One of my ‘Try Harder’ targets this year is to read more in translation. I got the year off to a good start with these two short novels…
Bird in a Cage by Frédéric Dard
Translated from the French by David Bellos
I discovered Dard just over a year ago, when the lovely people at Pushkin Vertigo sent me one of their paperback reissues in new translations of the Frenchman’s classic noir tales from the 50s and 60s – that was prison-break novel The Wicked go to Hell from 1956 – reviewed here. Then a friend at book group read and recommended this one, originally published in 1961, and it did not disappoint.
The story begins with a man, Albert Harbin, travelling back to his childhood home just before Christmas as his mother has died. This immediately reminded me of The Islanders by Pascal Garnier (reviewed here) which begins similarly – although they then diverge immediately.
Now, as I crossed the threshold of our flat, I suddenly grasped that she had died. It hit me head on.
Outside, it was Christmas.
What brought it home to me was coming back to Paris and the crowded boulevards of its poorer districts lined with brightly lit shop window displays, and with illuminated trees at street corners.
I was a fool to come home on a day like that.
Harbin goes out and attempts to get into the Christmas spirit, he buys a bauble – the Bird in the Cage of the title. Then he decides to dine in a brasserie he always aspired to as a child, and it is there that he will meet the woman who will turn his life upside down in just a few hours. Harbin watches a woman dining with her daughter, finding their relationship engaging. She reminds him of Anna, a lost love. He follows her, falling a little in love with the idea of this beautiful woman – and he follows her to the cinema and offers to carry the child home at the end of the film. She invites him up for a drink. He should help himself while she puts her daughter to bed. We’re already on high alert that something awful is going to happen – but not quite yet – they leave her daughter sleeping to go out for a walk and its on their return that Harbin becomes truly entangled in events that rapidly escalate beyond his control.
I loved the way that Dard plays with the reader. We certainly don’t trust the woman, but can we trust Harbin? There is much we don’t know about him either, and Dard creates real tension. Once we discover what crime has been committed, Dard’s drip feed of information makes Harbin appear more than a patsy, but again we wonder – about him, about her, about everything! The psychological drama is enthralling and the gradual reveal of the rather labyrinthine (for a short novel) plot is extremely clever. Bellos’s translation gives the action a Hitchcockian feel – Dard’s detailed description of the surroundings Harbin finds himself in give the novel a very visual appeal – it would be super on the big screen. I shall be looking out for the other Dard novels in the Pushkin Vertigo series. (8.5/10)
Source: Own copy from the TBR
Frédéric Dard, Bird in a cage (1961, trans 2016, Pushkin Vertigo) paperback, 128 pages.
Telepathy by Amir Tag Elsir
Translated by William Hutchins
Amir Tag Elsir is a prominent Sudanese author – and he turns out to be the nephew of the author of the only other Sudanese book I’ve read – Season of Migration to the North by Tayeb Salih (reviewed here). Telepathy is the story of an author and his latest novel:
When I wrote my latest novel, Hunger’s Hopes, in only about a month, driven by its many inspirations and multiple twists and turns, which suddenly and effortlessly revealed themselves to me, I never imagined it would bedevil me with an apparently intractable problem, that I would be pursued by the nightmare of its associations, or that despite all my efforts, I wouldn’t be able to escape.
Hunger’s Hopes is the story of Nishan Hamza Nishan, a self-taught man in his forties, who suffers from ‘seasonal schizophrenia’ for a couple of months each year, which really hampers his desire to study law. NHN is then taken ill one day and diagnosed with an incurable cancer. At the book’s launch party, the author is asked how he chooses character names, the questioner adds:
“I find that the name Nishan Hamza Nishan is a perfect fit for the hero’s character and behavior. If he were a real man, this would be his name.”
Then, one day, at a lecture a man approaches the author to sign a copy of his book – his name is Nishan Hamza Nishan. Everything that has happened to NHN in the book has sort of happened to him too – and the author is stricken, he doesn’t want this NHN to end up the same way as his fictional NHN. Did the author actually write Hunger’s Hopes? Or was it transmitted into his mind via some kind of telepathy? Is this man really NHN? Can the author change his potential demise?
In a parallel strand, the author is mentoring a young woman who aspires to become an author. Although he tolerates her, Najma’s expectations that he will make her work publishable really irritates the author. Does she expect him to ‘telepathically’ write her novel, or does she have different motives? The author gradually becomes more and more paranoid about the living thing that his writing appears to have become; he overthinks everything, overturns his own beliefs and philosophy. We have to ask ourselves, is this a kind of seasonal schizophrenia that he is also suffering from?
This kind of meta-novel was a complex read, making us think about reality versus the imagined. I didn’t particularly warm to the author in the story ; he was a little pompous and full of himself at first, and then began his descent into his own mental anguish – you could sympathise with his plight though. An interesting novel. (7/10)
Source: Own copy from the TBR
Amir Tag Elsir, Telepathy, (Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation, 2015) paperback, 168 pages.