Review of André Alexis's novel Pastoral (Coach House Press)
Literary translation is a seemingly impossible task – which explains why it is so fascinating. The English-language side of the literary magazine Salon .ll. is the go-to place for discussions which make translation possible. On its French side, Salon .ll. offers an excerpt from Daewoo (Fayard, 2004), a novel by the French writer François Bon, side-by-side with an as yet unpublished English-language translation of the same text by New Yorkers Alison Dundy and Emmanuelle Ertel. The United States does not have the reputation of a country that translates a lot. Even so, literature likes to scoff at borders and there is no lack of readers, in the United States and elsewhere, when it comes to indulging oneself in the pleasure of discovery combined with the more intellectual exercise of comparison. It is to this subtle dialogue of languages that we now invite you.
Translated by Ellen Sowchek
Presentation by Alison Dundy et Emmanuelle Ertel
When the Korean conglomerate Daewoo proposed setting up new electronics plants in the economically devastated Lorraine region of France, it seemed like a win-win situation. It would prove to be the contrary. Following revelation of accounting fraud, one of the largest in history, in which millions of dollars, including public subsidies were embezzled by management, Daewoo closed up shop and went home. And although the company's president eventually stood trial in Korea, it was small consolation to the workers left behind, their lives and livelihoods destroyed by the scandal.
Daewoo, an evocative historical novel by François Bon, gives voice to these (mostly women) workers who were the ultimate victims of this corporate crime. Based on documentary research and personal interviews with some of the workers, Bon has created a work that captures the very human and often tragic side of this drama. As he himself describes it, "If these female workers no longer have a place anywhere, let this novel be their memoir."
Fameck, May 2003: Waiting for the mailman, and Sylvia
Past the traffic circle where the blue factory was still crowned by the word Daewoo, two hundred yards farther along on the left: the elementary school.
Mostly mothers (some men, and they didn't come by car but on foot, and slowly left again: men without work.) Some of the mothers waited just a few seconds with the car's engine idling, the children got out, then off they went in a hurry.
I went inside and shook hands with the teachers. Maryse P. arrived just before the bell rang, her two sons went to their classrooms, we went into an office that had been offered to me for the interview. At first we exchanged words like you do to explore: about the factory, the assembly line, the foremen, the job description. And then, at the end of one sentence, I asked permission to record the conversation and took out my Sony MiniDisc.
"Well, OK. I'm going to tell you about Sylvia. She died, last month. Hasn't anyone talked to you about Sylvia?
"We're in too small a town. Our paths are already marked, we follow them. You go out to do the shopping. You retrieve the mail from the mailbox. Actually, no, you wait until the mailman has left (from the kitchen window, you watch, and with a little practice just the noise from his motor scooter from one stairwell to another is enough), then I go down, knowing that he's gone. You wouldn't put up with him seeing you wait if he, the mailman, already knows the wait was in vain. You sort through the junk mail. There are summonses, bills, the obligatory paper. If that's all there is, once again, nothing but this, you leave it in the mailbox. You can take it back upstairs when you come back. If there's a letter that actually says something, then you go back upstairs to read it. Calmly, with no one else around, I go back into the kitchen, pour myself a little coffee, sit down, and read. If it's bad news, you stay there, elbows on the table, head between your two hands. If your kid comes into the room at that exact moment, he understands: 'Don't worry Mommy.' But you can't believe it, it was eleven o'clock and now it's noon, for forty-five minutes your head in cement, for what—but you'd scratch your nails on that cement, the walls, you'd like to scrape them until you hurt yourself before changing a damn thing about the state of the world here.
"It's quiet though, in your kitchen, at this time of the morning. Noise from a radio in the distance, noise from the balconies, some smells that tell you that you also better get in gear to prepare a meal.
"So that at least the kids will eat (living thirty yards from the school they don't have to go to the cafeteria; at least since Daewoo is over I get to see my kids). And if by chance you have a letter, words that offer you a little bit of sky, then you stand in front of your window, you look outside. Above the rooftops, as far as you can see, out there where there's green and blue. You can't decide for yourself, amid all the possibilities you juggle, what your life will become. But at least you stand there, on the horizon, your own scaffolding for what could be. You go back downstairs, you've got your wallet, you walk a little quickly. Sylvia, it's because of that: Me, Sylvia, I go there every day and there's no letter, but how many days without a letter.
"In Lidl I have to get something for my kids for lunch. Frozen food is cheaper, there are special discounts, 'red labels,' as they call them—to be eaten fast before the food passes its expiration date. At home, you take off the plastic wrap, you know that if you put it in a really hot pan, it won't smell, that special discount meat. Special for us, just us? Me and my girlfriends—never at the same cash register at Lidl. What food you buy requires a little discretion before putting it in the plastic bag. A little hand signal, we greet each other with a kiss, but outside the store. Now, all of us live a life where we count costs.
"So sometimes I go there with my Lidl bag, to Sylvia's gravestone. Why not, what can she see anyway?
"When I get back, in my mailbox, I find Freebies, the advertisement paper. That's for the afternoon, at the kitchen table. Female caregiver for a lonely elderly person. Bilingual executive secretary, energetic, with a good knowledge of Excel. Sylvia, she was the one who made up stories for us. She loved movies, she traveled miles to go see a film. And us at work, we listened to her. The boss couldn't say anything: we looked straight ahead; we didn't even look at her when she told us her story. Sometimes it lasted an hour. We joked around: Sylvia, your story, it's longer than the movie, you're making things up, you exaggerate . . .
"She didn't speak in a loud or high voice, no, the noise in the factory, it was more like we kept it at a distance. Sylvia's whispering, we could hear it, she was speaking to us, while we kept going through the motions.
"Sylvia, she made up a story that after the factory we'd have a truck and we'd go into the country to search for strange objects, little nothings, little pretty things that we like, and then we'd go from market to market to sell them, the five of us, even very far away, we'd manage to do much better than on the assembly line, and with more sun. I'm going to get my truck-driver's license, Sylvia would say, so we can see some of the country. Or another time, that we'd rent a place, set up an organization—she loved to say that, as if that solved anything. We'll put together a group. Her idea was that we would welcome other women, boost their spirits, help them take the necessary steps. And then, and then . . .
"Or Sylvia had a boyfriend, then no more boyfriend. Sometimes we laughed about it. The boyfriend had nothing but good points at first, and then, when she dumped him, from his shaving cream to his family life, we knew all about it.
“After the social plan (that's what it's called, first social plan, limited social plan, new social plan, me and Sylvia were in the third social plan), she stayed single, without a boyfriend, longer than before. 'It's because I don't go out,' Sylvia said—yeah, right. For her suicide, we all accompanied her—taking her body from the hospital, driving in our cars to the gravestone, up there in the new cemetery. I don't go to movies. When I think about a film, I hear her, she tells me about it. Now at my kitchen table, saying to myself: 'and if what was happening to us was just a bad movie that we could rewind and poof!' Sylvia's voice invents another one for me, a much better one.
"In the morning when I go to her grave, at first I used to talk to her.
"Not anymore. Silence. And listening to it in your head, that silence. There's no more story, Sylvia. I remember the first day when we were at the entrance to the factory, the closed white gate, do not enter, and the guards pushed us back, and to one of those guys, here's what she said, Sylvia: 'I'm old enough to be your mother, little one.' Of course, to get a look at her that morning, with her red highlights and her leather jacket, it made us laugh, and maybe the young guy too, but he just turned his back on us. They don't like to hear things like that, people who tell you that you live in the same world they do. And to us, on the way back, this strange thing, claiming she'd read it in the Bible: The sweat on your forehead now cannot be sold, when you eat your bread you'll know now that the sweat on your brow is superfluous. We are the superfluous ones, she added. And I think about it, about that word, on her gravestone . . ."
Silence. I had turned off the tape recorder.
Alison Dundy is an archivist and translator from French into English and Italian into English. Her translations of Sony Labou Tansi's Life and a Half and Alain Mabanckou's Blue White Red were published by Indiana University Press.
Photo: Luis Reyes.
Emmanuelle Ertel is an Associate Professor of French literature and of translation at New York University, and the director of the M.A. Program in Literary Translation: French to English. She is also a professional translator. Among her translations of American novels into French are Louis Begley’s The Man Who Was Late and As Max Saw It, Rick Moody’s The Black Veil, and Tom Perrotta’s Little Children and The Leftovers.
Published with the collaboration of The French Publisher's Agency.
Review of André Alexis's novel Pastoral (Coach House Press)
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