Category Archives: French Translations

Year of the Rabbit by Tian Veasna. Translated from the French by Helge Dascher.

Year of the Rabbit by Tian Veasna Title: Year of the Rabbit
Author: Tian Veasna
Translated from the French by Helge Dascher
Publisher: Drawn and Quarterly
ISBN: 978-1770463769
Genre: Graphic Memoir
Pages: 380
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

History is witness to totalitarian regimes. Regimes that are autocratic, xenophobic, paranoid, and highly regressive. Khmer Rouge was one such regime that ruled Cambodia between 1975 and 1979. They murdered hundreds of thousands of their perceived opponents, and also tortured and killed citizens, under the pretext of creating a better world, where everyone was equal. The Cambodian genocide led to the death of 1.5 to 2 million people in that time period.

Life under the regime was tough. Everything was out of bounds – culture, art, schools, hospitals, banking, and currency. What ruled the roost was agriculture. The ruling body was called the Angkar, which took all major decisions.

“Year of the Rabbit” is a story of a family in the times of Khmer Rouge. Tian Veasna was born just three days after the Rouge takeover in Cambodia, and this book is the story of his family journeying from Phnom Penh in the hope of freedom.

The book is universal in its theme of freedom and what it means to live under a regime that has no empathy or humanity. Isn’t this what is being seen throughout the world right now? Even after decades of autocrats being and behaving in a manner that is harmful to the state, yet no one learns. The same mistakes are repeated. But, back to the book.

Despite all this, there were times I smiled through the book because Veasna also shows us the compassion of humans. Of how his family and relatives were treated with kindness by some along the way, and how at the same time, they lost some family. “Year of the Rabbit” shows us how horror becomes the everyday living, the routine, and that is scary enough. It shows us both sides – of blind faith in a person or organization, and at the same time the sparks of hope that things will get better.

The drawings are clear and precise. The stories are told from various family members’ perspectives, so you might tend to get lost sometimes, but the family tree given at the beginning is handy.

1975 Cambodia till 1979 Cambodia wasn’t an easy place to live in. I haven’t read much about that time in reference to the place and what happened. I had heard of Khmer Rouge but didn’t know enough. I am glad this book was published and brought these stories to light. Read “Year of the Rabbit”. You won’t be disappointed at all.

Why Read? by Charles Dantzig. Translated from the French by Renuka George

Why Read by Charles DantzigTitle: Why Read?
Author: Charles Dantzig
Translated from the French by Renuka George
Publisher: Yoda Press
ISBN: 978-9382579564
Genre: Books about Books, Bibliophilia
Pages: 206
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 stars

Why does one read? Why does anyone read at all? What is the purpose and point of it all? Is it a pointless activity? Does it add to our knowledge or does it enhance us as people? If we think about the other spectrum, then why do writers write? What is the point of it all?

Charles Dantzig was a revelation to me this month. Thanks to Yoda Press for publishing him in English and sending me a copy of delightful essays penned by him, answering the one elusive question in various ways: Why Read? I love books about books, books about reading, books about readers and writers, and writing in general. Why Read? is a book that will stay with me for a long time to come.

Dantzig is hilarious. He is real, and therefore oh so relatable. There are about seventy-odd essays in the book and each of them ponders about the pleasures, woes, ill-effects (you must have to embrace his humour as well), joys, complexities, and sometimes also the pains of reading. Dantzig’s world is all about books and that is seen most clearly, as you turn the pages. Whether he is speaking of his childhood reads, or how people read to show off (just too funny), how reading is a tattoo, the joys of marginalia, reading on the beach (what and how), every essay shines. Well, most of them at least.

Renuka George’s translation is perfect. She lets some French reside in the book so it doesn’t feel too translated (if there is something like that). The book is honest in the sense that Dantzig just says it the way it is, almost in most parts not romanticising the act of reading. While I did not agree with him when it came to those portions, I certainly felt that it made sense and rightly so. At the same time, there is a sense of solidarity when it comes to readers and books about books that speak to them.

Reading Why Read? is almost like hearing a friend speak about books, authors, and readers. Why Read? is comforting, hilarious, makes you think about what you want to read next, makes you also want to pick up a book on an unknown impulse, but above all it cements the relationship we have with books, authors, and reading stronger and does so with great joy and splendour.

The Cracks in Our Armour by Anna Gavalda. Translated from the French by Alison Anderson

The Cracks in Our Armour Title: The Cracks in Our Armour
Author: Anna Gavalda
Translated from the French by Alison Anderson
Publisher: Europa Editions
ISBN: 978-1787701632
Genre: Short Stories
Pages: 192
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 stars

I love short stories. A good short story is as good as a novel. Sometimes even better. Of course, some may think otherwise, but this is just my opinion. And to see one of my favourite writers venture into the short-story territory was a joy and she didn’t disappoint at all. The Cracks in Our Armour is a collection of stories that is right up her alley and completely what is expected from a writer of her calibre.

I will start right away with the translation. Alison Anderson by far is one of my favourite French translators. From the Elegance of the Hedgehog to Pétronille by Amélie Nothomb, her translation prowess is on point and she brings her very best game to The Cracks in Our Armour as well.

This collection of short stories, seven of them, are all told in first person. These stories are about everyday people – who show their vulnerabilities and admit their weaknesses. There is nothing new about the characters that Gavalda introduces us to – not new to her regular readers. For instance, her trademark elements of loneliness and despair starts from the very first story and continues till the very last one. From a trucker who decides to put his dog to sleep to an alcoholic widow trying to make sense of the world, Gavalda infuses the day-to-day nature of living in her characters in big doses. They are just like you and I, and hence the connect.

Gavalda’s stories are extremely quaint in their appeal – in terms of perhaps how people behave, feel, and think, and yet set in urban places. This then places a sort of bigger burden so to say in terms of writing and connecting. I loved how people in her stories find unique solutions to modern problems of love, dating, friendship, and marriage. Her characters maybe a gloomy bunch and forever stuck in the zone of low self-esteem, but they are also full of life – even while mourning the loss of a loved one. This to me is the power of Gavalda’s writing that makes you connect so much to the characters and place.

All said and done, The Cracks in Our Armour is a collection of stories that speak to the heart in all its simplicity, complexity, and the understanding of love and empathy that makes you see the world from a larger perspective of kindness and a whole lot of heart.

 

The Years by Annie Ernaux. Translated from the French by Alison L. Strayer

The Years by Annie Ernaux Title: The Years
Author: Annie Ernaux
Translated from the French by Alison L. Strayer
Publisher: Fitzcarraldo Editions
ISBN: 978-1910695784
Genre: Biographies, Memoirs, Women Writers, French Literature, French History
Pages: 240
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 stars

The Years by Annie Ernaux caught my eye when it was long-listed for the Man Booker International Prize 2019. I am on the shadow panel of the prize and have till now read 11/13 long-listed books. This one for sure is on my personal shortlist. Why you ask? Here’s why.

The Years is considered to be Ernaux’s finest work and rightly so. It is a narrative of the period 1941 to 2006 and all of this is told through events – historic and personal, impressions – past and present, and through culture, habits, books, art, music, movies, and above all people. It could be termed as meta-novel but it is so much more according to me. It is a woman’s experience growing up in tumultuous years. It is an experience of history, the world at large, and memory of a woman in a time that stays and mostly does not.

The Years captures so much. It is political and individual. It is Proust-like, only to find a voice of its own. It is full of lists (which I love) and long passages of what happened where and when, what food was cooked and what did it smell or taste like, what mode of transportation was taken, and whose heart was broken. Not to forget the lucid translation from the French by Alison L. Strayer. It isn’t easy to capture emotion and translate that to perfect sentences the way Strayer manages.

The Years is a book that deserves to be savoured and not rushed into. You need to take your time with it. You need to nurture it. Its fluidity, grace, and by that extension all heart is very rare to find in books. So when you do, you hang on to it and cherish the writing. Time, place, and memory beautifully merge in this gem of a book.

Lost Time: Lectures on Proust in a Soviet Prison Camp by Józef Czapski. Translated from the French by Eric Karpeles

Lost Time by Józef Czapski Title: Lost Time: Lectures on Proust in a Soviet Prison Camp
Author: Józef Czapski
Translated from the French by Eric Karpeles
Publisher: NYRB Classics
ISBN: 978-1681372587
Genre: Literary Speeches, Historical Narrative
Pages: 128
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 stars

Off-late, I have been reading a lot about memory and the passage of time and that has happened quite organically. There is no planned reading list around it. It just happened by the by and one of those books happened to be Lost Time: Lectures on Proust in a Soviet Camp by Józef Czapski.

The concept of suffering isn’t new to humans. We have been suffering one way or the other – in one situation or the other for decades and centuries. Of course, a certain group of people suffer more at any given point, but again that’s not the point here. The point is resilience in the face of suffering, in the face of the unknown, to not have any idea of what will happen to you. What do you do then?

Lost Time is a book of lectures given by Czapski when he was a prisoner of war during the Second World War in a Soviet camp, as the title suggests. We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live, said Joan Didion in The White Album and it couldn’t be truer. Don’t we all at some level tell stories in order to survive? Whether it is merely surviving the mundane day after day or when we are caught in an extraordinary situation like Scheherazade’s?

These lectures brought Proust’s In Search of Lost Time to life for prison inmates. This slim volume is a collection of some of those lectures that Czapski gave, depending solely on memory (so befitting to Proust) – sketching characters, places, and time, thereby evoking so many emotions on the spectrum within the inmates. Also, it is so strange to be talking of Proust in a prison camp – the volumes of aristocracy, elegance, and grace – only to prove that Proust can be felt by all.

At the same time, what I love about this book is that it is an easy read. Czapski made Proust accessible – and perhaps may even encourage you to read Proust once you are done reading Lost Time. You don’t need to read it first. Also, Proust in Gulag – does it seem to say a lot about the human condition and how we are as a species? Czapski’s love for the master is evident – through every speech – he merges Proust’s life with the six volumes and that to me is magnificent. I just wish this book were longer. I wish there were more speeches. A definite must-read. For Proust lovers and the non-lovers as well.