Mend the Living by Maylis de Kerangal #WITMonth

Although I’ve read reviews and seen this book appear often over the last year, and knew I really wanted to read it, I couldn’t remember what is was about or why.

It was down to a consistent feeling and feedback from readers whose views I respect, their brief tweets of encouragement igniting the flame of motivation that made me choose this as the first #WIT (Women in Translation) novel I’d read in August 2018. Yes, it is WIT Month again, now in its 5th year!

So how to describe this remarkable novel?

There’s a clue in the two versions of the English translations, (the American and British English versions have different titles and different translators). The novel was originally written in French and ironically one of the characters, a 50-year-old woman awaiting a heart transplant in a Parisian hospital, is also a translator.

The American translation (by Sam Taylor) is entitled The Heart and it is indeed a story that follows the heart of a 19-year-old youth from the moment his alarm clock rings at 5.50 a.m one morning, an hour he rarely awakes, as he sets off with two friends on a surfing mission during a rare mid-winter half-tide; over the next 24 hours until his body is meticulously prepared to be laid to rest.

He lets out a whoop as he takes his first ride, and for a period of time he touches a state of grace – its horizontal vertigo, he’s neck and neck with the world, and as though issued from it, taken into its flow – space swallows him, crushes him as it liberates him, saturates his muscular fibres, his bronchial tubes, oxygenates his blood; the wave unfolds on a blurred timeline, slow or fast it’s impossible to tell, it suspends each second one by one until it finishes pulverised, an organic, senseless mess and it’s incredible but after having been battered by pebbles in the froth at the end, Simon Limbeau turns to go straight back out again.

The British translation (by Jessica Moore) is entitled Mend the Living, broader in scope, it references the many who lie with compromised organs, who dwell in a twilight zone of half-lived lives, waiting to see if their match will come up, knowing when it does, it will likely be a sudden opportunity, to receive a healthy heart, liver, or kidney from a donor, taken violently from life.

It could also refer to those who facilitate the complex conversations and interventions, those with empathy and sensitivity who broach the subject to parents not yet able to comprehend, let alone accept what is passing – to those with proficiency, who possess a singular ambition to attain perfection in their chosen field, harvesting and transplanting organs.

Maylis de Kerangal writes snapshots of scenes that pass on this one day, entering briefly into the personal lives of those who have some kind of involvement in the event and everything that transpires connected to it, in the day that follows.

It’s like the writer wields a camera, zooming in on the context of the life of each person; the parents, separated, who will be brought together, the girlfriend confused by a long silence, the nurse waiting for a text message from last nights tryst, the female intern following in the family tradition, the Doctor who she will shadow removing thoughts of the violent passion of the woman he abandoned when his pager went off, and the one who bookends the process who listens to the questions and requests, who respects the concerns of the living and the dead, the one who sings and is heard.

Within the hospital, the I.C.U. is a separate space that takes in tangential lives, opaque comas, deaths foretold – it houses those bodies situated exactly at the point between life and death. A domain of hallways and rooms where suspense holds sway.

The translator Jessica Moore refers to her task in translating the authors work, as ‘grappling with Maylis’s labyrinthe phrases’, which can feel like what it must be like to be an amateur surfer facing the wave, trying and trying again, to find the one that fits, the wave and the rider, the words and the translator. She gives up trying to turn what the author meant into suitable phrases and leaves interpretation to the future, potential reader, us.

It is an extraordinary novel in its intricate penetration and portrayal of medical procedure, it’s obsession with language, with extending its own vocabulary, its length of phrase, as if we are riding a wave of words, of long sentences strung out across a shoreline, that end with a dumping in the shallows.

In the process of writing the book, the author’s own father had a heart attack, which put the writing on hold and sent her thinking to even greater depths:

“A few months later I was in Marseille and I wanted to understand what is a heart. I began to think about its double nature: on the one hand you have an organ in your body and on the other you have a symbol of love. From that time I started to pursue the image of a heart crossing the night from one body to another. It is a simple narrative structure but it’s open to a lot of things. I had the intuition that this book could give form to my intimate experience of death.”

This is one of those novels that unleashes the mind and sends it off in all kinds of directions, thinking about the impact events have on so many lives, the different callings people have, the incredible developments in medical science, how little we really know and yet how some do seem to know intuitively and can act in ways that restores our faith in humanity.

A deserving winner of the Wellcome Book Prize in 2017, a prize that rewards books that illuminate the human experience through its interaction with health, medicine and illness, literature engaging with science and medical themes, the book has also been made into a successful film and two stage productions.

Highly Recommended.

Interview with Maylis de KerangalWhat is a Heart? by Claire Armistead

16 thoughts on “Mend the Living by Maylis de Kerangal #WITMonth

    • I admire that you’d like to read both Fransi, I find it fascinating, the comparison between editions and recall it first when I did a read along of Alexander Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, we were asked to compare certain paragraphs and the difference was amazing, then more recently Françoise Sagan’s Bonjour Tristesse, the debate around which I mention in my review.

      Already in this novel I’m aware that the translators chose different surnames for Simon, both French names, but neither the original name.

      I can imagine they might be quite different, because the author’s vocabulary is vast! I wonder if they’ve ever got together to discuss that labyrinth of phrases they’ve both navigated?

      Liked by 1 person

      • I’m curious to see their different interpretations of the story. That’s what I love about talking about books, films, art. We all see, hear and feel something different — and, sometimes the same. I find it fascinating.

        Liked by 1 person

  1. In a strong field, this was my Book of the Year 2017, and I thought Jessica Moore’s translation was exceptional. I’d be interested to compare it with Sam Taylor’s. I thought I would drown in the first sentence, it was so very long: but it set the tone for the entire intricate and obsessive book. A book I’ll definitely re-read

    Liked by 1 person

  2. A beautiful review of an extraordinary novel, Claire. I love the way you’ve brought out the different meanings and nuances in the title, Mend the Living – that’s so true. A friend actually picked this for our book group last year, a decision which led to quite a bit of discussion about the ethical, medical and emotional factors at play in the story. It proved to an interesting one to debate.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I can imagine Jacqui, even the choice of titles made me think of that, the more clinical ‘Heart’ with it cover showing a network of veins and the alternative ‘Mend the Living’ with its ambiguity, and then the surfing of characters (excuse the pun) but it wasn’t necessary to go too deep into them to observe the things they brought to the narrative, to imagine the ethics behind it all. The significant fact which I didn’t even mention, being ‘implied consent’ if you don’t specifically say No, then Yes is implied. A scary thought, one that few ponder I’m sure.


      • A debate about consent erupts here in Australia every now and again…
        At the moment, you have to opt in (sign a form and have it registered &c), but the shortage of donor organs is always a problem and so the question of implied consent arises and there’s a flurry for a while, and then it dies down again. So the history of how implied consent comes to be the norm is actually quite an interesting one.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Beautiful review, Claire! I love the British title more 🙂 This looks like a wonderful book with deep insights. I loved what you said about the translator comparing the task of translating this book to surfing a wave and trying to find the perfect fit – so beautifully described. Somehow the long labyrinthine sentences remind me of Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog. Will add this to my TBR. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. At the time it won the Wellcome Prize I’d been put off this because I thought it would have a predominantly scientific-medical focus that I would struggle to engage with. Having read your beautiful review ( along with reading the Claire Armistead piece) I’ve had second thoughts! I’ve also never tried reading two different translations of the same book simultaneously either so am intrigued by that idea too


  5. I’ve been meaning to read this for ages. I have a longstanding interest in organ transplants (for no particular reason!), both the scientific and personal sides, so this sounds fascinating.


  6. Pingback: Women in Translation 2018 Summary #WITMonth – Word by Word

  7. Pingback: Top Reads of 2018 – Word by Word

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