Literature is the opposite of peace: I Never Talk About it, Pt 2

A character says in the story ‘Couch’: ‘Life isn’t supposed to hurt all the time.’

My previous post gave an introduction/background to this collection of 37 very short stories by two authors, but translated by 37 different translators. The identity and method of each one isn’t revealed until you’ve had time to absorb the story.

Last time I mentioned a central theme in many of them: talking or not talking – ‘In the end I didn’t talk about it’, says the speaker in ‘Cupcakes’, avoiding the tragic subject that fills the room. ‘There’s no point talking about it’, says the voice in ‘Trolls’, this time about the love and death of a much-loved grandmother.

The first story, ‘Olives’, translated by Anglo-Australian literary reviewer Tony Malone (I recommend his site – Tony’s Reading List for its coverage of translated literature; this is his first effort at translation – brave chap!) opens with the words that give this anthology its title.

Véronique-Côté

Photo of one of the two authors of the story collection, Véronique Côté, by Maude Chavin, from the QC Fiction website

Several stories start with this cryptic kind of reference – you have to read on to find out what the ‘it’ is and who the ‘I’ is who refuses to talk about ‘it’. It turns out to be a particular kind of obsession, and this is a feature in several of the stories. The speaker/monologuist (for these were all originally promenade theatrical monologues performed in the streets of Quebec City) is presumably female, for she mentions one or two personal female-specific details (the gender/identity of the speakers in most stories is not usually identifiable; it’s what they say that matters). She’s conflicted about her obsession, which she denies is OCD, and insists ‘I’m normal, I think’ – not entirely convincing. She claims to be adept at concealing it. In paragraph one she says:

It’s humiliating, totally. I don’t want the people I love to notice, I don’t know how I’d be able to go on afterwards.

Later: ‘It disturbs me.’

This confusion, desire to be different or complete, inability to fit in, to understand herself or others, is a recurring feature in these stories. That’s why talking – or not talking – about such things is so crucial, and features so often in them. For what do we talk about when we talk about, or don’t talk about, our anxieties, obsessions, relationships?

Her parents, she believes, should have taught her one thing in life:

 that nothing is missing. Like Buddha, or a monk, or a poem would say, nothing is missing, life has absolutely everything, everything is here, I mean: I’ve never wanted for anything, why am I so scared that all that might change?

The translator here adopts the stream-of-consciousness style that of most of the other stories here, choosing to render what he calls ‘essentially a spoken text’ at a level that’s not ‘too high’ in register and tone (I talked about this at greater length in my previous post). He tries to get the ‘voice’ as close to the original French as possible. I think he’s done a pretty good job. That voice shows pain, regret and longing, and a strong desire to feel impenitent, less ‘scared’ – how many of us haven’t felt that way before? The run-on sentences and comma splices represent the rhythms of the voice of a character who’s floundering, hurting, and trying to limit the damage of life’s experiences.

So who is she addressing here, if she ‘doesn’t talk about it’? The reader. Which positions them in the role of confessor – a highly privileged one, but demanding (and in most cases in this collection, rewarding). For we don’t have the capacity to absolve or forgive (if this is needed). All we can do is try to understand. Which is surely one of the main reasons we read? To broaden and deepen our understanding of human nature.

Steve Gagnon

The other author, Steve Gagnon, attributed to France-Larochelle, from the QC Fiction website

Not all of the stories do this; some are lighter, humorous, lubricious – there’s some pretty graphic sex and talk about sex – or downright revolting; I found the story about a person whose obsession is eating their own snot pretty hard to stomach. And there’s quite a lot of vomiting going on.

But mostly these are wonderful snapshots that reveal a whole life of a spectrum of individual types, from the panic-stricken, the defeated and the ‘social misfit’ to the woman who appears to have everything, but has really ‘passed myself by’.  Often there’s an auspicious or disastrous epiphany. Translators talk about the polish and elegance of the prose of their originals, and mostly they reproduce this skilfully in their renditions.

It’s always difficult to convey the feel of a story collection in a brief post – especially a collection with so many variables (authors, translators). So I’ll just pick out a couple of my favourites.

Children’s fraught relationships with parents or other family members, some of whom die, walk out or become estranged, are the basis of some of the strongest, subtlest stories. Often their love for each other goes unacknowledged, unexpressed, or talked about with honesty too late – and this can be ‘sad’ and ‘a shame’ (from ‘Attic’, in which a mother’s curt, posthumously delivered postcard brings a kind of confirmation but not consolation).

In ‘Wrestling’ the speaker reflects fondly on his (I think this a ‘he’) loving ‘fights’ with his dad when he was a kid. Language, words, talk are again the point here:

I never needed words to say that I loved him, and he never needed them either, we had other ways…My dad and me, we don’t wrestle any more. [My ellipsis]

And he misses these fights, which arose not out of ‘rage’ but love, pride and admiration:

I never talked about this with my dad. Probably because we never managed to develop a common language, we never got used to the fact that there were words between us.

I Never Talk About ItWhat a wonderful sentence that last one is. And his closing words to the story bring a surprising shift in emotional tone. Language brings us together, but it can also keep us apart. This is another deeply moving monologue, honest and raw.

Daniel Grenier, who translated this story, has one of the 37 translators’ most interesting and revealing explanations for his approach to his task. He says it’s ‘destabilizing’ to translate in a language that is not your own:

To understand something is quite different from saying it, or even repeating it…English…is so subtle, so difficult, it’s as difficult and hard as a diamond. [My ellipsis]

‘Light’ is a tender, passionate account of a parent’s fear when contemplating their child’s vulnerability, and the powerful need to protect them, to tell them not to give up (the woman in ‘Olives’ could do with a parent like that).

In ‘Nightmares’ there’s another parental bereavement, and the child’s response is beautifully, poetically conveyed in the translated prose.

‘Dishes’ and ‘Notebook’ deal unsentimentally and innovatively with the notions of reading, writing and humility (‘Hell is being the only person to truly know yourself’).

‘Looks’ is about the impact on a non-academic child of growing up in a bookish family of intellectuals and teachers:

I’m looking for peace. I want peace and literature is the opposite of peace.

I’m out of time. Let me end by just recommending this collection for its unique take on the nature of translation by providing some excellent, brief but powerful stories and some thoughtful, stimulating translators’ insights.

 

Do we use semi-colons when we speak? I Never Talk About It: pt 1

I Never Talk About It: QC Fiction, 2017.  First published in 2012 as Chaque automne j’ai envie de mourir by Les éditions du Septentrion

‘Traduttore, traditore’.

I Never Talk About ItMost books of translated fiction foreground (not surprisingly) the original author; the translator – if they’re even mentioned – will get a tiny credit somewhere near the front, probably not on the front cover.

Quebec-based QC Fiction, an imprint of Baraka Books based in Montreal, was set up last year to do things differently, to publish exciting new Québecois voices with translations that are as original and vibrant as the source texts.

I Never Talk About It, published 1 September, is even more daring and innovative than QC’s usual output: 37 stories written by actor-authors Véronique Côté and Steve Gagnon are presented with no attribution – we can’t tell for sure which author (maybe both?) wrote which story (it’d be easier in French, I suppose, because of the use of gendered nouns, etc.) OK, some stories are clearly narrated by a woman or man, but that doesn’t necessarily signify the gender of the author.

Here it’s the translators who take a more central position. This is what QC say about the project on their website:

This project aims to show there are all kinds of ways to bring across an author’s voice in translation… at least 37 of them! Translators include literary translation students, first-time and up-and-coming literary translators, world-renowned translators who have won major international prizes, some of Montreal’s best writers and translators, a retired high-school French teacher in Ireland, and francophone authors translating into their second language. There are even people in there who (armed only with a dictionary and the priceless ability to write a beautiful sentence) barely speak French.

As Peter McCambridge, fiction editor of the imprint, says in his Introduction, ‘readers want to read faithful translations, don’t they?’ His question raises some familiar if important points about translated literature. What if readers want something more, something like ‘a different sort of artistic creation’? This volume doesn’t exactly provide answers to that question, but it does offer some textual examples (stories) and commentaries on them to provide some implicit suggestions.

So: ‘let’s start a conversation’, he suggests. ‘Let’s talk about the types of translators and translations you’ll come across in this book.’ The anthology’s title is taken from the opening line of the first story, ‘Olives’, translated by Tony Malone (and found again, in the past tense, in ‘Wrestling’, and with other variations in other stories). And talking – or not talking – is a central theme in many of the stories in the collection, another indication, surely, of their origins in oral-theatrical performance.

Every story is only a few pages long, more Flash Fiction than ‘short story’ – and it’s apparent that each translation is a sequence of personal interpretations and decisions, linguistic leaps, deviations or distortions, however well intentioned. How much of their own personality or ‘reading’ of the story is apparent, and how does that affect our own reading of the text?

Each story is translated by a different person, each with their ‘own unique approach.’ Their identity is only revealed after each story, so as not to influence the reader’s experience beforehand; they were invited to apply a single adverb to describe that approach, and to give a brief account to reveal how and why they completed their task.

The stories’ origin as spoken texts – monologues, in fact – is an important factor. The two writers produced their scripts, which were then performed in various locations across Quebec, and the audience followed the performers as they moved across the city. The stories therefore read differently from the usual literary type, and as readers we can’t reproduce the exact experience of the original audience, watching the actor in a particular urban setting .

The translators frequently refer to their attentiveness to ‘voice’, ‘register’, ‘tone’, ‘rhythm’, ‘pace’. They comment on the intimate or ‘confessional’ nature of the narrative voice, of following the ‘spirit’ not the ‘letter’, striving for a ‘fluid’ style, not ‘forced’. Many refer to the difficulties of rendering the original punctuation, which tends to be looser in French – especially in colloquial texts created to be orally delivered, many of them in stream-of-consciousness mode, which doesn’t lend itself easily to conventional written orthographical and syntactic conventions.

Comma splices, run-on sentences: these posed problems for the translators that wouldn’t have been so apparent to the original audiences, listening to the words spoken in the streets of the city. Every punctuation mark in a written text is a function of a different mode and level of discourse from spoken texts. Is there such a thing as a semi-colon in spontaneous speech?

Some translations are, as one might expect, more successful than others when coping with these matters.

Of course it’s a matter of personal taste how you judge this. I found the stories with typographical quirks – text laid out like poems, say – more distracting than exciting. A bit too overtly “edgy”.

I’d like to say more about the content of the stories and the nature of these translations in more detail next time; I find that I’ve gone on too long already. Note the high-register use of the semi-colon there.

Paperback (advance reading copy).

Links to my posts on other QC Fiction texts:

Brothers, by David Clerson

Listening for Jupiter, by Pierre-Luc Landry

 

 

 

 

 

A hallucinated life: David Clerson, ‘Brothers’

Berserkers went into battle, according to some sagas and skaldic poems, wearing pelts of animals (the ‘ber’ element may signify ‘bear’; ‘serk’ is a Germanic term for shirt): they thus took on the ferocity of the beasts metonymically. This concept lies at the heart of David Clerson’s extraordinary novel Brothers.

Brothers cover

Image taken from QC Fiction website

Clerson’s unnamed protagonist, Older Brother, undergoes similar therianthropy in this pulsating narrative. At the novel’s start he and his younger brother scratch a living on a bleak marshland straight out of Kosintsev’s ‘King Lear’, a Tarkovsky dystopia: a post-apocalyptic or pre-modern zone of sterility.

The brothers are deformed: the Older has one arm, his younger sibling has ‘atrophied’, brachial stumps and ‘the face of a pagan angel’.

Their dessicated, moribund mother tells them endless stories ‘of the fearful far away’, and etiologies including their own: she amputated Older’s arm when he was born to create the Younger’s body (as God did Adam for Eve in Genesis). She invents these stories to protect them from unpalatable truths. What those truths might be we can only speculate – that’s one of the mysteries that gives this novel its eerie power. It’s full of dreams – and nightmares.

Her core lesson through these stories lingers with the boys:

‘The world is a cruel place, too cruel to be faced alone.’

The sea-creatures washed up by the ‘Great Tide’, the ocean (that ‘infinite expanse of surging black water, unpredictable and menacing…sealing off their world’), are also deformed, monstrous – a giant dog, bug-eyed cephalapods. The boys construct ‘bone beasts’ from the detritus. They are taunted by neighbouring ‘leech-boys’, reacting to them with ‘a dumb, screeching rage.’ Is this a post-nuclear catastrophe? Or some hellish alternative world? ‘Everything was death.’

I don’t recall reading a novel with such visceral impact. The elemental imagery and saga ferocity are intense. Brothers packs a punch way above its 150-page weight. I don’t normally enjoy ‘fantasy’ genre fiction, but this transcends the genre.

The brothers traverse the estranging sea in a leaky boat to find their ‘dog of a father’ who ‘came from the sea’ – another of mother’s legends; her accounts vary, ‘his lore changing over time and according to the woman’s mood’. Their fraternal odyssey becomes mythic and terrifyingly violent. They are at first ‘still boys but becoming men.’ They are convinced ‘our future is the sea.’

Like St Brendan and his monks, they endure terrifying ordeals on their voyage. Older Brother transforms in a way that seems to confirm his father’s canine nature. Cynanthropy. Starving and emaciated, ‘His body thinned out, the body of a wandering saint, with dried blood encrusted in the hollows of his face, and the cruelty of the world in his belly.’ Brothers becomes an inverted hagiography, a legend of a heroic devil-saint.

Initially more timid than his exuberant younger brother, he gains confidence when isolated. After excruciating experiences with the pig-family who confine him to a dog-kennel, and the transcendent sexual encounter with a grey bitch, he flees and transforms again into a vengeful humanoid beast, with a new-found taste for blood, and a grim resolution to survive whatever the world tests him with.

His growing power and berserker ferocity are signified initially by his wearing the pelt of a drowned dog the boys found washed up on the beach. (There are aspects of Brothers that bring to mind the novel and film My Life as a Dog). This mantle enables him to channel his bestial savagery. When the grey bitch is killed, he takes on her pelt, too: his powers increase. This is White Fang without the sentimentality.

Myths and legends (and other novels) from all times and places resonate throughout the narrative. Apart from ancient Greek epics already alluded to, there are echoes of the Old Testament: the brothers are aptly described early on as ‘children of the valley of Hinnom’ – an alternative name for Gehenna, or Hell. They glimpse other worlds through their father’s imagined eyes:

Worlds of darkness and brutality, untamed worlds, unleashed.

There are flavours of Norse legend. Ravens accompany the older brother in the latter stages of his bloody quest, even appearing to talk to him (or is this part of his hallucination?) and perching on his shoulder, as they did with Odin. The first raven to land on the questing boat is an allusion to the Noah story. As he sails, the brother tells the birds stories of his past:

[B]ut he embellished his tales, telling them the stories his mother had told him, stories in which his younger brother dug tunnels under the hill…a realm of wonders…and sometimes a raven cawed at him in thanks.

When he hunts obsessively for the dark, submarine shape he takes for his father, under ‘the red of a falling sky’, the novel adopts the lyrical weirdness of Moby Dick:

He was getting closer to his dog of a father, like a whale he was going to harpoon…a sharp weapon, forged in steel.

His shape-shifting tendencies are found in shamanic societies from the North American First Nation to eastern Europe and Asia. So is the function of narrative to dramatise creation and growth: it’s a bildungsroman, but Older Brother is a sort of demented Holden Caulfield.

At times it becomes a little muddled. Just what is the Puppet the brothers find washed ashore meant to represent? It becomes a prosthetic arm, a war-weapon and ship’s figurehead, a ‘tribal totem’or Queequeg figure to the Older Brother’s wandering Ishmael; it’s also an obvious Pinocchio substitute. Maybe that’s the point: nothing in the narrative is what it seems.

Such inconsistencies don’t impede the narrative surge. It’s a katabasis story refashioned as surreal folklore, and a classic quest into a dark, nether world, a search for Home and Self and a means of forgetting the past, a demonic redemption song: the brothers (then the Older Brother alone) skirt the shores of their blighted land in their ramshackle boat, endure ordeals and battles that test them beyond endurance. Older Brother undergoes liminal rites that transform him from man to beast and back. Much of the time he’s in a trance-like state; he becomes a seer. Everyone tells tales. Like their mother’s tales, told to her by her mother: ‘songs with a little bit of magic, in a forgotten language – some know the words, but no one knows the meaning.’

His final vision is typically enigmatic, indecipherable, ‘the last rattle of a hallucinated life.’

The novel’s end is the beginning of a new story.

Originally published in French as Frères by Héliotrope in 2013, which won the Grand prix littéraire Archambault the following year, Brothers was translated into lucid, haunting English by the poet Katia Grubisic, and published in 2016 by the independent Quebec subscription imprint QC Fiction, to whom I’m indebted for this review copy.

Excellent reviews by other bloggers:

Tony’s Reading List

Joseph at RoughGhosts who uses a terrific quotation from the text for his title: ‘everything here is dead’…

Stu at Winstonsdad