The One Onboard the Trans-Siberian Railway

Maylis de Kerangal, Tangente vers l’Est (French 2012)

I was determined, for once, not to let years pass before I took another Kerangal novel. After all, if I declare my love and admiration for her work, her books should bump many others on my TBR list, shouldn’t they? So when I saw this short book at the library, I jumped on it and finished it in (almost) one sitting, which is awfully rare for me.

It’s more of a novella than a novel anyway, but I was immediately sucked into Kerangal’s special style, her long sentences and inventive choice of words. The setting of the story is the Trans-Siberian Railway, this famous train line that connects Moscow to Siberia by way of Lake Baikal and many small cities in Far-Eastern Russia. The train is really a main character: we hardly leave it from page one to the end of the line, with its slow pace, days of boredom for passengers who travel for a whole week, its iconic samovar for hot water, its nasty toilets, its stops in stations where peddlers try to sell food to the passengers. Kerangal actually made the trip herself and the book was created from her experience.

As I lived in Asia, the Trans-Siberian Railway exerted its magic aura on many expats. Some French expats with no pressing business to attend to chose to return home after their stint in Asia by taking the Beijing-to-Moscow Trans-Mandchurian Railway, a variation of the Trans-Siberian. I envied them, but I’m not sure I would have been patient enough to make such a long and slow trip.

In the novella, two unlikely people meet by chance in the train. A French woman has just left her Russian lover and runs away from him, taking the opportunity to reflect on their relationship and the reasons why she came to Russia with him. A young man, almost a boy, is a conscript and the train is taking him to his military base, but he doesn’t want to go and tries to desert. Their chance encounter will impact both lives and brings a real tension in the book (I won’t spoil it here, but I hope it gets translated into English!)

Kerangal’s style is really addictive, and I can’t wait to start another one!

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The One with the Beating Heart

Maylis de Kerangal, Reparer les vivants (2014, English title: The Heart / Mend the Living)

Oh, how could this happen? I grumble, sigh and moan about all those books that weren’t great exactly, but when I finally read a great one, I forget to post about it? That’s exactly what happened with The Heart, which I finished in London, back in February! After Pawel Huelle’s stories, here is another post about a book that should not be forgotten.

After presenting my apologies to the book, its author and you all readers, I finally remember what stopped me from writing a post. After reading the Bridge back in 2011, I became an instant fan of Maylis de Kerangal, her unique style, her special literary project of fictional non-fiction, so I knew I would love The Heart.

And I sure did. I finished the book within two days (it was the holidays, after all). But why is it so difficult to explain why I did love it? It’s a collective book, so there’s not one main character, just dozen of them. The style is also very particular to Kerangal. Long, meandering sentences that often take the whole page or more. It’s not for everybody, but I happen to l-o-v-e it. It’s very inspiring, and then in the same breath, I know that I won’t ever be able to write as well as she does. (and I’m alright with it)

This book is about a heart. Young Simon is 21 and dies in a stupid car accident. But his young, healthy, precious heart can be saved to be transplanted to another person. Will his grief-stricken parents agree to the organ donation? Will everyone in hospitals across France be ready for the delicate intervention? Who will get Simon’s heart? Who will take care of Simon’s heart at every step of this process? It’s literally a question of life and death (no pun here) and the plot, although linear, is full of suspense.

More than the plot itself, the structure of the book is interesting, where the movement of death and the movement of life cross each other without fully extinguishing the other. Not only do we feel for the characters, all of them in their uniqueness and individuality: we learn (left-brain) about the surgeon’s secret dreams, the mother’s past, the nurse’s lover, the coordinator’s passion for music.  But we also learn (right-brain) about what it takes for a transplant to work and how organ donation is organized in France. All the way, the language adds beauty and depth, and helps the reader follow the fast pace of the book, that replicates the pace of a beating heart.

Exceptional.

Maylis de Kerangal, Naissance d’un Pont (2010)

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.