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.
....
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 >

Twenty-One Cardinals
Twenty-One Cardinals by Jocelyne Saucier
Reviewed by Natalya Tausanovitch

Jocelyne Saucier’s Twenty-One Cardinals is about the type of unique, indestructible, and often tragic loyalty only found in families. For a brief but stunningly mesmerizing 169 pages, Twenty-One Cardinals invited me in to the haunting and intimate world of the. . .

Read More >

One of Us Is Sleeping
One of Us Is Sleeping by Josefine Klougart
Reviewed by Jeremy Garber

We know so very little; so little that what we think to be knowledge is hardly worth reckoning with at all; instead we ought to settle for being pleasantly surprised if, on the edge of things, against all expectations, our. . .

Read More >

Bye Bye Blondie
Bye Bye Blondie by Virginie Despentes
Reviewed by Emma Ramadan

Many of Virginie Despentes’s books revolve around the same central idea: “To be born a woman [is] the worst fate in practically every society.” But this message is nearly always packaged in easy-to-read books that fill you with the pleasure. . .

Read More >

La Superba
La Superba by Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer
Reviewed by Anna Alden

Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer’s La Superba is appropriately titled after the Italian city of Genoa, where, after escaping the pressures of fame in his own country, the semi-autobiographical narrator finds himself cataloguing the experiences of its mesmerizing inhabitants with the intention. . .

Read More >

Intervenir/Intervene
Intervenir/Intervene by Dolores Dorantes; Rodrigo Flores Sánchez
Reviewed by Vincent Francone

It took reading 44 pages of Intervenir/Intervene before I began to get a sense of what Dolores Dorantes and Rodrigo Flores Sánchez were up to. Recurring throughout these 44 pages—throughout the entire book—are shovels, shovel smacks to the face, lobelias—aha!. . .

Read More >

All Days Are Night
All Days Are Night by Peter Stamm
Reviewed by Lori Feathers

As presaged by its title, contradiction is the theme of Peter Stamm’s novel, All Days Are Night. Gillian, a well-known television personality, remains unknowable to herself. And Hubert, a frustrated artist and Gillian’s lover, creates art through the process of. . .

Read More >

The Seven Good Years
The Seven Good Years by Etgar Keret
Reviewed by Vincent Francone

It’s a rare and wonderful book that begins and ends with violence and humor. At the start of Etgar Keret’s The Seven Good Years, Keret is in a hospital waiting for the birth of his first child while nurses, in. . .

Read More >

Human Acts
Human Acts by Han Kang
Reviewed by J.C. Sutcliffe

Last year, Han Kang’s The Vegetarian was an unexpected critical hit. Now, it’s just been published in the U.S. and has already received a great deal of positive critical attention. The Vegetarian was a bold book to attempt as an. . .

Read More >

Nowhere to Be Found
Nowhere to Be Found by Bae Suah
Reviewed by Pierce Alquist

It’s been almost a year since the publication of Nowhere to Be Found by Bae Suah, but despite being included on the 2015 PEN Translation award longlist, and some pretty vocal support from key indie presses, the book has. . .

Read More >