Turmoils of war, turmoils of translation. Book review: All the light we cannot see, by Anthony Doerr

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I found this in a cafe, somewhere in Western Nepal. It amazes me, sometimes, how books that were published not so long ago can travel fast – it seems almost faster than people – but of course they were brought here and read here by people, and that is another bewitching thought: the previous lives of books we read… Well, I stumbled upon this one and read it almost in a single setting (had to, as I couldn’t take it with me, but I suspect it would have been the case even if it was mine).

It has been much talked about, but for those who don’t know, this is about a young blind girl, Marie-Laure, who flees Paris with her father to go to St-Malo, towards the end of the second World War, and about a young german boy, who grows up in Nazi Germany fascinated by science and radios. Chapter after chapter, one about the girl, one about the boy, everything builds towards their meeting, during the final siege of St-Malo by the allies, and it that aspect it is rather predictable, but it didn’t bothered me that much. It is quite an easy read, with a flowing rythm. I was somewhat disappointed in the simplicity of the characters, I thought they seemed rather quickly sketched: a loving father, a loving uncle, a despicable “collabo”, a bullied boy, etc.. I would have liked to be surprised by one of them. The same goes for the plot, just slightly too predictable for my taste, but I’m really being difficult here, and it is a very enjoyable book alltogether, maybe the huge “Winner of the Pulitzer prize” sticker on it and all the people raving about it raised my expectations too high (always blame the hype:)

The one thing that disturbed me, that is not really a critic of the book itself, rather a strange realization on my part, is the use of french language in this book: thoughout the book, the chapters in France are filled with french sentences, mostly basic ones like “bonjour” and “ma chérie”, and it’s probably because it is my native language that I found this artificial: somehow it broke the illusion for me, instead of, what I suspect it aimed at, increasing its realism. There is not a single word in german, despite the fact that the other half of the book is about german-speaking characters, so maybe that is partly what made it so strange, but I suspect I would have found it artificial even if there had been a few “guten Morgen” here and there.
The sentences used in french were alltogether correct, so it is not that that makes it artificial, but it breaks the flow of the dialogue, and somehow  having a french character who occasionally speaks french and the rest of the time english is less believable to me than a french character constantly speeking in english. I wonder if someone else – frenchspeaking or not – felt the same way.
The other disturbing feeling (well, rather agreably spooky than disturbing) was reading Jules Verne translated into English. I read all of Jules Verne’s books when I was 11 or 12, simply because my father had a collection of books by Alexandre Dumas and Jules Verne at home, that he received every year for his birthday and for christmas, for I suppose a decade, judging by the number of books. They were splending gold, white and red hardbacks, and, at the end of the month when I had read all the books I had borrowed from the library, I read those over and over again, like Marie-Laure in the novel, and like I read everything at that time: compulsively. But I haven’t read any Jules Verne since then, I think, and it was very strange to see those sentences again, translated in english. My brain had an immediate “that’s not right” response, and I found I could quote some of it in french by heart, some 13 years after reading it. Well, what can I say, once a bookworm…

Quotes: first sentence: “At dusk they pour from the sky.”

“Every hour, she thinks, someone for whom the war was memory falls out of the world”

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