Would you dream of reading a book about bridge engineering ? Well, not me. Yet, I have found myself engrossed by this French novel (Birth of a Bridge, not translated so far) whose main character is a bridge.
Coca is a small fictional American town on the banks of a large river that runs deep into the jungle. It has a rickety old bridge to the poorer neighborhood right across and a mayor full of ambition. Awed by Dubai’s gigantic towers, Coca’s mayor decides to launch a huge international project for a bridge (reminiscent of San Francisco Golden Gate Bridge), that will establish Coca as one of those big, thriving, international cities.
The novel is as simple and as ambitious as that: to show how thousands of people put their ingenuity, intelligence, physical strength, hopes and emotions into a huge human project. It speaks not only of money and power, of the technicalities of designing a suspension bridge, of the subtle art of making concrete and, but also on the people who intermingle in Coca, from the site foreman to the odd female engineer, the crane operator or the lowly truck driver.
The novel has more than a dozen of main characters, who have all converged to Coca as soon as the invitation to tender was won, from China, Siberia, French suburbs, to get a job in this project. The building site changes the dynamic of the town, attracting petty criminals and prostitutes, offering new business opportunities, closing down others (barges for example), endangering the traditional way of life of Indian tribes who live upstream, disturbing the birds’ nesting period, and generating pollution. Kerangal takes everything in, good or bad. Every character has something to prove, some old score to settle, a past to escape, a future to build, a family to feed. All of them contribute to the bridge, all of them essential in their own way.
The writing is hypnotic and sensual like a poem, and quite innovative in French. It is at times sober and harsh, at times epic as if Kerangal was not only describing one bridge, but the destiny of contemporary people: it certainly shows how globalization is a wonderful and awful thing at the same time. It celebrates human enterprise and energy, its capacity to harness natural forces of earth and water, but doesn’t avoid its potentially harmful, violent and dangerous implications.