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Monday, 26 May 2014

Red Grass - Boris Vian - Translated by Paul Knobloch - Best Translated Book Award 2014

Forget the USA vs United Kingdom rivalry, or even the debate about which award is “better”, in my mind both the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize and the Best Translated Book Award highlight the benefits of translated fiction and that alone has to be a good thing.

One distinct difference in the two awards is that the Best Translated Book Award allows entries for deceased writers (or more explicitly the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize states that the author must be living at the time of entry) . Therefore the USA Award has introduced me to a number of works which would be ineligible for the UK Award (assuming they have been published in both countries and are eligible for the other criteria of course). This year alone I have read four works (“Red Grass”, “Commentary (A Tale)”, “The Forbidden Kingdom” and “Through The Night”) by deceased writers.

Besides bringing some of these more celebrated works to reader’s attention I’m not 100% convinced that works from the 1930’s or 1940’s is really an area of reading that I’d like to continue to explore. As the majority of my blog posts will show, the majority of works I read and review are contemporary in nature and to suddenly jump to an immediate pre/post World War II era of literature is exposing me to a complete genre of which I know little. In other words I apologise for my ignorance if some of these reviews are a little shallow.

“Red Grass” was written in 1948-1949 when Boris Vian was 28 years of age, so young but his fifth novel published!!!  Apparently he was able to finish works in a “matter of weeks”, however this one apparently took sometime longer to write.

I’m not sure how to describe this work, experimental fiction? Science fiction? We have a talking dog, that has been taught how to meow. The back cover says Boris Vian “is a cult hero among discriminating cyberpunkers”, is that true? Or is this yet another LSD induced pile of rubbish?

The four others engaged in typical dinner table banter – pass the bread, I need a knife, lend me your quill, where are the marbles, my candle’s gone out, who won at Waterloo, honni soit qui mak y pense, the cows will be hemmed in by the meter – all amounting to few rods, for Saphir was in love with Folavril, Lil with Wolf, and vice-versa to ensure narrative symmetry.  And Lil resembled Folavril because the two of them both had long, blond hair, kissable lips, and fine figures. Folavril was a bit taller on her perfect legs, but Lil had prettier shoulders, and what’s more, Wolf had married her. Without his rubber suit, Saphir was all the more smitten. This was the first phase; he was drinking the purest wine. Life was empty, and not sad. It was simply on hold. For Wolf. For Saphir, overflowing and beyond description. Same for Lil. Folavril did not think. She simply lived and was sweet, with those pinched-up doe-panther eyes of hers.

Maybe I’m the one who has lost the plot, because at some stage Saphir becomes Lazuli (without explanation) or maybe they’re two different characters in love with Folavril. I knew those mushrooms I ate back in the 1980’s would do me no good!!

Wolf decided to freshen up a bit before returning to the room where they were dancing and singing. He washed his hands, let his moustache grow, saw that it didn’t suit him, and then shaved it with one hand while knotting his tie with the other, trying to give it more volume so as to remain in step with the latest fashion trends. Then he risked insulting the hallway as he moved backwards through the corridor, knocking over the circuit breaker that controlled the temperature during the long winter nights. This caused the lighting to be replaced by extra-soft x-ray emissions, blunted for safety, which projected enlarged images of the dancers’ hearts onto the luminescent walls, the rhythm of the beats indicating their fondness for their respective partners.

I suppose I should explain what the plot of this novel is about. Wolf, an engineer, invents (and uses) a time machine to travel backwards and erase his memories. To forget he has to visit six people in a fixed chronological order, to discuss his memories:

1)      Family relations
2)      Grade school and subsequent studies
3)      Initial experiences in religious matters
4)      Puberty, adolescent sex life, eventual marriage
5)      Activity as an individual cell in a larger social body
6)      Metaphysical anxieties born of more intimate contact with the world

The story follows Wolf on these journeys, in his time machine, his discussions on the above subjects and his subsequent travel back to the current day. Each time his loss of memory changing something in the present time. We have made up words attached to sports, “bloodsport” for example, being a game where you blow needles into living targets who are strapped to walls, you choose your style of target, young, old, male female.

Lil was seated at her dressing table in a simple bathrobe, busy with her nails. For three minutes now they had been soaking in a juice of decalcified bindwind, all in order to soften up the cuticle so that the lunula looked exactly like a quarter-moon. She carefully prepared the little cage with its removable floor, the inside of which contained two specialized beetles that were sharpening their mandibles in anticipation of the moment when they would be tasked with the chore of making the skin vanish. Lil put the cage on her thumbnail and pulled the cord. Upon a sated purr, the insects went to work with pathological competitiveness. The first insect transformed the skin into a fine powder, while the second put on the finishing touches, trimming and polishing the rough edges left by its little comrade.

The female characters are quite serene and assured of their futures here, the male ones tormented and lost, is this some sort of tortured autobiography? Lauzuli, for example, every time he goes to make love to his girlfriend, or when in the throes of passion, an apparition appears.  As a result he can’t complete what he set out to do.

This is surely a strange work, one that explores the mystical boundaries of time travel and the consequences of dabbling in events that have already occurred. A post war tale of a wonderful future where you are served alcoholic pineapple juice, can travel in time, synchronise your love life and more. Personally not a novel I’d normally read and only did so as it was on the Best Translated Book Award longlist.

“You’ve always been able to resist your desires,” she said. “And you always will be. That’s why you’ll die unfulfilled.”

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