Wednesday, February 11, 2015

What I Read: La Petite Bijou

This review is for you, international/polyglot readers/bookish trend watchers! Patrick Modiano's 2014 Nobel Prize win (hopefully) means that some of his lesser-known works are going to get English translations, but as of this review, there is no English translation. I read it in Swedish for a class assignment, and so the following review is based on that translation. I hope to get a copy of it in the original French, soon, to see if my opinion changes any.

Also, I'm totally cheating and presenting an English language version of my Swedish homework assignment. Deal with it.

When you read a book in a foreign language, it feels like a gauzy veil between yourself and a theater performance. You can hear voices, see silhouettes, and maybe understand the entire story, but it lacks nuance: meaningful gazes, facial expressions, and other subtle details disappear. Details that can make the difference between an "okay" story and one that's amazing.

Likewise, you're removed from a story when you read a translation. Different languages have different finesses, even when they're more or less similar. When Voltaire wrote, "Mais il faut cultiver notre jardin," at the end of Candide, how should that be translated. "But we must cultivate our garden."? "But our garden needs to be tended."? How can you translate the precise expression "il faut" from French to [English] and retain the same meaning, the same tone? So you can say that when you read a translation of a story, you're not really reading the story, but a translation of the story.

So when I say that I've read Patrick Modiano's "La Petite Bijou," I mean that I've read a translation through a veil, twice removed from the original. It can be debated if I actually have read the novel, but that's something else entirely.

In a sentence, "La Petite Bijou" is about a few days—maybe weeks—in the life of a young Frenchwoman in Paris, Thérèse. She works as a nanny, meets a guy and a girl, and sees a woman who looks like her negligent, dead mother. That is, without spoilers, almost everything that happens in the story. Of course there's more in a novel than "what happened" and it becomes crystal clear that "La Petite Bijou" isn't a story, but a portrait. Of Thérèse, obviously, but also of Paris, and Parisians, and maybe an entire French generation: lost and alone, with a strong desire to be heard. Understood. Recognized. It's a portrait that Modiano paints with relatively few words, light as a haiku. His style is graceful, executed with an almost surgical precision. I absolutely appreciate Modiano's technique and recognize an impressive talent.

However, I have to admit that I feel a little cheated. (Spoilers!!) The novel ends in a hospital after an overdose: Thérèse wakes up in the premature infant unit, metaphorically newborn but also metaphorically unready and weak. But such an ending only works if we have an idea of what will happen next, how Thérèse will conduct herself in the future, and Modiano is incredibly stingy with clues. Will she try to meet her mother ("her mother")? Will she take le bac and enroll in the school for Oriental languages? Were those actual, important goals that she had, or were they only passing fantasies? Does she have a future in front of her, or will she continue her descent into madness? We don't know. We can only guess, and therefore it feels like an incomplete portrait.

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