February 2011

Christopher Merkel


The French are Coming

French author Jean-Christophe Valtat wrote Aurorarama in English, which should technically disqualify it for discussion in a column about literature in translation. But it was nonetheless my introduction to an author whose celebrated career had previously been spent writing in another language, and it's arguable that that sort of introduction is not dissimilar from being introduced to a foreign author through the intercession of a translator. At the very least, it would seem apparent that Valtat himself is sensitive to the importance of making his work available to readers who don't read French.

Or maybe he just thought that his tale of New Venice, a troubled utopia set on the ice above the Arctic Circle, would be best received in America. Aurorarama is dense with literary and philosophical allusions (and doesn't go light on sociological allegory either), but it can also be enjoyed simply as an entertaining story, the story of a corrupted political elite at odds with the free spirit of drug-addled, scenester bohemia. New Venice might well have been damned from the beginning by the decadence on either side of the conflict. In any case, the bundled up, hungover steampunk aesthetic of the novel was perfect for reading at the onset of real winter in the immediate aftermath of the holidays. And had I not read and enjoyed Aurorarama, I probably wouldn't have picked up 03, the first of Valtat's books to be translated from French into English.

In English translation by Mitzi Angel, 03 is a paragraph in 84 pages that follows the internal monologue of a teenager in love. Valtat's teenager is stuck living in a provincial French town where he's stuck most mornings waiting at a stop for the bus to take him to school. The object of his affections is an adolescent girl who shares his mornings waiting across the street for a van to take her to her own daily institution, a girl that the narrator of 03 understands from "seeing the passengers of the van that collected her every morning," in the opening sentence of the book, "was slightly retarded."

Although the narrator entertains the idea of waiting in the evening for the van to return so as to be able to follow the girl and her parental escort away from the bus stop and into her life, he contents himself ultimately, stayed both by a resignation to futility and a desire not to see his musings refuted by any real material circumstance, to ponder her from the other side of the road. From a distance, he can appreciate her fragile beauty without fear of knowing the facts or of knowing exactly how that beauty had been tinged (though not necessarily tainted) by the color of her condition. From his distance he can indulge his perfect paradoxes:

Judging from where I stood, I saw no sign on her little face -- of the smeary stigma of idiocy, no traces of the printless thumb that might have blotted her features like clay, leaving behind areas of whitened flesh like uncharted lands on an old planisphere. Her face -- pierced with two black holes as though two fingers had punched through a paper mask -- struck me, rather, as attuned, with a sort of swiftness -- as though it were always coming to the point -- that I sought in every face I loved: a veiled landscape of simultaneous upheavals linked by a secret, ever-shifting convergence.

The narrator, unlucky in love with the girls at school (he doesn't even have a scooter, let alone a car), finds his perfect romance in equivocation. He's a pathetic character but knows it, and takes pride in the purity of his love for understanding that he's pitiable for desiring to guard and protect the object of his own pity. "My latest romantic escapade merely rehashed the old drama of 'feeling too deep for words,' except this time nobody cared and no one would find out and no one would ever make fun of me." Oh to be young!

Or exactly not, if you really feel for the narrator of 03. More than just in a small town or at the bus stop waiting to be taken to school, the narrator has an acute sense of being stuck between childhood (a word he detests, "that presumption of innocence and starry-eyed wonder") and the world of the adults who "subjected children to every sort of rehearsed and prepackaged foolishness... the adults' idea of what they imagined having lost themselves... this cycle of loss building itself up according to the endless demands of nostalgia." A blurb on the back cover of 03 offers that Valat's teenager "listens to the Cure's Pornography but speaks like someone out of Proust," and although I cringe at putting myself at the edge of the clichéd pitfall that is comparing another French author to good old Marcel, Valtat's narrator does muse on childhood as if he were delivering a cynic's version of In Search of Lost Time.

Unfortunately, that same lugubrious tone made it difficult for me to maintain my focus while reading 03. In 84 pages, Valtat manages to accumulate what feels like the weight of Proust's seven volumes. I can't deny that the book is thoughtfully written and acutely evocative of an all too familiar teenage angst. In attempting, however, to locate any one demonstrative quote I find myself wanting to copy out entire pages that bleed out forward and backward onto other passages to the point that I'd end up delivering the whole book to convincingly convey the mood of it. Of course, that's the essence of Valtat's style in this novel, and sitting down to read 84 pages from start to finish shouldn't be such an ominous task, but I wanted more than once to be able to put it down without any structural justification to do so.

My reading of 03 was also complicated by the keenness of its narrator's observations. True, it's that very perspicacity that makes the novel powerful and convincing, and without it 03 wouldn't be much more than the sort of teenage romance you'd find in the young adult section, if anything at all. Since the story is told in recollection, the reader should assume that it's driven by the force of later life wisdom, but there's still a conceptual space that opens up between the narrative itself and the erudition of the voice that's giving it. Teenage angst may be familiar, but the ability to articulate it with the grace of the narrator in 03 isn't something familiar to teenage angst. While I understand that interpreting the importance of the narrator's experience in the light of a removed perspective was probably Valtat's goal, in reading 03 I nonetheless felt uncomfortably that memory had been given the impossible and unfair ability to speak in the present tense.

In any case, I got through the 84 pages without giving in to getting up, not exactly disappointed but certainly relieved. If Aurorarama was responsible for turning me on to Jean-Christophe Valtat, then 03, well, it didn’t turn me off, but it did make me reconsider the idea of the author that I’d conjured based on the book he wrote in English. Aurorarama isn’t unliterary, but it’s much more of a genre work than the “purer” 03, even if Aurorarama might stand alone in definition of its own genre (dystopian retro sci-fi?). So I was a bit disappointed in myself, because I generally appreciate the denser novels of ideas -- and French ones in particular. Maybe I just don't like Proust. No matter, though, because I had another long paragraph by another Frenchman to read, anyway.

Zone, by Mathias Énard (in English translation by Charlotte Mandel), is a book about almost everything. Although it takes place entirely in the stream of consciousness of a single man traveling by train from Milan to Rome, its scope is truly epic and its author’s knowledge encyclopedic. Francis Servain Mirkovic, a Frenchman of Croatian descent who fought for the establishment of an independent Croatia during the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s, is giving up spying for the French government. He’s on his way to sell a briefcase to the Vatican. The briefcase is packed full of personal histories, detailed records of deaths that he’s collected since meeting a Dutch former SS agent in Cairo. He’s assumed the name of Yvan Deroy, a neo-Fascist friend from his adolescence who's now committed to a mental hospital, and he’s going to start over. He’s on the train because he got drunk and missed his morning plane from Paris. An amphetamine pill made sure he’d make the train and get to Rome.

The story that unfolds on the train is Francis's personal story, but his remembrances are interwoven with the histories of the places that his mind revisits to produce what is ultimately a history of violence in the area around the Mediterranean (the Zone). Zone runs the entire gamut of "man's estate," the bittersweet human condition that Francis repeatedly intones as he describes his attempts to escape the cycle of war and vengeance and forced flight that has come to define both himself and the Zone as he knows it. Zeus, Athena and Apollo take the stage alongside the Christian Saints, the Ottomans, the painters of the Renaissance, the Jews and the Palestinians, Cervantes, the Hapsburgs, multiple intelligence agencies, the Nazis, the Polish Resistance, James Joyce and Ezra Pound in their respective Italies, the Serbs and the Croats, the Algerians, and so on and so on. They fight the Trojan War and the civil wars in Lebanon and Spain, both World Wars, every war in the Balkans, and they fight at every time and place in between. The players are dispatched, deported, repatriated, welcomed back to homes inside new borders, disappeared, beheaded, or sometimes just left abandoned by the gods to be forgotten.

Zone is written as a single sentence that is broken only three times over its more than 500 pages by excerpts from a made-up Palestinian short story that Francis reads on the train. Unlike 03, however, Zone proved to be compulsively readable. Despite the weight of its content and its unconventional punctuation, the books flows quickly and naturally along with Francis's thoughts. As such, the single sentence isn't so much -- as some critics would have it -- a groundbreaking stylistic or rhetorical device as the format that is most consistent with the narrator's meandering, speed boosted (and later drunken) thoughts. That sentence is really the only way that Zone could have managed to get at everything it gets at and go everywhere it goes in the space of one man's mind over the course of a single train trip. In fact, it follows the train as much as a train of thought, the places it passes acting as mnemonic points of departure as Francis is carried toward Rome.

Zone, again like 03, is also a story of frustrated love. Francis will make his new life in Rome with a Russian girl named Sashka who seems to him immune, or perhaps just oblivious, to the pervasive violence that has marked his experience. Francis's pairing with Sashka seems easily fraught with the same perils of idealization as the love between the narrator of 03 and his slightly retarded girl, but although he desires the escape, Francis isn't unwary of the danger of romanticizing romance within the Zone: "no other contact possible, no consolation, an eternal solitude caught hold... if I think about it, my attempts at escaping the Zone and memory are part of the same syndrome perhaps, what happened, in Venice with Marianne, in Paris with Stéphanie the brunette..."

But reading on from that section I realize that I might have cast my lot with Francis and Zone based too much on anecdotal evidence. With Francis in Barcelona, Stéphanie, "the brilliant strong dangerous Alsatian," read only Proust and Céline, "which gave her... the cynicism and irony necessary for her profession" (as an elite intelligence officer). As for Francis, the hardened warrior and field operative: "I hadn't managed to finish the Recherche, the stories of Parisian aristocrats and bourgeois bored me almost as much as their narrator's complaining." It's a matter of taste, of course, but Énard's narrator and I do seem to share a similar sense, and given his narrative mode it's no surprise that he invokes Joyce's Finnegans Wake and Pound's Cantos over the works of Stéphanie's favorites.

It's also possible that I appreciated Zone so much because I fancied that I knew something of the setting and shared something with the experience of Francis on his train to Rome. As I read the book, I repeatedly recalled a train trip I took between Istanbul and Budapest on which I was one of two people in a car reserved for passengers going the entire route between the two cities. I was accompanied for the twenty-some hours only by a Hungarian train attendant who plied me with duty-free booze so that I would keep him company on his rants. He welcomed me to Budapest, but insisted that it was better before the mayor had welcomed the Jews and the homosexuals. It's a stretch, I know, but I wanted desperately to have some sort of shared experience with Francis and his Zone, if only so as not to have to cast myself as one of the American tourists he sees blissfully drinking wine in the bar car on their way to see St. Peter's. Even if Zone weren't an amazing feat of language and research, it would still stand as a powerful testament to a very unamerican participation in history, especially of the twentieth century. Americans aren't strangers to political and military violence, but most of us are estranged from them, and even if Zone wasn't translated to give Americans a more intimate perspective on the reality of systemic conflict, I hope that to some extent that is why it is read.

As much as his story is representative of a clear eyed (sometimes a little bleary maybe) adulthood free from nostalgia (though he’s definitely jaded), I don't think I'd have the heart to recommend Francis's experience to the narrator of 03 as consolation for his cynicism. After all, Marianne leaves Francis in Venice with a kick to the groin after which he drunkenly falls into a canal. But a smart kid like the one in 03 would probably read a book like Zone eventually. And I'd be happy to read more Valtat in translation or otherwise, especially if the book were something else from New Venice, and especially if I were ever in France, because I have a penchant for doing just what Francis did when he bought a book by Tsirkas in Greece, "as a good tourist to read native literature." We have a lot in common, that guy and I. Or maybe I just don't like Proust. Don't tell the French.