By Phoebe Weston-Evans
The following sentence is from Yves Ravey’s Alerte, an as-yet-untranslated French novel published in 1996. The story that unfolds takes the form of a warning of sorts, the alert of the title. But what exactly we are being warned about is unclear, which only augments the ambient menace. Its material reaches to the past, but its outlook is towards our very real, very concerning present, and there’s something about the unbridled energy of its form that blurs the notions of past and present and arranges them, briefly, uncomfortably, on the same plane. Ravey creates a kind of anarchic freedom through his use of serial commas. With nothing to tell the reader how to arrange the clauses, everything tumbles in together pell-mell.
Here we go, it’s a long one…
You see, when we were all gathered under these showerheads, the guards positioned themselves around us at all four corners and one of them went over to the taps, but first you have to understand that today there are about twenty of us, twenty-five to be exact, but on the day we arrived we would have numbered around one hundred under the showerheads, and, turning around, Mandrake witnessed the scene, Maurice had started to mime a guard going over to the taps and turning them on, imitating his movements from memory, indicating by a twist of his hand and arm that he was actually turning the tap on, that he was serious, that water was going to come out, that it was indeed serious back then, believe me, he seemed to be trying to say, though no sound came from his mouth, but water did come out, freezing then boiling in alternation, said Azimov, who had turned away from Maurice and was talking to the group again, freezing us then scalding us.
It’s like a runaway train, isn’t it? The unsignalled changes of narrative voice and point of view, starting with Azimov’s reported speech, moving to a third person narrator, then half jumping into Maurice’s shoes, then back to reported speech for a moment, then back to the third person, before returning finally to reported speech. The voices vie and overlap which seems to turn up the volume and density. The scene itself is so strange, not least because of the surreality of Azimov’s description of the guards terrifyingly turning on the taps being silently acted out by Maurice, and subsequently interpreted by the narrator. It’s a giddying ride and you feel like a ragdoll being dragged along through the scene. You want to close your eyes, but they’re kept peeled.
The pace increases to a kind of frenzy and the forward motion leading up to “…but water did come out, freezing then boiling…” is such that we’re ready to believe it’s happening now, that somehow the sheer force of Maurice’s mimes have summoned water to flow through the old pipes, before we’re snapped back to “…said Azimov,” bringing us back to a safer reality, the horrors put back into description of past scenes rather than the present. But they’ve already crept in, and as much as we might know we’re reading fiction, we also know that this, or scenes of its kind, happened. The warning is justified.
To move about between multiple characters and narrative voices, to change aspect so snappily and without conspicuous reader signposting isn’t new, but nevertheless it does demand sustained attention from the reader, lest you get bucked off at one of its pirouettes. We’re meant to be shaken, to feel uneasy and not be quite sure which character’s mind we’re in at each moment. Eyes and mind must be kept trained on the words as if tracking the movements of a ball in a pinball machine, bounced around, changing direction and velocity in a scattered rhythm. It’s not an easy read, but why should reading be easy?
Phoebe Weston-Evans grew up in Wales, land of the singing bard, and studied at Trinity College Dublin, La Sorbonne Paris IV and l’École Normale Supérieure. Phoebe is a doctoral candidate at the University of Melbourne and has lectured and given talks on translation theory in Australia and the UK. She lives in Melbourne and works on a range of freelance writing and translation projects. Her translation of Nobel Prize winner Patrick Modiano’s Paris Nocturne was long-listed for the 2016 PEN/Translation Prize.