Thursday, August 9, 2018

WITMonth Day 9 | The Heart by Maylis de Kerangal

When I bought Maylis de Kerangal's The Heart (translated as Mend the Living in the UK), I had only one impression of the book - this rare negative review from Tony Messenger's blog, that described the book as poorly written, boring, and filled with bizarre writing choices. I hesitated before buying The Heart for this reason, but ultimately my curiosity got the better of me... and the fact that the book was in the bargain bin and being sold for only $4 in the hardcover.

I started reading The Heart late on a Saturday night, intending to read only a few pages to get the taste of it. I fully expected to be disappointed - after all, a reader whose tastes and reviews I quite trust seemed to dislike it so much! - but as I read those early pages, I found myself instantly swept up in the rhythm. I had to force myself to stop reading after those first few pages in order to go to sleep.

It was somewhere in the middle of the night that a thought struck me: The Heart read like a millennial had written it. Or at least, it sounded somehow "millennial" to me. It sounded like how my writing would sound, if I wasn't just writing bad reviews on a sub-par blog. The pacing and the styling and rhythm and the almost loopy thinking... they all felt like they would be perfectly at home on a Tumblr post responding to some vague, random prompt. The writing felt like something many of my friends might write. And I liked it.

As I progressed in the novel, I discovered a few more interesting points of contrast between my interpretation and Tony's. Portions that filled in a minor character's backstory felt like little side-quests, rather than pointless distractions. The constant shifts in perspectives felt like a necessary way to describe the whole. As the story spun around Simon (whose heart is in question), I felt like I was growing to care about his world, if not him specifically.

The Heart, at its core, is a novel of the characters who surround Simon. It focuses to a significant degree on his mother Marianne, but as the narrative shifts from Simon's injury to Simon's death to Simon's "rebirth", so too does the focus, to the doctors treating Simon and eventually also those who wish to save other lives using his organs. It feels like a novel built of negative space; Simon is at The Heart's center, but he does not really exist within it.

There were a few things I outright disliked in The Heart. First, there is an odd objectification of women in a number of points throughout the book. There are full paragraphs that feel utterly unnecessary to either character development or story progression, particularly ones that focus on women. The novel felt sexist in places, which ended up throwing me out of the story more than once (though I managed to get back into it quickly, which was also pretty interesting). These are short, minor fragments, but they do cast a shadow on the book and prevent me from giving a whole-hearted endorsement (pun intended). I also found myself somewhat unimpressed by de Kerangal's constant descriptions of Simon's multi-racial background, with the fawning tone occasionally bordering a bit on fetishization. It may just be a cultural difference, but there was something about some of the descriptions that felt a bit off to me.

However, to the most important point: Perhaps you noticed that I skipped over an important bit of information at the beginning of this review. Where, you would be correct in asking, is the translator's name? Well, in the version that I read, the translator is Sam Taylor, who I think did a really great job of making the writing flow and keeping the book as engaging as it was. But when I went back to read Tony's review, I realized something interesting: the quoted passages did not match the ones that I had just read. In fact, the passages that Tony includes all felt awkward and stilted in portions compared to the gently rolling text I held in my hands.

It turns out that Mend the Living and The Heart are actually not the same book, exactly, instead being that (now rare) phenomenon of two distinct translations of a modern novel that were released at the same time in different countries. Mend the Living, despite having my personally preferred title, was translated by Jessica Moore. Though I have of course not read the entire translation, the contrast with the portions I read on Tony's blog make clear that Moore's translation creates a very different effect overall.

For example: In the passage describing Marianne's meeting with the parents of her son's friends (mostly uninjured in the accident that ultimately kills Simon), Moore's translation creates a very tight, stiff vibe. Lines like "the four of them are aware of how lucky they are, of their monster’s ball, because for them, it’s only breakage" feel like they are heavily crafted. Contrast that with Taylor's version: "all four of them are aware how lucky they are, how monstrously lucky, because their children are only a little broken". There are two main word-choice distinctions: "monster's ball" replaced with "monstrously lucky", and "it's only breakage" with "only a little broken". In both cases, I find myself preferring Taylor's word choice. Of course I have no idea what the original was, but the message here is clearly the same, as is the general style. Yet Moore's translation uses somewhat weird, rare words (breakage? monster's ball?), while Taylor spins the sentence to flow with an almost childlike appreciation. One of the translations feels like a very high-brow classic novel, while the other feels loose and modern.

Of course I am biased, having read only one of these translations and generally liked it, especially liking how fresh it felt and to my own generation's online writing style. But almost each of the examples that Tony cites sent me back to the pages of The Heart's translation, and appreciating how much smoother the text flowed there. It leads me to wonder what Moore's translation is like at large, particularly since this is a fairly rare example of a modern book having contrasting, contemporary translations. I certainly liked Taylor's approach, and appreciate it even more after comparing it to an alternative.

All in all, The Heart ended up surprising me. I fell in love with the writing style, I was (mostly) able to look past the weird/unnecessary/male-gaze-y bits, and I thought that the story was extremely moving on the whole. This is not the sort of novel to keep you on your toes, but it has its own sort of pulsing tension anyways. The end in particular felt like a thriller, as the tone and narrative largely move away from Simon. It's a book I wish I could have read in one sitting; even so, I am grateful that I read it at all.

1 comment:

  1. I didn't even realise there were two different translators for the book, I merely thought the titles were different. I also prefer Mend the Living as the title. I read the book in French and English at the same time (the Sam Taylor translation) and there is a joyous riot about the French sentences which is really hard to capture in English. Although it is about a very gloomy subject, the style makes it ultimately hopeful, full of life.

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