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.
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.
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.
What 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.