February 2, 2016 § 3 Comments
Title: Memory At Bay
Author: Evelyne Trouillot
Translator: Paul Curtis Daw
Publisher: University of Virginia Press, Charlottesville & London (2015)
ISBN: 978 0 8139 3809 7
Extensive reading is not necessary to understand that Haiti has a complicated and troubling history. The brutal sugar plantations of Saint-Domingue, a nation formed out of the world’s first successful slave revolt, decades of precarious and corrupt governments, a devastating earthquake in 2010…time and again this country has had major obstacles thrown in its path. And yet, despite multiple barriers, its impact and population have extended far beyond the borders of what is a relatively small, still developing, island nation. By its tenacity alone Haiti is a place that inflames the imagination.
Alain Mabanckou wrote in Black Bazaar what is perhaps one of my favorite quotes about the Haitian people: “…These Haitian writers are like hunted birds. They’ve had more than thirty-two coups d’état back home and not a country in the world has equalled this record yet. With each coup d’état, flocks of writers have emigrated. They left everything behind, setting out with nothing apart from their manuscripts and their driving licence. I wish I’d been born Haitian so I could be a writer in exile who understands the song of the migrating bird, but I don’t have any manuscripts, or a driving licence to become, in the worst-case scenario, a taxi driver in the streets of Paris …”
Evelyne Trouillot is a writer who didn’t leave home. She is, for all intents, Haitian literary royalty. The daughter of a Haitian intellectual & lawyer, the niece of a historian, sister to a writer, an anthropologist and professor – Trouillot resides in Port-Au-Prince and is herself a teacher, novelist, and playwright. With her daughter and brother she co-founded Pré-texte, an institution which holds literacy and writing workshops. Memory At Bay is her second book to be translated into English.
Her main characters – two living, one dead – are members of the vast Haitian diaspora Mabanckou describes. Rather than art they instead grapple with their roles as mothers, daughters and wives – the less glamorous, traditional roles of women. Marie-Ange, the younger of the book’s two narrators, is employed as a caregiver in a facility in Martinique. She is in mourning for her mother, whose voice we hear only through Marie-Ange’s memories. Together they left Haiti when she was a very small child. Now she is an orphan and her relationship to her childhood home is entirely colored by the memories her mother shared of surviving a corrupt and brutal dictatorship.
While still very young, I became an expert at choosing inoffensive subjects, ones that wouldn’t provoke a long diatribe from you against the Doréval dictatorships or those rare silences that were the precursors of your days of utter prostration. But today I wonder whether my ploy accomplished much at all. Whether you, Maman, didn’t carry an inexpressible sadness with you to your grave. And whether I who vicariously experienced the despotic regime won’t always have it under my skin. I’ve heard so much about those people since my childhood – not only the Doréval family, but also the notorious henchmen with their revealing or deceptive nicknames, still evocative of terrible anecdotes long after their time: Ti Baba, Captain Henry Tobias, Evaris Maître, Chief Lanfè, Lucien Désir, Colonel Britton Claudius. They’ve become elements of my universe, so powerful a part of my mental space and of my memories that it seems to me I’ll never be able to escape them and will always remain captive to their ghosts.
As she works through her grief Marie-Ange finds herself caring for a Haitian woman of roughly her mother’s age. Odile’s identity is not discussed at the facility (we are told this is for her own protection), but Marie-Ange soon realizes exactly who she is caring for. Odile is the widow of one and the mother of another Haitian dictator – closely modeled after Papa & Baby Doc Duvalier. Hers is the book’s second narrative voice.
These two women – Marie-Ange & Odile – provide alternating, individual soliloquies on the Doréval/Duvalier regime. Marie -Ange addresses her mother, Odile her past. Over the course of the book a dialogue between them begins to take shape without their ever engaging each other in direct conversation. Trouillot writes about a particularly complicated time in a country with a peculiarly complicated history. Marie-Ange’s memories are second-hand, the collective experiences and stories bequeathed to her by her mother. Outside of her duties in the care facility she shares very little of her life. As she expresses in the passage above, she is held captive by ghosts.
Odile’s memories are, by contrast, entirely singular and skewed. Her position as wife of the president was unique. Her life privileged and sheltered. She was, in a sense, the monster’s darling. Now at the end of her life, Odile finds a need to justify her actions or, at the very least, the actions of others through which she benefitted. Odile’s version of events, growing more and more desperate and defensive as the novel progresses, is ultimately meant for Marie-Ange. Or, more specifically, what Marie-Ange has come to represent: absolution. In a sense, both women are relaying false memories. It is only when taken together that their words form a story that more completely resembles the truth.
On bad days, Fabien would tirelessly repeat the names of all those he needed to eliminate. As if to dare his listeners to instigate a plot of some kind. The names rolled on, with no need to evoke at much length the circumstances attached to each: they all pertained to former friendships. A wife with whom she had discussed hairstyles and fashion, youngsters who had played with the Doréval children. Sometimes they would learn that the father of a child to whom they had just given a birthday present had taken refuge in a Latin American embassy. Had received a fusillade in the back while trying to escape arrest. Had perished along with his entire family during an abortive uprising in the course of which the VSN had again proved worthy of the president’s confidence. Over the years she had learned not to recall the sweet little faces, to close her mind’s eye so as not to visualize the expression of terror on a known face. She had put on the impenetrable mask of the photos and official ceremonies. Over the years it had become so easy. AS usual, she wanted to banish all nagging qualms and retain only the thoughts that would facilitate her journey back in time, but she could only manage to take the whole bundle of memories with her into an unquiet sleep.
As Marie-Ange comes to terms with her grief and Odile with her past, Memory At Bay attempts to come to terms with the Haitian diaspora. Or, at the very least, explore what it means to be far from a home which has become more to do with an abstract idea than a geographic place. Troillot thoughtfully deals with the question of how, when a third of a country’s population lives outside its borders, do Haitians define and maintain their relationship to Haiti? Paul Curtis Daw has thoughtfully translated two distinct, feminine voices – one old and the other young – which complement one another while retaining their individuality. Memory At Bay is a small masterpiece: a sensitive, skillfully written novel with nuanced and sympathetic characters which satisfies on multiple levels.
November 15, 2015 § Leave a comment
No writer wants the defining trait of his or her novel to be that it reminds critics and readers of other best-selling and/or critically acclaimed novels. The Nigerian writer Chinelo Okparanta’s debut novel, Under the Udala Trees, does this from the first page… actually from the very first sentence.
I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills. The equator runs across these highlands, a hundred miles to the North, and the farm lay at an altitude of over six thousand feet…
That is not Okparanta, but the famous opening lines of Isak Dinesen’s (or, if you prefer, Karen Blixen’s) Out of Africa. In the paragraphs that immediately follow Dinesen goes on to to describe the topography, the weather and the sounds of her home in Kenya. And say what you want about Dinesen – her politics, her character, her ability to run a farm – she could write. Those opening pages of Out of Africa are a sensory immersion, and the country of Kenya is as important a character in her story as any man or woman she introduces later in the narrative.
Okparanta also opens with her protagonist describing her home in Africa.
Midway between Old Oba-Nnewi Road and New Oba-Nnewi Road, in that general area bound by the village church and the primary school, and where Mmiri John Road drops off only to begin again, stood our house in Ojoto. It was a yellow-painted two-story cement construction built along the dusty brown trails just south of River John, where Papa’s mother almost drowned when she was a girl, back when people still washed their clothes on the rocky edges of the river.
Okparanta narrator goes on the describe her family’s compound, the wet versus dry season, the smells and noises, the life she lived as a child before the Biafran War interrupted in 1967 – a period of time notably brought to most Western readers’ attention by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half A Yellow Sun. But most of Under the Udala Trees takes place in the aftermath of that war. Nigeria is not a character, nor is it integral to her story. The plot momentum comes from it being a coming of age and a coming out story which could, unfortunately, have taken place in many African nations. The book purports to be about the relationship between two young girls, but is more about the sexual journey of only one of those girls. The narrator, Ijeoma, is a Nigerian girl who is attracted to women. And while her relationships are sometimes interesting – with her first love, her mother, her husband, her daughter – they are never explored enough to be moving. They lack depth. Their portrayal is only one-sided. We never get to see the world through anyone’s other than Ijeoma’s eyes… and she is not especially effusive or forthcoming with her emotions or opinions. For the kind of portrait Okparanta is trying to create, – a nuanced one in which even the book’s antagonists are sympathetic though misguided – having a reserved character such as Ijeoma at the center is an unnecessary obstacle. Under the Udala Trees would have benefitted from multiple perspectives. As it is, it lacks a strong narrative arc, reading more like a personal essay than a story designed to inspire empathy or a strong emotional response.
There is no way to tell the story of what happened with Amina without first telling the story of Mama’s sending me off. Likewise, there is no way to tell the story of Mama’s sending me off without also telling of Papa’s refusal to go to the bunker. Without his refusal, the sending away might never have occurred, and if the sending away had not occurred, then I might never have met Amina.
If I had not met Amina, who knows, there might be no story at all to tell.
Ijeoma meets Amina while acting as housegirl for a schoolteacher and his wife who were friends of her late father. Her mother has sent her there while she rebuilds a life for them in Ijeoma’s grandparents village. The two girls share their quarters, become close and eventually fall in love. They are discovered and Ijeoma’s mother is sent for. An extremely religious woman, Mama takes Ijeoma away and spends hours instructing her that what she has done is unnatural and an abomination in God’s eyes.
This doesn’t change Ijeoma, it only teaches her that her relationships must be conducted in secret. At school she and Amina meet again, and are again separated (this time by Amina). The plot, narrated in Ijeoma’s voice, chronicles her journey to love and acceptance. Okparanta hits all the expected plot points: first love, exposure, betrayal, a more mature relationship, violent persecution, an attempt to lead a “normal” heterosexual life, and then the realization that road leads only to unhappiness for everyone involved. Ultimately, Ijeoma has a happy ending of sorts – one that is realistic in the society in which she lives.
For all the flaws in this novel, Chinelo Okparanta writes well, as befits her background. A Nigerian-American writer, who immigrated to America at with her parents at age ten, she attended Penn State, Rutgers and is an alum of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She’s been published everywhere you’d expect: Granta, Tin House, The New Yorker, etc. She’s held professorships and received fellowships and her book of short stories Happiness, Like Water, was well received. In Under the Udala Trees, her plain straight-forward prose style is interesting, sometimes even engaging. And there is no denying that she’s written a timely novel, one could even argue an important novel. But, unfortunately, it’s also an extremely frustrating novel. Her heroine is too hesitant and circumspect in what we are expected to believe are her innermost thoughts and desires. The words “suppose”, “might” and “perhaps” pop up often. Ironically, the one thing Ijeoma is quite definite about is her preference for women. Though she is frequently told that her feelings are wrong – as if love could ever be wrong – she barely struggles with them. She never seems torn or even confused by the fact that she is attracted to women, and yet at the book’s turning point she inexplicably turns her back on the woman she loves and instead marries a childhood friend (we assume to please her mother). This happens with no explanation as to why, no real foreshadowing and no insight into the pressure (we again must assume) she feels to conform. The actual decision is made between chapters. The actual undoing of that decision also happens between chapters. Okparanta seems to have an innate fear of climactic scenes. She may be the rare author whose work has suffered from too much editing. Under the Udala Trees has the skeleton of a great book in it, but sadly lacks the substance of one.
September 9, 2015 § 4 Comments
Title: Hollow Heart
Author: Viola Di Grado
Translator: Antony Shugaar / Italian
Publisher: Europa Editions, New York (2015)
ISBN: 978 1 60945 271 1
“I’m not afraid of death because I don’t believe in it.
It’s just getting out of one car, and into another.”
― John Lennon
“The boundaries which divide Life from Death are at best shadowy and vague. Who shall say where the one ends, and where the other begins?”
― Edgar Allan Poe
“When you look into the abyss, it’s not supposed to wave back.”
― Terry Pratchett
Dorotea Giglio (1986-2011) is the unlikely heroine of the Italian novel, Hollow Heart, released in English this past August by the increasingly chic publisher Europa Editions. Unlikely because she’s already dead when the book (which functions as a sort of memoir of the afterlife) starts, having employed the perennial method of opening her wrists in a warm bath. To female suicide what the double axel is to female figure skaters, the way she kills herself grounds by its very ubiquity what proves to be a mesmerizing and wholly original literary work about a young woman navigating death. And doing so with more dexterity than she ever showed in life. Probably not a coincidence. The very things which she loses – the emotional and physical connections which define our humanity – are the things which caused her so much pain while alive. Death, if nothing else, grants objectivity.
The bad news about the afterlife is that it’s rather bleak. Viola Di Grado paints a black landscape where the dead exist as shadows, isolated from those they love, lonely, unable to experience the pleasures they took for granted while alive. Of course, Dorotea’s existence (as we come to understand it) was rather bleak prior to her suicide. At least now she has some friends and perspective. She keeps a journal recording the decomposition of her body, which she visits frequently and lovingly. She continues to live with her mother and aunt – observing their grief, comforting and tormenting them as the whim strikes her. She goes to an Amy Winehouse concert (after the singer’s death, of course) with another suicide named Euridice. She seeks out other ghosts, leaving touchingly wistful messages for recently deceased acquaintances.
Hi, I’m Dorotea Giglio (1986-2011). We did theater together in middle school. I was the one who was three years older than you, I had dark hair and freckles, you remember? I’m the one who that time we went to Milan to see the show about Pirandello, on the bus, told you about when my cousin’s duckling almost drowned after it got tangled up in a piece of twine and the other duckling saved it by peeping really loud. You said it was a crazy story. Do you remember that? I know we didn’t talk much for the rest of the trip. And I know that we haven’t been in touch in the fourteen years since. But I heard that you died of leukemia, and since I was in your neighborhood, having died myself just last year, I though that maybe we could get together…
I got your number from a girl who died of an overdose and used to do aerobics with you. I stopped by the hospital room where you stopped living, but you weren’t there. I thought you might be in the morgue, hanging ribbons and necklaces on you frozen body, but you weren’t there either. Nor at the cemetery; that’s where I spend a lot of my time these days. Would you call me at this number? I really hope to hear from you. Ciao, kisses.
Much of Hollow Heart is about Dorotea coming to terms with the life she gave up. The prose is beautiful – moving from the lyrical to the biological – sentences defiantly bright in the face of such a dark subject. “Down there my body feels no regrets: the regrets have stayed with me, and I have to fight them off on my own. My regrets shrill, they whine, they throw tantrums, they keep me from sleeping. They disobey me. They grow. My body has enxymes instead of regrets. They emerged from the lacerated lysosomes and set about destroying their own tissues. And so every one of my cells crumbled itself from within, alone, in silence.” Life and viscera saturate page after page as Dorotea describes the insects who eat her flesh and then, moments later, is caught up in a memory of a plane ride she took while alive: “The clouds outside the airplane window looked like a motionless sea. A slab of dark waves, caught by surprise in the middle of a storm. Breakers suspended in that enchanted instant right before they crash down on the shore. You could see the entire arch of their bodies, the hook-shaped curve, soon thrust into the earth. A huge hand lifted to grab, as if full of yearning.” Di Grado’s writing is so lovely at times it makes you ache.
I’ve included more than the usual number of excerpts because the writing, as well as the originality of thought behind the character, are what make Hollow Heart worth reading – and, in fact, readable. Violet Di Grado appears to have done her research, acknowledging the hereditary component of suicide. She does not hesitate to make her readers uncomfortable or sad. But in Dorotea she’s given us a character whose charm is only revealed after she sheds her depression with her corporeal form. Once that happens an inquisitive, sweet, admittedly quirky young woman emerges. You can’t help cheering her on, if only because she is so hopeful in a place where we’ve been told all hope should be abandoned. Somehow managing to embrace the afterlife as she was never able to embrace the life that came before.
July 11, 2015 § 5 Comments
Title: The Travels of Daniel Ascher
Author: Déborah Lévy-Bertherat
Translator: Adriana Hunter
Publisher: Other Press
ISBN: 978 159051707 9
The Travels of Daniel Ascher by Déborah Lévy-Bertherat is a generally inoffensive, if slight, novel brought out just in time for Summer. According to a Publisher Weekly article, Other Press is marketing the title as a “YA Crossover”, which speaks to the awkward position the book occupies. The plotting and prose are not sophisticated enough to impress adult fiction readers, but the characterizations (and perhaps even some of the situations?) are too sophisticated (without being engaging) for tweens and early teens. In other words: the novel lacks the pleasurable appeal of genre, and at the same time offers no challenge to the literary fiction reader.
Hélène Roche is a 20-year old archeology student, invited by her Great-Uncle Daniel to stay with him while completing her studies in Paris. He is the author of a beloved series of children’s adventure novels known as The Black Insignia series. Novels everyone seems to have read and adored… except Hélène. Her relationship to Daniel is complicated. Even as a child she was critical – thinking his word games “dumb”, his adventure stories “all the same” and finding his behavior clownish. Whereas Daniel, in contrast, is inordinately fond of her. At holidays he never forgot to single her and her brother out from the other cousins with special gifts – exotic items he picked up on his travels. And, of course, inscribed copies of all his books. Still, despite his many kindnesses Hélène goes out of her way to avoid him.
Otherwise it’s a very convenient arrangement for her: she is given her own apartment on the top floor of Uncle Daniel’s building. Rent free. He resides on the ground floor and is frequently out of the country. He leaves her notes and sends her letters, planning for them to spend time together when he returns. Otherwise he leaves her to her own devices.
That evening she found a postcard of Patagonia in her mailbox. It was sent from Ushuaia, featured low-slung houses against a background of mountains, and had a really beautiful stamp. She recognized her great-uncle’s handwriting, the same writing as those dedications in the Black Insignia books, its sloping letters clinging to each other with tiny connecting hooks as if afraid of losing eachother. My dear Hélène, I hope you’ve settled into rue Vavin. It’s magnificent here. I’ll tell you all about it, but only if you insist… Affectionately, Daniel H.R.
Hélène is not the only member of the Roche family who has issues with Daniel. The adults in particular seem to have mixed feelings, his two sisters and Hélène’s mother and father seemingly the only ones who have a genuine affection for him. Which makes what happens next so odd. Hélène begins to probe into the mysteries of Daniel’s life. Daniel is Jewish. A war orphan, adopted by the Roches after his family was killed in the Holocaust. And while she goes to great lengths – even so far as to travel to America with her boyfriend to visit Daniel’s “Ascher” relatives – her sudden interest is inexplicable. Almost half-hearted. In fact, everything about Helene comes across as half-hearted. Her research is never presented as a means for her to become closer to Daniel, to understand him, or to learn about her family’s history. With one or two exceptions she does not engage with him in any meaningful way as she sets about excavating his life as if digging through an ancient ruin. Hélène moves through the world in a state of self-absorbed ennui. Smoking, brooding and thinking herself better than everyone around her. Déborah Lévy-Bertherat has done something worse than create an unlikeable character… she has written a thoroughly uninteresting one. One who has no more self-knowledge at the end of her narrative journey than she did at its beginning. This matters as, despite it being a third person narrative, the entire story is told through the lens of Hélène.
As for the ending and the mystery’s final resolution – well, to be blunt, it’s a bit ridiculous. My reaction to it all is very similar to my reaction to Antoine Laurain’s The Red Notebook, another French novel written in a similar vein. Neither book demands an emotional commitment from its characters or readers.
The redeeming feature of The Travels of Daniel Ascher is the amount of care and thought which went into publishing the English/American edition. Adriana Hunter has made a lovely and flowing translation (she was also the translator of Hervé le Tellier’s Eléctrico W) of the source text. The writing itself is really very fine with pretty flights of fancy – for example that line in the passage above describing Daniel’s handwriting. Other Press has created a lovely book in a style reminiscent of the Lemony Snickett’s Series of Unfortunate Events series and filled it with charming pen and ink illustrations by Andreas Feher. Included at the end of the book is a drawing showing the spines of a complete set of Black Insignia books and a list of the titles in the series “so far”. Overall the physical presentation is delightful – whimsical in a way which is normally just my style.
May 26, 2015 § 8 Comments
Author: Anne Garréta
Translator: Emma Ramadan
Publisher: Deep Vellum Publishing, Dallas (2015)
ISBN: 978 1 9419 2009 1
…The party lasted well beyond the usual timeframe. Strictly speaking, I was no longer listening to the music; it was passing through me. I was cuing up the records as if by instinct, my vision obscured by a veil of blood. I was in a coma agitated by rhythms that were more and more painfully arousing my desire without ever draining it. In a vague fog I discerned the compact mass of people dancing, flattened one against the other and yet swaying, lifted up in waves. United almost without fissure, they were probably incapable of moving, but the entire mass vibrated in rhythm, all individual drives undone and lost in a higher, sovereign need. George told me later that everyone who entered the club mixed gradually into this mob and that between the hours of two and six in the morning nobody left, the employees were overwhelmed. At eight in the morning, emptied, I collapsed onto a bench and went to sleep.
That night sealed my reputation. It still reigns supreme in my memory; no other night ever achieved such furious intensity…
There have been enough reviews posted online by now that it should come as no surprise to learn that Sphinx is an Oulipian novel and that the particular constraint it operates under is gender. Specifically, an absence of gender identification. Garréta, and her translator Ramadan after, set themselves a monumental task of eliminating masculine and feminine from language. It is difficult to discuss Sphinx while ignoring this subversive act but I find that too often the novelty of Oulipo, the gamesmanship and artistic bravado, is allowed to overshadow what should be the central premise of my (of any) review – whether the final product is well-written – and to limit how we discuss the work. The fact that the author writes under constraint is really just ornamental gilding. That delightful, if inessential, layer of the novel that remains unnecessary to our enjoyment of the book yet adds to our appreciation. It is something I come up against when describing Oulipo to a particular friend of mine. I go on and on about the technical skill involved in writing under this or that constraint, only to receive the response – ‘I see. Oulipo. I’m pretty sure that’s an Old French word for “sitting around drinking absinthe and making shit up”.’ Because, when you say it all out loud it does sound a bit pretentious and showy. And it does beg the question, when you’re devoting so much time to grammatical or structural minutiae what are you sacrificing? The assumption being something is getting lost, the focus being all on conforming to the constraint. The difficulty lies in convincing readers that the answer can be: nothing. From the right pen, of course.
First let me say that Anne Garréta has written a novel that very much reminds me of Jeanette Winterson’s Written On the Body (though Garréta’s book came first, published in French in 1986 while Winterson’s novel was published in 1992) in both prose and premise. This struck me immediately. Winterson’s novel – about a nameless, genderless narrator in love with a married woman who is diagnosed with Leukemia – poses the question “Why is the measure of love…loss?”. Garréta’s book deals in those very same themes. The prose style is also similar: dense, ornate, sensual. Winterson’s a little more earthy, Garréta & Ramadan more formal. Both narrators are self-absorbed in their grief. Taken altogether I believe it’s safe to make the if then statement – if you enjoyed Written On the Body then you will also enjoy Sphinx. Though this is not meant to imply that they are in any way the same book or story. They are most definitely not.
Emma Ramadan refers to Sphinx‘s unidentified narrator as Je in an essay she wrote for 5 Dials. It seems as good a name as any (and much better than constantly referring to ‘the narrator’). And so Je is a former religious student turned D.J., infatuated with an African-American dancer named A***. In one way Sphinx is Je’s attempt at charting the course of their relationship. The events in Je‘s life that lead to their first meeting, Je & A***’s courtship, cohabitation, visits to America and Je’s connection to A***’s family. The relationship lasts long enough that the initial passion wears off and is replaced by whatever it is that comes after. But A*** dies and Je is left behind to sort through the memories and emotions of their time together. We become lost in Je‘s skewed perspective – narcississtic and self-absorbed – which we’d like to attribute to grief but which ultimately we come to understand is the central component of who Je is. A man/woman locked so far into his/her own psyche as to be almost incapable of acknowledging a world separate from/outside of it. It makes a modicum of sense when we read “I was about to turn twenty-three…”. Je’s complaints of ennui, Je’s intellectual pretensions, sense of superiority and nihilism can only be acceptable, and then just barely, in young adults… even among Parisians. And so Je remains compelling despite his/her obvious flaws.
I felt as if I had never been permitted such transparency with anyone – anyone but A***. Had I confided more in A*** than in anybody else? What had I revealed? Had I unmasked myself, or at least what I thought I knew of myself? No, more likely I had exposed my own collapse, the ruin of the edifice I had so painfully constructed out of rhetoric and made to stand in for identity. I was forcing myself to forget this nudity. My soul was not retreating behind a multitude of appearances that it could have incarnated endlessly, but rather, hollowed from the inside, was being instilled with doubt over this cavity that it hadn’t filled with anything. I was then forced to recognize what I had always secretly wanted others to discover: “I” is nothing. It was a painful triumph when, faced with this beloved being, I finally achieved what I had always been aiming towards: the ability to confess my own weakness, my nothingness. But the weight of this nothingness was revealed only to me; it remained unintelligible to A***, and I remained in the barrenness, the ruin, at last revealed as if by accident, following this confrontation with m own nudity and death. “What am I,” I was asking myself, “other than what you do not know how to say about me?”
There’s more happening in Sphinx than gender obscuration.
Gender, though, remains at the center of this book. And, whether we mean it to or not, it becomes something of a game to look for hints or flaws that might reveal something. It seems right to admit that early in my reading I assigned Je a sex. And when I say “sex”, what I mean is that I assigned Je a male or female body. (I won’t say which, and I hope you’ll understand why in a moment). The body was really more a function of environmental factors in the story rather than any behavior Je displayed or any slip the author (or translator) might have made. At first this troubled me – as if I’d somehow failed the challenge of setting aside my preconceptions. Until I realized that all I had actually done was provide Je with genitalia – not gender identity. And that I never felt compelled to do the same with A*** – whose appearance, personality, sexual parts and gender identity remained nebulous – changing from page to page.
Which brings me back to the passage at the beginning of this review. I’ve gone back to read and re-read it at least a dozen times. The night at the club, described early in the book, that marked the peak of Je’s career. Je, whose narrative voice – both evocative yet precise – driven but emotionally cold – perfectly described the synchronized, rhythmic mass of bodies on a dance floor. “…the compact mass of people dancing, flattened one against the other and yet swaying, lifted up in waves. United almost without fissure, they were probably incapable of moving, but the entire mass vibrated in rhythm, all individual drives undone and lost in a higher, sovereign need.” It’s a lovely bit of prose. One that made me realize I was mistaken in believing that Garréta’s characters, Je and A***, exist without gender. Rather – Garréta has achieved the complete opposite. They, Je and A***, simultaneously encompass all possible variations of gender and gender identity. Which some might say amounts almost to the same thing… but not quite.
A few notes about the author, the English translator and translation of Sphinx:
Sphinx was Anne Garréta’s first novel. It was published in 1986 when the author was twenty-three. Garréta is one of the few female members of Oulipo and the first member to have been born after the group’s genesis. She won the Prix Medicis in 2002 for her book Pas un jour.
The English edition of Sphinx, published by Deep Vellum Press, contains both an Introduction by Daniel Levin Becker and a Translator’s Note by Emma Ramadan. Both are worth reading and add to the pleasure of the book. In addition Ramadan wrote an article on translating Sphinx for Five Dials No. 33 – which can be read online here. Even if you are not a translator, or a translation junky, the challenges of bringing this novel to English are absolutely fascinating.