Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Douglas Messerli | Transport of Love (a review of Jacques Poulin's Translation Is a Love Affair)

Douglas Messerli
Transport of Love

Jacques Poulin Translation Is a Love Affair, translated from the French by Sheila Fischman (Brooklyn: Archipelago Books, 2009)

Marine, the translator-narrator of Jacques Poulin's 2006 novel, appearing in English as Translation Is a Love Affair, is a young woman living on Île d'Orléans near Quebec City in Canada. In the city itself lives an aging writer, Jack Waterman, whose work Marine is currently translating. The two work seperately, but Waterman regularly visits her on weekends, enjoying the natural setting of herons, deer, foxes, and other wild animals as a sedative for his health.

Despite the disparity of their ages, the two seemingly get along well—they are, afterall, through their names, fluid figures—both living in worlds of their own making, and together they have entered into a sort of friendly relationship that might be described as an innocent love. Throughout this poetic fiction, indeed, the two share their pleasure in fiction and poetry.

In the midst of this domestic ritual, Marine discovers a black cat at her door, threatened by her own pet cat, Chaloupe. She adopts the stray, but not before making a few inquiries at the town adjacent to Vieux-Québec, discovering that a young girl has seen the cat delivered up by a woman in a taxi. A short while later, Marine undoes the cat's collar to which finds a note attached: My name is Famine. I am on the road because my mistress can no longer take care of me...," the remaining words seemingly erased.

When the young translator shares this information with her author friend, he confirms her own feelings, that the message is not only a statement about the cat but, in some subtle way, a cry for help. And at this point in the otherwise realist tale, Poulin begins to spin another fable-like tale, beginning with Marine's attempt to recover the rest of the message, possibly written with lemon juice so that it would fade, by heating it with a match. The scap of paper predictably catches fire, but not before revealing the missing words: "or of herself."

Like a strange mystery tale another plot begins to unfold. Through a local detective, a former police officer, Marine is able to track down the address of the original cat owner, living in a three-story building in the vicinity of Waterman's apartment. The author checks the building out, only to find that it is internally locked. However, again with the help of detective, the couple film the vague figures who occassionally come to the terrace, discovering the inhabits to be an older woman who looks like a witch and a young girl with bandaged hands.

Throughout the telling of this mystery story, the more mundane stories of the translator and author, of the translator's past (including the deaths of her sister and mother), and the couple's literary experiences are interwoven into a somewhat outrageous plot, as the two witness a late-night fight between the girl and witch, ending in an apparent suicide of the older woman and breakdown of the young girl, Limoilou.

Unabashedly, they follow the ambulance to the hospital, asking about the condition of Limoilou, and a few weeks later, after having a conversation with the welfare worker, they accompany Famine, the cat, on visit to the girl, suggesting that she may want to come live with Marine and spend some time with Waterman as well. Limoilou, ultimately choses to do that, and at book's end, we see girl entranced by the herons at water's edge, with Marine summarzing her "earthly paradise": "I wouldn't have been surprised to see the red fox or even the doe with her fashion model ankles come trotting down the dirt road to join the processionof the girl and the two cats."

It's a lovely fantasy, of course, but it is hard to perceive this tale as anything but just that, a fantasy. I don't know how things like child welfare are handled in Québec, but I have my doubts that the orphan would have so quickly handed over to a woman who describes her own person as someone living just for herself and to an elderly man, not her husband, who throughout the book is abstracted from life. That Limoulou should even be allowed to make this decision on her own seems rather unlikely. Both the translator and author revel in their independence, a various times admitting to purposely ignoring rules and regulations (Waterman, for instance, refuses to take his heart medicine), which suggests they may have little ability to properly look after a somewhat troubled child.

Moreover, if we are to believe that this rather passively inacted mystery is at the heart of the fiction, what are the various literary speculations, the narrator's own struggle with her past, and their separate confrontations with the surrounding world doing in the same book? It's almost as if Poulin has been telling us two or three different tales, not all of them congruent with the others.

Only if we understand the little mystery of the girl with "bandaged hands," as a work of art created between the two, through the intellectualized love between author and translator, does the work as a whole make any sense. These creative forces have brought this little girl with the lost cat to life, have transformed (another kind of "translation") a figure who cannot fend for herself (Limoilou has bandaged hands) into a metaphoric being that serves both their literal needs. In a sense, they have birthed, not through a sexual act but through their imaginations, a being which temporarily fulfills what they are missing in their lives. In that sense, Limoulou becomes one with the mythic-like creatures inhabiting Marine's estate, becomes one with the herons, the fox, the doe, the cats, and retired race horses to which Marine speaks, a beautiful apparition of happiness. Perhaps the story of Waterman's which she has been translating is the story of Limoulou and her struggle with the wicked witch, which may be the last of Waterman's fictions.

As Poulin quotes Albert Bensoussan, in the prologue to this book: "In the final analysis, it really is about a couple, and the matter under discussion is love. Yes, we are talking about translation, which is defined first of all as a transport. Transport of language or transport of love."

Los Angeles, October 26, 2009

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