2014 Prix Médicis winner: Antoine Volodine, Terminus radieux

October 26th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

– Suite à une tentative de rekoulakisation, dit Hannko Vogoulian, il y a longtemps.  Nous, on était pas nées.  C’était avant que le kolkhoze soit rebaptise «Terminus radieux».  Si les Organes étaient pas intervenus, c’était à coup sûr le retour du capitalisme et de toutes les saloperies qui vont avec.  Ça a fonctionné deux ou trois ans comme centre de rééducation.  Ensuite, Solovieï est devenu président et ça a fermé.

Myriam Oumarik enchaîna.

– Pendant l’accident, on l’a rouvert, dit-elle.  On avait besoin d’un local pour entasser les irradiés en attendant que l’entrepôt de la Mémé Oudgoul soit opérationnel.

– On en trouvait dans tous les coins, des irradiés, compléta Hannko Vogoulian.  Fallait bien qu’on les emmagasine quelque part.

Le jacassage des deux filles r´´sonnait dans la salle d’eau.  Il donnait le tournis à Kronauer qui n’avait pas besoin de cette avalanche de paroles pour se sentir mal. (p. 80 Bluefire Reader PDF e-format)

I have read five of the eight 2014 Prix Médicis finalists for Best Novel.  Of the five, Antoine Volodine’s Terminus radieux (Radiant Terminus is a possible English translation) is perhaps simultaneously the most fascinating and most frustrating to read and think about.  Although my French reading comprehension has grown considerably since taking an online French course this summer, this novel served to remind me that no matter how much of the grammar and vocabulary that I understand (well over 75% without adding another 10-15% for words understood in context), that there are some novels written in other languages that will tax the abilities of non-native readers much more than what might be presumed by the writing style or vocabulary employed.

Mind you, this is not a criticism of Volodine’s work; if anything, it is a testimony to how this novel requires extra effort from all readers, regardless of fluency level, in order to wring the utmost amount of understanding from it.  While there were times where my not-yet-fully-fluent reading comprehension failed me, I could sense that there was something strange, magical even, transpiring in this story set some years after a nuclear apocalypse following the end of the Second Soviet Union.  Terminus radieux is the story of people after a fall, of dreamers and escapees, all doomed, who wander in a toxic Siberian landscape in which the living and the dead commingle, where there is a sort of communion with the supernatural, where the irreal and real collide and a strange brew of elements emerges from these interactions.

Volodine’s tale contains a plethora of references to recent political and cultural developments, all tweaked in order to fit into what the author (who, I should add, seems to have as many authorial pseudonyms as the late Fernando Pessoa, some of which write stories that are referenced in the writings of other pseudonyms of his) has elsewhere called a “post-exoticism” style of literature that seeks to make even the mundane into something weird and unsettling.  Being unfamiliar (for the moment, that is) with his other writings, I felt at times out at sea, out of my depth as a reader, as I could sense there were some textual interplays occurring in the murky depths of certain passages that due to a combination of unfamiliarity with both writer and the language left me clueless as to certain things that were taking place.

Yet perversely, this actually made me think higher of this tale.  Certainly from what I did understand, Volodine has an excellently twisted sense of black humor and his fantastical elements, many of which seem to be connected to economic and political concerns, make for a rich, provocative tale of adaptation in a dearth of life-sustaining environs.  It is, as I noted above, not an “easy” tale to parse, but from what I did grasp, it is the sort of fiction that if it were translated into English, for example, could find a small yet very appreciative audience, particularly among those who enjoy both post-apocalyptic literature and savagely funny satires of current socio-political issues.  While I may have been partially defeated from understanding Terminus radieux this time due to my relative limitations in reading French, it certainly will be a book that I will revisit as I continue to work on strengthening my understanding of this lovely language.  Volodine too shall be an author whose works I’ll also explore again in the future, as it seems he may be just the sort of writer that I’d enjoy reading in both translation and in the original French.

2014 Prix Medicis finalist: Claudie Hunzinger, La langue des oiseaux (The Language of Birds)

October 8th, 2014 § 2 comments § permalink

Je ne sais pas ce qui s’est dit.  Je sais seulement que ce fut mon tour.  La question était:  Est-ce que les livres nous regardent?  Je savais que les tableaux, eux, oui, les tableaux que nous voyons nous voient du fond de leur éclat lointain – même quand ils sont proches.  Mais pas les livres.  Je ne me suis jamais sentie regardée par Robert Walser, Franz Kafka, Roberto Bolaño, ni par Li Bai, Du Fu ou Emily D.  Les livres n’ont pas d’yeux.  Ils sont aveugles.  Ils ne nous jugent pas du fond d’une tombe comme si nous étions Caïn; ils ne nous observent pas du haut d’un plafond telles des caméras de surveillance.  Au contraire, ils nous montrent leur dos, tournés ailleurs, vers le secret.  Nos lumières ne les attirent pas, ils émettent la leur, radioactive, qui éclaire jusqu’au mal dont nous sommes pétris et que nous leur avons confié.  Ils sont profonds.  Des puits.  Ils sont l’asile de nos douleurs, de nos blessures.  De nos pires folies.  De nos déraisons.  De nos voix les plus sombres.  Les livres n’ont pas d’yeux, ils ont des voix.  Il arrive que ces voix sortent de leur bouche d’ombre, nous parlent, oui, et ça, je l’expérimentais sans cesse.  Souvent les livres me parlent, et parfois d’une voix argentine, d’une légèreté enfantine, comme exhalée d’un caveau.  Mais de tout cela je n’ai rien pu dire, j’ai seulement répondu non, les livres ne nous regardent pas; et je répétais, n’arrivant plus à passer à autre chose, j’en étais ridicule, c’était impressionnant, je répétais non, les livres ne nous regardent pas, tout en me sentant expédiée en pleine catastrophe, ailleurs, butée, serrée, bloquée, dans mon blouson magique, lequel avait sans doute pour moi d’autres impénétrables desseins.  Et ensuite je suis restée muette comme une attardée mentale.  Jusqu’à la fin. (p. 19, iPad iBooks e-edition)

In Claudie Hunzinger’s 2014 Prix Medicis-longlisted novel, La langue des oiseaux (The Language of Birds in English), language, that of literature and of life, of nature and humanity, plays a central role in the narrative.  It is the medium through which we express ourselves, giving voice to those myriad emotions and thoughts that daily flow through, out, and over us.  Language is also meditation, through which we manage to filter our experiences, leaving us with manageable impressions.  In La langue des oiseaux, these elements, particularly in regard to literature and the understanding of other cultures and languages, are explored to great effect.

The plot is relatively simple:  a writer, Zsa Zsa, crushed by several literary rejections, decides on one autumn day to flee Paris with only a few books and other belongings.  She goes to live in a secluded wooded area, a hermitage almost, where she reflects on the literature of her life and her triumphs and failures so far.  Yet Zsa Zsa is not completely cut off from civilization; she has internet access and she stumbles across a Japanese immigrant, Sayo, who runs an online boutique of sorts, selling boys’ clothes for women.  Their exchanges spark a reaction from Zsa Zsa, leading her to delve further into the “language of birds,” that secret idiom through which so many mysteries withheld from more mundane tongues are at least partially revealed.  It is here, in these musings on language and thought, that Hunzinger’s narrative is at its strongest.

Well-read readers will recognize several writers who influence Zsa Zsa (and presumably, Hunzinger, since this does have some autobiographical elements, if I understand this tale correctly).  Of particular account is the American poet Emily Dickinson, to whom Zsa Zsa refers several times over the course of the story.  There certainly are traces of her and other writers (including those described above in the excerpted quote) in the narrative, particularly in the way Zsa Zsa views the surrounding nature and its denizens.  Hunzinger, however, does not dwell over long on these reminisces; Zsa Zsa is not a mouthpiece for literary appreciation.  Instead, these literary allusions serve to deepen the tale, making it more than just a chance encounter along the road of solitude.  There is an universal quality to Zsa Zsa’s meditations and her later friendship with Sayo.  In their talks about language and meaning, several comments are made that easily could take place between people that we all know.  Like those rare mythological heroes and heroines who can understand the languages of birds and wildlife, we too find ourselves learning new “languages” everyday in order to comprehend better the word around us.

Hunzinger’s prose is evocative, as the above quote reveals.  It freely moves between allusion and direct discourse, usually with a good balance between the two.  Voices and shadows.  Books possessing not eyes, but instead voices.  The narrative structure by itself is not terribly inventive, but the way that Hunzinger describes Zsa Zsa and her worldview, how she interacts with Sayo, those enrich the story greatly, adding enough layers for there to be the sense of something profound unfolding, yet not so much that the story feels bogged down by the weight of its own artifices.  La langue des oiseaux is a charming tale that manages to say more in less than 200 print pages than what most “deep” novels manage to express in 400.  Curious to see tomorrow if it’ll make the Prix Medicis shortlist.  It certainly is a powerful novel that hopefully will be translated into English in the near future.

2014 Prix Medicis finalist: Hedwige Jeanmart, Blanès

September 23rd, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

Pendant tout le repas je jouai avec les pages de mon cernet que j’avais déballé.  C’était un bon papier lisse, un peu jaune.  Comme dessert je choisis une crêpe aux fruits rouges.  Et quand le serveur l’eut déposée devant moi, tout se passa à nouveau en dépit de moi-même.  Mes yeux fixèrent le serveur, ses petits boutons, son fin duvet au-dessus de la lèvre, mes doigts caressaient la couverture de mon carnet, agréable au toucher, ma peau sentait un rayon de soleil sur mon avant-bras et ma bouche demanda au serveur s’il me permettait de lui poser une question:  connaissait-il par hasard Roberto Bolaño?  Le serveur fronça les sourcils et demanda s’il travaillait au Can Martí ou s’il était censé le connaisse, c’était un écrivain, il avait écrit des romans et il avait dix ou quinze ans de cela.  Le serveur dessina dans l’air un geste d’impuissance de sa seule main libre (l’autre main tenant mon assiette vide):  c’était il y a longtemps, à l’époque il vivait encore chez ses parents dans le Sud, à Rincón de la Victoria, il n’avait pas encore déménagé à Blanès, donc non, il était désolé de ne pas pouvoir m’aider, il ne connaissait pas Roberto Boliño.  Bolaño, rectifiai-je.  Le serveur s’éloigna.  L’air devint saturé.  Pourquoi m’avait-il regardée ainsi, si intensément, au moment de parler de ses parents et de Rincón de la Victoria?  D’ailleurs où diable cela pouvait-il se trouver et surtout qu’est-ce que cela pouvait me faire?  Il fallait payer et partir au plus vite, j’étais affreusement gênée.  Soudain prise d’un doute, je me retournai:  dans ma nuque, ce n’étaient pas des géraniums mais des hortensias.  Cela m’avait titillée depuis le début. (pp. 65-66, PDF e-edition)

For the past decade, the Spanish/Catalan coastal town of Blanes has become renowned for being the home of the peripatetic Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño during the last twenty years of his life.  Bolaño’s reputation was mostly made, however, after his 2003 death, with a slew of posthumous translations into the major European languages.  One novel, however, Los detectives salvajes (The Savage Detectives in English), was published to some acclaim in 1998.  That tale, containing among other elements an odyssey undertaken to find two missing poets in 1970s Mexico, is perhaps Bolaño’s best-executed work (2666 I would argue was left in an unfinished state at the time of Bolaño’s death).  That mystery of what happened to Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano (characters who appear, often fleetingly, in several of Bolaño’s works) is tied in to literary movements and commentaries on the fluctuating relationships between “art” and “reality.”

Therefore, it was with great curiosity that I read Belgian writer Hedwige Jeanmart’s debut novel, the 2014 Prix Medicis-longlisted Blanès.  Set in the town itself, it is a mystery that unfolds on at least two levels.  The first involves a couple, Eva and Samuel, who are vacationing there when Samuel suddenly disappears.  As Eva undertakes a search for him, she begins to discover the elements of another mystery, that of a beloved author, and the various connections and relationships between him, his stories, and the people of Blanes.

Blanès is a relatively short novel, roughly 190 pages in my PDF e-edition, and Jeanmart wastes little time in establishing character, setting, and mood.  In the passage quoted above, Eva comes in contact with a server at a restaurant.  Jeanmart describes the setting with great detail, going from Eva’s choices for a meal to her inquiries about Bolaño.  The server’s reactions to her somewhat odd questions is shown in vivid detail.  In reading it, I was reminded of the hyperrealist, almost surrealist, quality of The Savage Detectives and while Jeanmart is not aping Bolaño’s literary mannerisms, there certainly are enough touchstones here for readers familiar with that tale to see the connections.

Yet for those readers who are not familiar with Bolaño or his work, Blanès also succeeds on its own due to Jeanmart’s ability to create a plausible, gripping mystery that absorbs the reader’s attention.  I spent several minutes reading and re-reading certain paragraphs, not because my French is rudimentary compared to my English or Spanish, but because of the richness of the prose and the fineness of the dialogues.  It was simply a delectable reading experience, one that I do not often encounter when reading contemporary prose in any language.  Yet the plot does not suffer due to the attention to style.  In fact, Jeanmart’s mixture of beautiful and stark imagery enriches the plot, making the mystery more palpable for the reader.

The characterizations are also well-rendered.  Scenes such as the one quoted above are commonplace and the people that Eva meets during her search for solving two mysteries (the disappearance of her lover and that of Bolaño’s life in Blanes) are fascinating in their own right.  There are very few longeurs present here; everything flows quickly and smoothly toward a satisfying denouement.  While the other Prix Medicis-longlisted titles I’ve read have also been excellent, Blanès would be one that I hope would make the shortlist coming out shortly.  It certainly is one of the better books that I’ve read in any language so far this year.

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