L’arabe du futur : une jeunesse au Moyen-Orient (1978-1984) – Riad Sattouf

ata-fld-newsletter-logoI am not someone who has a natural inclination to read graphic novels. The first one I read, at the urging of a book group, was Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi. I thought it was a fascinating peek into what it was like to grow up in Iran and it made me realize that graphic novels can indeed be literary endeavors. This particular genre is a revered form of expression within Francophone culture so I am in good company. My most recent foray into the world of graphic novels was to read Riad Sattouf’s L’arabe du futur : une jeunesse au Moyen-Orient (1978-1984) by Allary Éditions, the subject of this article.

Sattouf, who has published various autobiographical and fictional works to acclaim and worked as a cartoonist for both Charlie Hebdo and Le Nouvel Observateur, was born to a French mother and Syrian father. His graphic memoir covers, as the title notes, Sattouf’s first years of life, from 1978-1984 when the family lived very briefly in Paris as well as their time in Libya and Syria, his father’s homeland.

Sattouf’s mother comes across as a sympathetic figure but is not as fully developed as the character of his father. I often marveled at her ability to put up with the rudimentary conditions in which they were forced to live and while she seemed to do so without complaint for the most part, this is not to say that Sattouf portrays her as a pushover. She is surely a product of her era and her experiences living in lands so different from France, her country of origin. At times we see her stand up for herself, her family and her European values while still being mindful of the cultures in which finds herself (Libyan and Syrian). The author’s admiration for his mother and her ability to adapt is evident in his work. Her steadfast respect for herself and her children from a European perspective make me curious to read Sattouf’s next volumes in the series (there are three in total) to see how her relationship with her strong-minded husband evolves.

This first volume of Sattouf’s memoir is as much about his father as about himself. His father is always in search of a “better” life for himself, where he will receive the “recognition he deserves.” As the story begins, Abdel, Sattouf’s father, has recently received his doctorate in history from the Sorbonne. To put it to good use, he uproots the family, leaving France to accept a low-paying, low-prestige teaching position in Libya. He is a pan-Arabist whose sometimes inconsistent philosophy of life revolves around what Sattouf portrays as Abdel’s obsession with the Arab way of life getting the respect it deserves.

While Sattouf approaches his story with humor and makes us laugh at times, his frankness about the harshness to which he was sometimes subjected as a child can make us cringe. We learn about his bicultural experience through his personal perspective. As someone who is the product of a very different bicultural lifestyle, I found this fascinating and I am anxious to read the next two volumes in his autobiographical series.

Eve Lindemuth Bodeux

Eve Lindemuth Bodeux is a French to English translator and independent project manager who lives in Denver, CO.

À Propos: Book Review – Rien ne s’oppose à la nuit

ata-fld-newsletter-logoDelphine de Vigan’s Rien ne s’oppose à la nuit (Nothing Holds Back The Night) begins with its heartbreaking end: the suicide of her mother, Lucile. With suspense set aside, de Vigan instead sets to the task of “writing her mother” by uncovering and unraveling her life in a story that is part memoir and part novel.

Lucile was one of nine children in a chaotic, spirited but close-knit family. By the age of seven, she was working as a fashion model, which garnered her attention from those within her immediate circle as well as those who recognized her from her posters throughout Paris. Doted on by so many, she claims to have “paid the price for her beauty.” Though, even as she laments the attention, she is acutely aware that her changing body prevents her from continuing the work and she must stand aside while her younger sisters take her place. As she navigates her youth and adolescence, her family suffers more than its share of tragedy, the impact of which stays with Lucile as she emerges into adulthood. As she steadily grows older, her mental state also becomes increasingly unstable with frequent episodes of mania, depression, and delusion, setting the uneven rhythm for the rest of her life. Her tenuous grasp on reality, of course, also punctuates the lives of her two daughters, who survive her mother’s vacillations, but not unscathed.

While telling of the story of her mother, de Vigan interweaves her own journey to discover her and reach her in some way that she perhaps couldn’t as a child. She culls through letters and notes written by Lucile at various points in her life and during varying degrees of lucidity; a documentary video of the family recorded by a local TV station; nearly 50 hours of audio recordings from her grandfather; and interviews with as many members of her family as are willing to participate. The second half of the book shifts in tone and in speaker as de Vigan explores her own memories and intertwines them with everyone else’s allowing the reader to become a witness to a private exploration of suffering. She is aware that telling her mother’s story is a flawed and beautifully imperfect undertaking and she seems to prefer it that way. It is, after all, not unlike her mother.

Catherine Savino

Catherine Savino is a FR-EN translator, project manager, and writer originally from Detroit and currently living in sunny San Diego.

À Propos: Book Review – La Nuit Sacrée

ata-fld-newsletter-logoLa Nuit Sacrée, by Tahar Ben Jelloun, is not for the faint of heart. The story begins, “Ce qui importe c’est la vérité,” and the author maintains this principle from beginning to end. Drawing from his experience as a professor of philosophy, the Moroccan writer takes a direct look at the issue of gender inequality from all directions. Naturally, themes of violence, jealousy, love, and hate surface quickly.

Although this is a sequel to his first major success, L’Enfant de Sable, La Nuit Sacrée can be enjoyed on its own. How could you not be drawn into a novel whose premise is a woman’s struggle with her identity after her father, who raised her as a male, dies? Particularly in a country where only men could inherit a family’s wealth, the difficulties are overwhelming and numerous.

In this case, our protagonist (formerly known as Ahmed) leaves home. She never really receives a new name, which forces you to consider the character as simply a person, rather than belonging to a particular gender camp. Although she refers to herself as a woman, she is unlike any of the women around her. She struggles with the various types of captivity femaleness brings, after what could only be described as a childhood of imprisonment within a lie. Ben Jelloun does not flinch from this conundrum, and the protagonist seems to emerge from everything stronger than your average person.

Dream-like situations and dream scenes recur often, building the emotional environment brilliantly. After such a bouleversement of one’s identity, anyone would feel as if they were in a dream (or nightmare). Scenes from reality interrupt introspection with petty fights, jealousy, and acts of senseless violence, adding to the sense of ungrounded confusion. Sometimes the real violence is so severe as to be unreal. But the protagonist embraces every experience as something previously out of her reach, saying, “Je n’avais pas envie de fuir, ni meme de résister… Je n’étais pas indifférente. J’étais curieuse.

For all the darkness and chaos, La Nuit Sacrée is a compelling and magical tale. Everyone can relate to the struggles in some way—for who has never had an identity crisis? As you read through the harsh realities, you are pulled along, forced to practice a difficult characteristic: courage. By the last page, you will feel as if you’ve accomplished something important. You will have persevered alongside the protagonist. You will have prevailed.

Carolyn Yohn

Carolyn Yohn translates French and Hungarian legal and academic texts into English from her office in Northern California.

À Propos: Memories of The Lover

ata-fld-newsletter-logoHave you ever had a lover?  Have you ever been a lover?  Or, perhaps a better question, is there someone who is the love(r) of your life?  Have you ever lived or dreamed a love so beautiful, so real, that it could not have possibly existed?  Are you haunted by memories of what was or what could have been?   Some nights, maybe only in your dreams, does that become your reality?  Do you wonder what love really is?  What it looks like?  How it smells?  How it feels?  Reading L’Amant (The Lover) by Marguerite Duras brings up these questions and more.  Written in 1984 and winner of the Prix Goncourt, France’s most prestigious literary prize, The Lover skyrocketed the already well-known Duras to international acclaim.  Its theme of forbidden but powerful love continues to resonate with readers today.

The Lover is the story of a poor, white, 15-year-old French girl living in French-colonized Indochina (present-day Vietnam) in the early 20th century. She falls in love—or, if you don’t believe it’s love, has a torrid physical affair with—a rich, 27-year-old Chinese man.  China’s colonization over Vietnam has been shattered by the French, and those people remaining are permitted to stay, in part because of their wealth or contributions.  These two broken and resilient people come from vastly different worlds.  They could never connect.  Yet, here she is, alone.  He’s intrigued, she’s amazing.  Nothing could possibly come of this.  Or could it?

Could such a love be real?  Could a poor little abused white girl in colonized Vietnam really fall in love with an older, rich and powerful rich Chinese man?  Could he love her?  Is this just a form of prostitution? After all, he gives her money to give her family, and he enjoys a sexual relationship with his would-be colonizer, reversing, challenging, and twisting traditional roles of race, power, and gender. (This is a generalization, but traditionally, the Chinese were, and perhaps still are, hated by the Vietnamese.)

It is the story of love, yes, but also of survival and death: the girl survives her father’s death, an abusive family, the death of her beloved brother, and more.  And she loves.  She loves her French roommate at boarding school.  She loves her brother.  And then there is her lover.  Our protagonists have no names, which creates a kind of slippage, allowing the reader to enter the text in a way.  The open language, lapses, white spaces, and wide margins (in traditionally type-set editions) allow those who have been marginalized, those with no voices, to enter and speak.  In fact, Duras’s writing style, characterized as l’écriture feminine by noted French feminist Hélène Cixous, creates a cloud-like world where time loses meaning.

The language is deceptively simple.  The narrative, however, does not follow a linear train of thought.  Instead, the story weaves around an aged narrator whose face has been ravaged by time and alcoholism and who reminisces about her “true” self and the infinite incarnations of that self throughout her life.  The text invites the reader into her world.  We are there when her brother dies, when her best friend leaves to get married, when she is excited about school, when she remembers her mother singing.  It is fuzzy at first, and the reader is disoriented.  But let it go.  Go with it.  Let it wash over you like the waves along the Mekong.  Imagine the bustle and smells of the Cholen, the section of Saigon known as Chinatown.  Feel the warm sun and the cool shade of the lovers’ love nest.  You will be taken on an incredible journey into a world that explores the very nature of memory, love, power, betrayal, and reconciliation.

Truth is somewhat elusive in this powerful text.  In some interviews, Duras claimed the text was autobiographical, but the text is classified as a work of fiction.  There are contradictions in the text that always bother my students, but to me, these differences explore the concept of memory, how it changes, and how it works against us as time passes.  Our cherished memories lose part of their reality as we write them, rewrite them, and replay them in our attempts to relive them and hold on to them.  The truth is lost.  We can feel it slipping away sometimes, causing us to hold on tighter.  We attempt another revision or ignore any disparities until there is no longer an outside perspective.  We look in the mirror and no longer see the adult we have become; only we can still see the young girl or boy, perhaps naïve and ignorant in their world view but worldly all the same and ready to embark on an adventure.download film Walk with Me 2017 now

The narrator looks in the mirror and sees not the woman withered from age and trauma but her true self, herself at fifteen and a half.  I can too see this girl boldly crossing the Mekong on a ferry wearing her threadbare hand-me-down silk dress, a man’s pink fedora, her brother’s belt, and gold lamé high-heeled shoes.  The wind is blowing her braided hair.  Her face is warmed by the hot Vietnamese sun as water splashes against the boat.  Then she notices the black limousine, hiding the silhouette of a delicate Chinese man.

Their story is one that I recommend you read.  Be prepared for confusion, twists, and challenges.  Be prepared to have your memory stimulated.  Your past loves and lovers may come to mind as you navigate this beautiful and tragic world.  The text haunts me, in the best ways.  The last few pages, especially the last paragraph, always give me shivers.  My students do always not understand; most have not been or had lovers.  They have not been all-consumed.  They still like the text but they wonder.  They have questions.  As someone with some experience in life, I have some answers.  My answer is yes.

Gay Rawson

Dr. Gay Rawson is a professor of French with over 20 years of teaching, translating and interpreting experience.  Twentieth-century French literature is one of her many passions.

À Propos: Book Review – Le Livre des Baltimore


Je regarde regulièrement « La grande librairie », l’émission de François Busnel sur TV5 Monde. Ce journaliste invite des écrivains qui viennent de sortir un livre, de gagner le Prix Goncourt, etc. J’avais donc déjà vu Joël Dicker parler de son dernier roman, qui m’avait semblé intéressant.

Apparemment, Dicker est devenu une célébrité après avoir publié son premier roman (« La vérité sur l’affaire Harry Quebert »), paru en 2012. Ce grand succès en librairie, alors que son auteur n’avait que 27 ans, avait fait l’admiration de tout le monde. Peut-être pas tout le monde cependant, car dans Le Monde des livres, Eric Chevillard donne un avis non edulcoré à propos de Joël Dicker :
« L’ombre de Philip Roth plane au-dessus de cette laborieuse entreprise romanesque. Joël Dicker croit réécrire Pastorale américaine (Gallimard, 1999), mais il nous donne plutôt un nouvel épisode du Club des cinq honorablement troussé. »

J’ai la chance d’avoir une très bonne amie française qui me prête toutes sortes de livres. On échange des bouquins tout le temps. Nous sommes toutes les deux des lectrices toujours avides de bonnes lectures et constamment en quête de nouveautés dont nous espèrons nous régaler. Elle m´a donné cette fois, non pas le premier roman de Joël Dicker, mais Le Livre des Baltimore, paru l’année dernière. Je n’en attendais pas trop car je prefère les livres français qui me parlent de la France et de ce qui se pase en France, plutôt que la lecture d’un écrivain suisse francophone écrivant sur la Nouvelle Angleterre et l’Amérique. Pour cela, je prefère des Américains comme Jonathan Franzen ou Jeffrey Eugenides, ou même John Fante, qui est un grand écrivain.

Mais Joël Dicker a vécu et étudié aux États-Unis et connaît bien les endroits dont il parle dans son roman. Il est capable de créer un roman crédible qui est une espèce de polar. Ce n’est pas un « roman de plage », comme les trilogies de Katherine Pancol. Joël Dicker, lui, cultive le « Thriller ».

Grande a été ma surprise parce que l’histoire est vraiment intéressante et que Dicker sait très bien maintenir le suspense jusqu’à la fin. J’adore les livres qu´on a du mal à laisser de côté avant de s’endormir le soir. Celui-là en fait partie. J´ai donc décidé de chercher son premier bouquin et de le lire aussi.

J’ai toujours une longue liste de livres à lire, cela me permet notamment de maintenir mon niveau dans les langues que je connais. Je trouve que la lecture aide beaucoup à ne jamais perdre de vue la beauté et la saveur des mots. Le travail quotidien de la traduction de textes techniques arides et sans âme tétanise un peu nos sens. Parfois, j’ai même besoin d’un peu de poésie, mais pour cela, je lis en espagnol. D’autres fois, je copie et je collectionne des lignes particulièrement belles qui m’ont fait chaud au cœur et que je ne veux jamais oublier. La bonne lecture est très enrichissante, on traduit mieux, on découvre de nouveaux mondes, des modes de vie, des moeurs différents, etc. Le livre est une fenêtre ouverte sur les complexités intérieures et extérieures de la vie des gens. Mais je digresse.

Joël Dicker raconte une histoire de famille, en particulier le lien entre les cousins avec lesquels le protagoniste a fondé le « Gang des Goldman ». Au fil des flashbacks, le roman se construit autour d’un mystérieux « drame », qui forme le cœur de l’histoire. Des « twists and turns », il y en a beaucoup.

Il y a eu un bref échange sur la page Facebook de l’ATA French Division en ce qui concerne le style d’écriture de Dicker. J’ai vu des commentaires sur son « American feel ». Quelques-uns pensent que son français semble avoir été traduit de l’anglais. Je crois que Dicker est un auteur multilingue, comme beaucoup de Suisses, d’ailleurs. Peut-être que cela exerce une certaine influence linguistique sur son écriture, c’est possible. Ce n’est peut-être pas de la grande litérature, mais c’est incontestablement une lecture agréable et vivante, je dirais même dynamique.

Anamaria Argandona

Anamaria Argandona is an English & French into Spanish translator. She can be found on Twitter at @translates or www.spanishtrans.com.