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.
Interview with Maylis de Kerangal – What is a Heart? by Claire Armistead