made me feel like a vulture, but I was assured that I’d earned the right to do so without compunction by having tried my darndest to spend as much money there as possible this past while. So I went back today and got Pitch Black by Renata Adler (because they didn’t have Speedboat, and I am intrigued by Renata Adler), and Molly Ringwald’s book because Molly Ringwald wrote a book and it’s even meant to be good, and 30% off is a good excuse to find out if that’s true. Then two more books by Rebecca Solnit, because I want to read everything she ever wrote.

And finally, because reading books in translation was my New Year’s reading resolution, I bought two books to get me started: For Sure by France Daigle (French-Canadian) and Swimming to Elba by Silvia Avallone (Italy). I’ve been inspired to do so after reading the Penelope Fitzgerald bio and realizing how limited is my perspective on the novel with such a focus on Englishness. It’s like only ever looking at a shape from just one side. So I am going to challenge myself and my sensibilities, first as a reader, but also as a writer. I’ve made a renewed commitment to writing fiction this past while (which has led to an acceptance letter the other week! Hooray. I’ll have a story forthcoming in The New Quarterly this spring or summer), and I want to write stories that seek to do things that are new. I think translations will show me what other possibilities there are.

And I am particularly excited about another book in translation, Sanaaq by Mitiarjuk Nappaaluk, which was stupendously reviewed by Keavy Martin in the Globe and Mail this weekend. It was such an inspiring, incisive piece which dares to challenge readers: “Yet rather than attempting to draw large (and largely inaccurate) conclusions about Inuit culture, southern readers might instead try to enjoy this humbling state of non-understanding.” I am willing to take her up on this, and I’m looking forward to it.

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