18 January 16 | Chad W. Post

This week’s Best Translated Book Award post is by Kate Garber, bookseller at 192 Books. 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.

I have yet to find a review of Apocalypse Baby by Virginie Despentes (translated by Siân Reynolds) that even mentions what I think is the most important formal element of the novel—without which a whole series of both criticisms and praise that it receives are entirely moot. Of course it deserves both criticism and praise, but I’m pretty sure that those who ignore this key for interpretation are simply reviewing a novel that doesn’t exist.

Fair warning: what follows will include (or will, in fact, focus on) spoilers; also will probably be totally uninteresting if you haven’t read the book, so go read it first.

I’m going to quote the very last page of the novel, which should almost be enough, just saying, hey, why are you guys ignoring this? You’ll recall that this final portion is Lucie’s voice, after everything has happened and she is out in the middle of nowhere, psychologically recovering.

Valentine did what she judged she had to do. Like everyone. I often think of all the things I should have said to her, and I listen to what she might have replied. I have told myself the story so often that in the end I’ve put together what I really know, inventing scenes that I didn’t see, to make the story stand up, the way I imagine it happened. It was when the narrative started to get going that I began to feel better. Gradually, I’ve come back to life. One day, I realized that I’d been awake for several hours and hadn’t yet thought about Valentine. I felt like Noah at the moment the dove comes back with a little olive branch in its beak. The truth I’ll never know. What remains is the story I’m telling myself, in a way that suits me, a story I can be satisfied with.

In these final sentences, we discover that Apocalypse Baby is not just a novel written by Virginie Despentes; it is a novel by the protagonist, Lucie. It is the story she tells herself to help her recover and survive.

Although this really changes everything, so many elements that I could write a whole series of posts, it is mostly important for negating the most common criticism I hear. There’s this frequent gripe that the big twist—where Valentine blows up a building shortly after Lucie and the Hyena bring her back to Paris—comes out of nowhere. It doesn’t appear well-founded enough. Or, . . . the motivation for her extreme actions seemed deeply unconvincing. Or, . . . the enormity of the twist is unsupported and unprepared for — after which statement, this review contrasts Despentes’ “twist” to a comment made by Gillian Flynn that “thriller-writers must be ‘fair’ to their readers, passing on enough information to allow them to solve the puzzle (while also making damn sure that they’re thrown completely off course).” Or, Apocalypse Baby’s bombastic climax is poorly developed and so carries little emotional weight.

I’d be happy to criticize certain elements of the novel, but in no way should it be criticized for this particular success. Remember what this is: It is a post-traumatic personal narrative, a very intentional retelling of events to appease Lucie’s psychological trauma. So, obviously, the explosion-twist had to “come out of nowhere.” Lucie was specifically given the responsibility of finding and returning Valentine; if she didn’t find a way for her story to remind her that there is no way she could have known what Valentine would do, then it would be a different novel. A third-person detective novel would give hints—but this is a first-person work of narrative therapy, in which even the ostensibly third-person sections are just scenes which Lucie has imagined.

Seeing this as essential is not just the sort of theoretical nitpicking that would make for an easy and fun college essay. Ignoring this twist in perspective is basically like ignoring the fact that Bruce Willis was dead the whole time. There’s really no point to the book without it.

Once this is acknowledged, a whole slew of things become much more interesting. The various genres that pop up to shade different scenes. The question of why the protagonist is the most boring character. The nagging feeling that the section about Valentine’s Arab cousins is uncomfortably degrading, possibly racist. Every page takes on a different meaning. It is not a snapshot of various socio-economic groups in contemporary France, as presented from Virginie Despentes’ supposed fictional realism; it is an expression of the way that the post-traumatized brain can view everything differently. This is also supported by Despentes’ preoccupations in her films and writings. If Valentine’s destructive action were the author’s primary focus, we would have seen much more of her psychological build up. But in this novel, her focus is the undeserved but unavoidable feelings of guilt which women can feel, but which they can also survive by the telling of stories. What could be a more reasonable interpretation in light of her other work?

The primary critique I’d make is that I wish Despentes had found some way to make us feel unease about narrative perspective throughout the book. For example, if we were questioning the narrator’s identity in the third-person sections (brilliantly done in Jan Kjærstad’s trilogy, The Seducer, The Conqueror, and The Discoverer), or if there were multiple levels of perspective going on (brilliantly done in Hanya Yanagihara’s The People in the Trees, which is a diary by the protagonist “edited” by an unknown character whose edits usually contradict the general reader’s opinions about the diary).

Regardless, I recommend printing out the text on the last page of Apocalypse Baby, taping it onto the cover so you don’t forget, and re-reading the novel. It will be a much more satisfying experience.


Comments are disabled for this article.
....
A Greater Music
A Greater Music by Bae Suah
Reviewed by Pierce Alquist

A Greater Music is the first in a line of steady and much-anticipated releases by Bae Suah from key indie presses (this one published by Open Letter). Building off of the interest of 2016 Best Translated Book Award longlist nominee. . .

Read More >

Two Lost Souls: on "Revulsion" and "Cabo De Gata"
Two Lost Souls: on "Revulsion" and "Cabo De Gata" by Horacio Castellanos Moya; Eugen Ruge
Reviewed by Tim Lebeau

The dislocation of individuals from the countries of their birth has long been a common theme in contemporary literature. These two short novels recently translated into English appear firmly rooted in this tradition of ex-pat literature, but their authors eschew. . .

Read More >

Melancholy
Melancholy by László Földényi
Reviewed by Jason Newport

In Melancholy, Hungarian author, critic, and art theorist László Földényi presents a panorama of more than two thousand years of Western historical and cultural perspectives on the human condition known as melancholia. In nine chapters, Földényi contrasts the hero worship. . .

Read More >

The Hatred of Music
The Hatred of Music by Pascal Quignard
Reviewed by Jeanne Bonner

Pascal Quignard’s __The Hatred of Music_ is the densest, most arcane, most complex book I’ve read in ages. It’s also a book that covers a topic so basic, so universal—almost primordial—that just about any reader will be perversely thrilled by. . .

Read More >

Fragile Travelers
Fragile Travelers by Jovanka Živanović
Reviewed by Damian Kelleher

In Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, Flaubert attempted to highlight the ordinary, tired, and often crass nature of common expressions by italicising them within the text. When Charles, Emma Bovary’s mediocre husband, expresses himself in a manner akin to that of. . .

Read More >

Nineteen Ways of Looking at Wang Wei
Nineteen Ways of Looking at Wang Wei by Eliot Weinberger
Reviewed by Russell Guilbault

Eliot Weinberger takes big strides across literary history in his genuinely breathtaking short work, 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei, tracking translations of a short ancient Chinese poem from the publication of Ezra Pound’s Cathay in 1915 to Gary. . .

Read More >

Radio: Wireless Poem in Thirteen Messages
Radio: Wireless Poem in Thirteen Messages by Kyn Taniya
Reviewed by Vincent Francone

Prose translators will likely disagree, but I believe translating poetry requires a significant level of talent, a commitment to the text, and near mania, all of which suggests that the undertaking is the greatest possible challenge. The task is to. . .

Read More >

The Subsidiary
The Subsidiary by Matías Celedón
Reviewed by Vincent Francone

The biggest issues with books like The Subsidiary often have to do with their underpinnings—when we learn that Georges Perec wrote La Disparition without once using the letter E, we are impressed. Imagine such a task! It takes a high. . .

Read More >

Thus Bad Begins
Thus Bad Begins by Javier Marías
Reviewed by Kristel Thornell

Following The Infatuations, Javier Marías’s latest novel seems, like those that have preceded it, an experiment to test fiction’s capacity to mesmerize with sombre-sexy atmospheres and ruminative elongated sentences stretched across windowless walls of paragraphs. Thus Bad Begins offers his. . .

Read More >

Death by Water
Death by Water by Kenzaburo Oe
Reviewed by Will Eells

Death by Water, Kenzaburo Oe’s latest novel to be translated into English, practically begs you to read it as autobiography. Like The Changeling, as well as many other works not yet released in English, Death by Water is narrated in. . .

Read More >