"A Raskolnikoff" by Emmanuel Bove [BTBA 2016]

This week’s Best Translated Book Award post is from Jason Grunebaum, senior lecturer at the University of Chicago, and translator from the Hindi. For more information on the BTBA, “like” our Facebook page and follow us on Twitter. And check back here each week for a new post by one of the judges.

When November turns to December, and foreboding over sinking temperatures and greying Midwestern skies is followed by a fear of even colder, starker days to come, suddenly and possibly forever, and when this fear leads one’s thoughts to turn further inward, toward self-absorption, toward the soul, to questions of pride and guilt, joy and innocence, and choices that make life worth living, or not, one could do far worse in raveling and unraveling these questions than taking a night walk through snowy, moody Paris with the impulsive, talkative Changarnier, his co-walker Violette, encountering with them along the way a little man, a police captain, a witness to a murder, and confessed confessions, both real and imaginary, for crimes, equally fuzzy whether true, against self and others, all courtesy of Emmanuel Bove’s 1932 novella A Raskolnikoff, translated by Mitchell Abidor, with an introduction by Brian Evenson, and published by Red Dust.

Changarnier is a lonely man with worn shoes living in a squalid room who’s visited one evening by Violette, frail and dressed in a ragged, dyed rabbit coat. He berates her for her wretchedness one moment, and idealizes her the very next, proclaims his love, asks for her faith in him. She takes both pronouncements in stride, and accedes to his suggestion for fresh air out in the open. The oxygen activates his brain:

[That] boundlessness above the city’s limits, above human order and constructions, seemed to him to be a spectacle, a spectacle that contrasted with the world in which he found himself. He understood that there was an immensity which he was not part of, that no one was part of, and since no one was part of it, he understood that beneath the magnificent sky, on this overpopulated earth, it belonged to whoever knew how to get by. For a brief moment he saw himself to be a brother of the happy, of the unhappy, of the rich, of the ill. He resembled all these men, and this feeling gave him a shiver of joy. But it seemed to him that all these people had reasoned the same way before he did, and that was why they had been able to seize a portion of the happiness of this world while he hadn’t been able to.

“Walk faster,” he said to Violette, who was struggling behind him.

“But where are we going?” she asked, for she was getting tired of being outside.

“I don’t know. We’re walking straight ahead with the hope that something will happen to us.

These micro-reversals of the mind in quick succession are the sparks that keep the novella’s pace lively, and are emblematic of the “some things” that soon do indeed happen to the two. A stop in a café leads to discussion of possibly joining the Foreign Legion, possibly becoming an usherette in a theatre, maybe saving payday money for splurges on restaurants and hotel beds and cigarettes.

A carelessly broken glass prompts an altercation with the café owner, a tense exit from the café, and the expansion of the duo to a triad with the entrance of the Little Man, witness of everything, who offers classified information about the true identity of the café owner. (Changarnier is nonplussed; Violette is upset). The Little Man decides to tag along.

Soon Changarnier is upset, and imagines killing the Little Man, who refuses to get lost. His upset quickly transforms into a fantasy of homicide. At the dream trial for the dream killing, Changarnier recounts in horror as the court sides with the dead Little Man. “In this dream, death didn’t prevent him from being real. On the contrary, it made him look like a victim, a martyr, and consequently he attracted everyone’s sympathy and protection.”

The Little Man soon confesses to the crime of uxoricide, which he got away with but has forever trapped him. “I’m aware that I will remain miserable for the rest of my life. No joy will ever warm my heart. No happiness is accessible to me. I’m not capable of attaining the only one that’s reserved to me, that of expiation. What’s left for me? Repentance.”

The two shake the Little Man, but Changarnier must repent, too, for a heinous crime he insists he committed. Violetta is baffled. Now possessed with the goal of turning himself over the authorities, Changarnier happily walks into a crowd of cops on the lookout at that moment for someone guilty of something.

He is hauled in, but not without a fight. The final section of the novella describes a cat-and-mouse interrogation down at the station, with Changarnier claiming his struggle was because he wanted to give himself up. “I tried to flee in order to run to you, to turn myself in,” he insists. The police captain is not amused.

What makes this novella so delightful is the feeling that Notes from the Underground and Crime and Punishment have been distilled to a 104-page novella: the character unpredictability and looking-glass morality, detail-driven mood and quickly shifting intrigue.

Perhaps this was the very challenge Emmanuel Bove gave himself. Doubtless he wrote the book in winter, the very season you ought to pick it up, too.

[Note from Chad: If you’re interested in Bove, you should also check out _Henri Duchemin and His Shadows, which came out in July from NYRB.]

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