The Heart by Maylis de Kerangal (Réparer les vivants, 2014) translated from the French by Sam Taylor FSG (2016) published in the UK and Canada as Mend the Living, in a translation by Jessica Moore 242 pp
Yesterday I reviewed one of my favorite books of the Man Booker International Prize longlist, Marie NDiaye’s Ladivine, which did not make the shortlist. Today I’m reviewing my other favorite book on the Man Booker Prize International Longlist, Maylis de Kerangal’s The Heart, which also did not make the shortlist! I should note that I did not read the translation that was nominated, because this is one of those relatively rare cases where the United States and the rest of the English-speaking world have different translations of the same book coming out within a year of each other. The Heart is a translation by Sam Taylor; Mend the Living is a translation by Jessica Moore. Over at the Mookse GoodReads group, Paul has looked at some of the differences and the reasoning the translators have stated for their approaches (see here). Since it’s the only version I read, I’ll be focusing only on Sam Taylor’s translation below.
When I read the premise of the novel, I had no faith in it (so I’ll hold off for a moment before I share the premise), but the book won me over immediately through its wonderful writing, which was interesting to follow — the first sentence is a bit of a labyrinth that pays off beautifully — and which really explored the characters as they found themselves in situations that are terrifying to imagine if you yourself have never lived through them and painful to articulate if you have.
De Kerangal’s approach here is to look at the many things that make a human being tick, the physical heart being just one of them while also acing as a metaphor for so much more.
Now, for the premise: The book takes us through a painful, yet hopeful, twenty-four-hour period. Before dawn, the young Simon Limbre has gone surfing with his friends. Tragically, he is killed in a motor vehicle accident, but his heart is functional and thus this tragedy may just allow someone else to live.
I know. As important and complex as that process really is in the lives of countless human beings the world over, so often it is handled with a sentimental flourish, trying to teach us a lesson in compassion or something. But de Kerangal’s approach is to explore the nuances underlying the situation through a style of writing that feels urgent, forcing the reader to confront a torrent of emotions in a short period of time . . . time is running out, after all.
To introduce that torrent, as well as her humane approach, here is how she starts the book:
The thing about Simon Libres’s heart, this human heart, is that, since the moment of his birth, when its rhythm accelerated, as did the other hearts around it, in celebration of the event, the thing is, that this heart, which made him jump, vomit, grow, dance lightly like a feather or weigh heavy as a stone, which made him dizzy with exhilaration and made him melt with love, which filtered, recorded, archived — the black box of a twenty-year-old body — the thing is that nobody really knows it; only a moving image created by ultrasound could echo its sound and shape, could make visible the joy that dilates it and the sadness that tightens it; only the paper trace of an electrocardiogram, set in motion at the very beginning, could draw the shape, describe the exertion, the quickening emotion, the prodigious energy needed to contract almost a hundred thousand times a day, to pump nearly ten pints of blood every minute, yes, only that graph could tell a story, by outlining the life of ebbs and flows, of gates and valves, a life of beats — for, while Simon Libres’s heart, this human heart, is too much even for the machines, no one could claim to really know it, and that night, that starless and bone-splittingly cold night on the estuary and in the Pays de Caux, as a lightless swell rolled all along the cliffs, as the continental shelf retreated, revealing its geological bands, there could be heard the regular rhythm of a resting organ, a muscle that was slowly recharging, a pulse of probably less than fifty beats per minute, and a cell-phone alarm went off at the foot of a narrow bed, the echo of a sonar signal translated into luminescent digits on the touchscreen — 05:50 — and suddenly everything raced out of control.
That is a long, complex sentence that functions as the entire first section of the book. In it, through the imagery of a heart, we see the joy at Simon’s birth, the active child he grew to be, the intricacies of his experiences as he grew to become the twenty year old who will die this morning. It’s remarkable; it’s filled with sentiment and never sentimental. It’s charge into the day, its thrust that compels us to read on even if we didn’t quite catch how that last line relates to the line that preceded it, fits perfectly with the thrust of time, particularly on a day when an irreversible tragedy happens.
De Kerangal does not continue to write in this single sentence dash through the entire book. She is focused on the rhythm of her sentences as she is with the rhythm of this day. But the narrative does move forward at a pace that had me gripping the book’s cover like I was racing a car.
When Marianne, Simon’s mother, is called to the hospital, de Kerangal pushes us through the many details that she notices in her numbed state that is looking for some distraction from the horror she knows she’s about to encounter. This continues through the day after she’s met with the doctor about Simon:
Don’t close your eyes. Listen to the music. Count the bottles above the bar. Observe the shapes of glasses. Read the posters on the wall. “Où subsiste encore ton écho.” Send out decoys, divert the coming violence. She builds a dam against the flood of images of Simon that roll over her in waves, like a bombing raid, tries to push them back, to beat them back, even though she’s already organizing them in her mind, nineteen years of memories, a vast mast. Keep all of that at arm’s length. The memories that flashed through her while she was talking about Simon in Révol’s cubbyhole of an office lodged in her chest with a pain she is powerless to control or reduce. For that, she would have to situate the memory in her brain and inject some numbing fluid into that precise spot, the needle of the syringe aimed by computer, but even then that would only paralyze the driving force — the capacity to remember — because the memory itself fills her entire body, though Marianne doesn’t know this. “J’ai fait la saison dans cette boîte crânienne.”
While examining the human story — the absolutely deadening pain of the parents, the sorrow of the radiologists, the caution of the surgeons who understand the tragedy but who feel hope, the elation of the person who will be given a second chance — de Kerangal is also focused on human experience, as it rests in the heart, from which we often cannot retrieve it with words. Communication and words, then, are an important aspect of this story. De Kerangal describes the language of doctors, a “language that banishes the verbose as a waste of time, exiles eloquence and the seduction of words,” in stark contrast to the language of the book. Here is de Kerangal describing a doctor’s work:
One hour later, death clears its throat, knocks politely on the door, a moving stain, irregularly shaped, opacifying a clearer, larger shape: yes, there it is, that’s death. An abrupt vision, like a hard slap in the face, but Révol does not blink, concentrating on the body-scan pictures that appear on his computer screen: labyrinthine images, each with a key, like a map, that he has to rotate in every direction, zoom into, on which he must make reference points and measure distances, while close by on his desk lies a hospital-branded cardboard folder containing a paper printout of “relevant” images provided by the Radiology Department that scanned Simon Limbres’ brain.
And with that we get a great sense of the beauty of human experience and how it translates to the human.