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Tuesday, 5 April 2016

Mend The Living - Maylis De Kerangal (translated by Jessica Moore) - Man Booker International Prize 2016

Today you’re going to come across something that happens very infrequently on this blog, a review of a book that I struggled to finish. Occasionally I come across a book I don’t like and more often than not I simply don’t review it. There are a number of reasons for this approach;
  • A writer has spent a significant amount of their life on bringing this work into being,
  • For the majority of books I read there is also the translator’s efforts to be taken into account, like the author they have dedicated a substantial amount of their time bringing this work to an English speaking audience,
  • Who am I to judge the relative merits of a book? What I may despise others may love! I’m a casual reader, not formally educated in “fine literature”, not officially qualified to be a stick in the mud, why does my opinion even matter? Then again, why would it matter for books I love too?
  • What value is there in caning a book? My insignificant view on the world stage will possibly impact the purchasing power by one or two copies.

As a Shadow Jury member for the 2016 Man Booker International Prize I am attempting to read and review all thirteen longlisted novels, and if I am being honest there is no way around giving my opinion on each of the books on the list.

Onto Maylis De Kerangal’s “Mend The Living”, a book that, although clunky in language style, actually starts out as an engaging and potentially compelling piece. The story opens with three mates, waking very early, unlike their usual teenage behaviour, so they can fulfil their insatiable surfing addiction. Amongst the three is Simon Limbeau, soon to be deceased.

It’s time. Beginning of the day when the shapeless takes shape: the elements gather, the sky separates from the sea, the horizon grows clear. The three boys get ready, methodical, following a precise order that is still a ritual: they wax their boards, check the leashes are attached, slip into thermal rash guards before pulling on their suits, contorting themselves in the parking lot – neoprene adheres to the skin, scrapes and even burns it sometimes – choreography of rubber puppets who ask each other for help, requiring that they touch and manipulate each other; and then the surf boots, the hood, the gloves, and they close the van. They walk down toward the ocean, surfboard under one arm, light, cross the beach in long strides, the beach where pebbles crash beneath their feet in an infernal racket, and once they’ve arrived at water’s edge, while everything grows clear before them, the chaos and the party, they each wrap a leash around an ankle, adjust their hoods, reduce the space of bare skin around their necks to nothing by grabbing the cords at their backs and pulling them up to the last notch of the zipper – it’s a matter of ensuring the best possible degree of waterproofness for their teenage-boy skin, skin that’s often studded with acne on the upper back, on the shoulder blades, where Simon Limbeau sports a Maori tattoo as a pauldron – and this movement, arm extended sharply, signifies that the session is starting, let’s go! And maybe now, hearts get worked up, maybe they shake themselves inside thoracic cages, maybe their mass and their volume augment and their kick intensifies, two distinct sequences in one same pulsing, two beats, always the same: terror and desire.

I’m not giving anything away by explaining that Simon dies soon after the novel commences, as a novel exploring the merits, pitfalls of organ transplants would require a character to die in order for their organs to be harvested.

Early on in the book, the post-accident helplessness, the grief of family members, the detachment of the hospital staff, is wonderfully rich and I was trusting that this theme would continue throughout:

She heads for the main door that opens slowly, far off; four figures cross the threshold and come toward her, figures that soon emerge from the blur cast by her myopic eyes: it’s the parents of the other two caballeros, Christophe and Johan, the four of them in a line, and again the winter coats that weigh shoulders down, the scarves rolled into neck braces to hold up falling heads, the gloves. They recognise her, slow down, and then one of the men quickens his step to break rank and when he reaches Marianne folds her in his arms, and then the other three hug her in turn. How is she? Chris’s father is the first to speak; the four of them look at her, she’s paralysed. Murmurs: he’s in a coma, we don’t know yet. She shrugs her shoulders and her mouth distorts: and you? the boys? Johan’s mother answers: Chris, fractured left hip and fibula; Johan, both wrists and clavicle fractured, also his ribcage, but none of his organs were pierced – she remains sober, of an outrageous sobriety, meant to show Marianne that the four of them are aware of how lucky they are, of their monster’s ball, because for them, it’s only breakage – their children were wearing seat belts, were protected from the shock, and if this woman minimises their anxiety to this extent, abstaining from any commentary, it’s also to show Marianne that they know about Simon, know that it’s serious, very serious even, a rumour that will have run from the I.CU. to the department of orthopaedic and trauma surgery where their sons are, and that she won’t have the indecency to add anything, and finally, there is this distress she feels, this guilt that holds her back, because the choice was between their two sons, for the seat belt – Chris had to drive, so it could just as easily have been Johan in the middle and then she would be the one in Marianne’s place at this instant, exactly in her place, swaying before the same terrible abyss, disfigured in just the same way, and she’s suddenly dizzy at the thought, her legs go weak and her eyes begin to roll back, and her husband moves closer, feeling her wavering, puts an arm under hers to steady her, and as Marianne sees this woman capsize, she, too, perceives the abyss between them, between herself and the rest of them, this chasm that separates them now, thank you, I have to go, we’ll keep you posted.

We have the same incident viewed though many lenses, as the characters begin to pile up, we have competing priorities, differing emotional reactions, different time pressures, then the self-interest starts to boil to the surface, as a reader who do we emotionally attach ourselves to? The mother, the father, the nurse, the surgeon….?

Sean and Marianne sit side by side on the couch, awkward, curious even though they’re shattered, and, on one of the vermilion chairs Thomas Remige sits down too, with Simon Limbeau’s medical folder in his hands. But even though these three share the same space, participate in the same time period, nothing on this planet could be further apart than these two beings in pain and this young man who sits before them with the goal – yes, the goal – of obtaining their consent to recover their child’s organs. On one side: a man and a woman caught in a wave of shock, at once swept off the ground and crashed down into a dislocated timeline – a continuity that Simon’s death had ruptured, but a continuity that, like a headless duck running in a farmyard, continued on – total madness – a timeline woven of pain, a man and a woman gathering all the sorrow of the world upon their two heads, and on the other side: this young man in a white lab coat – committed and cautious, prepared to conduct the meeting without skipping any steps, but who has set a timer in a corner of his brain, conscious that once brain death occurs, the body deteriorates rapidly, and that this has to be done quickly – caught in the same torsion.

However the further we get into the book, the more distracting the clunky language becomes, it is not only the melding of tenses, nor the rambling sentences, or the ridiculous word usage (more on that soon), but to me the never ending introduction of yet another bit player just became ridiculous, and adding some “fat” to their character was totally uncalled for (why have page after page describing France vs Italy in a soccer match? Oh that becomes slightly relevant once a new Italian surgeon is introduced, however Italy has NEVER beaten France 1-0 in Paris, and if you are going to have a fictitious football match then don’t name real players. Why a whole chapter dedicated to the purchase of a goldfinch? Is that just so there can be a corny reference to the rarity of its song? Why an imbalanced fiery actress lover? More pages? Who cares about the hovering nurse’s night before with an oft missing lover? More filler material?)

To explain the use of language, or more specifically word choice, here is a short quote about a (yet another) bit player who doesn’t not want to have dinner with her daughter:

…or maybe it’s the couple that frightens her, this couple that, in less than two years, has swallowed up her only daughter, disintegrated her into a sure, emollient conjugality, a balm after years of solitary nomadism: her spirited, polyglot daughter has become completely unrecognisable.

?????? And we have 100’s of examples of similar word choices throughout, not at all endearing, nor does this make for an enjoyable read when you need to stop each paragraph and decipher a word or two.

Here’s another example, this time, of unnecessary words, with the page references so you can see how often they are repeated (and I can assure you this is not an isolated example):

P 138 – One liver, two lungs, two kidneys. And a heart.
P 139 – Marthe Carrare enters all the medical data for Simon Limbeau’s heart, lungs, liver and kidneys into a web interface
P 142 – Responses for the liver, the kidney and the lungs come one after the other.

Given the majority of the story is given over to the “heart” wouldn’t “the other organs” suffice for “the liver, the kidney and the lungs”, given we then have a detailed explanation of who is going to receive each organ, further along page 142?

A book that has an interesting premise, this doesn’t lift beyond a poorly scripted version of an American television drama, with minor, irrelevant characters, clunky language, ridiculous word choices (wait until you get to the technical “harvesting” sections) and non-closure for so many of the “featured” players, this is an absolute mish-mash.

Sadly I was intrigued for about 70-80 pages and pushed through the language idiosyncrasies, I shouldn’t have bothered. One that left me completely flat, needless to say it won’t be featuring on my shortlist.

POSTSCRIPT – The Translator’s Note at the end of the novel, explains De Kerangal’s use of obscure words, she also explains the hidden references in the character’s names or the struggle with French language words having multiple meanings and not as easily translatable into similar English words. Whilst an insight into the struggle of the translator it doesn’t really change my mind as to the struggle I went through to finish this book. For people who have read this book, you may be interested in where I hit the wall, it was once Marthe Carrare the “short woman, around sixty, olive-skinned and round, auburn hair, voluminous breasts and abdomen stuffed inside a tight camel-coloured cardigan, spherical buttocks bobbing in brown wool trousers, and then a pair of rather skinny legs and tiny feet bulging inside flat loafers”, was introduced.

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1streading said...

Come on now, Tony, don't hold back!
To be fair, books on prize lists are fair game and I've already written two less than complementary reviews.
However, I liked this - I found the language use (yes, even the bits you've quoted) interesting, and while I take your point about the number of characters, that is the whole premise of the novel.

Anya said...

Now it's not that I really liked the book (for the record I thought it was simply okay), however it reads far better in French. I couldn't get through some of the translated paragraphs you posted.

Unknown said...

I am rather relieved to finally encounter a less than enthusiastic response to this novel. It's one that I cannot get my head around as a book that I would want to read despite the positive reviews that abound. Oddly it is the language that its admirers seem to praise. It's all quite academic because I do not have the time to read this right now. I did notice though that the American edition has a different translator than the UK/Canadian edition. I wonder how they differ.

Meredith said...

I was thoroughly engaged in reading your review! You have openly addressed a difficult problem, for me to, about what to do with those books we dislike. I found your examples quite compelling as to why this was less than engrossing, and now I'm curious as to how I've feel. I have waded through The Four Books, A Strangeness in my Mind, and Death by Water, none of which I feel should win. Even though they were good in their own ways. I suspect I'll feel as you do about this one...