Reviewed by Lara Vergnaud
Electrico W is about fragments – of time, memory, language and relationships, which rudely brush against one another, and which don’t seem to cohere until they do. This latest work by experimental French author Hervé Le Tellier, published in France by JC Lattès in 2011, and now available in English thanks to Other Press and seasoned translator Adriana Hunter, opens with an Emily Dickinson poem – “If I can stop one heart from breaking” – and a verse by influential Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa, setting the stage for a compelling, unconventional, and ultimately unrequited love story.
That Le Tellier is writing about love is not unexpected. The Oulipo member’s last novel, Enough About Love (also translated by Hunter, Other Press, 2011), explores the diaphanous and transitory nature of relationships. But while the subject matter may seem far from groundbreaking, Le Tellier’s measured prose and structural cleverness differentiate the work from your standard literary fare.
Our narrator is Vincent Balmer, a French journalist nursing a broken heart in Lisbon, where he reunites with Antonio Flores, a photographer and former colleague. The year is 1985 and the duo are working together on a reportage on a famed serial killer, Pinheiro, whose own story unexpectedly takes a back seat to the two men’s uneasy friendship. The women in this introspective novel are ephemeral, tempestuous, and at times, whether by the author’s design or not, border on caricature. We meet Duck first, Antonio’s adolescent love, who was forced to leave home after getting pregnant. Duck provides a cohesive thread to Vincent’s narrative: he is fixated on reuniting Duck and Antonio decades after their aborted love story, although the anti-hero’s motivations are far from altruistic. Rather, Vincent is bent on destroying Antonio’s budding relationship with Irene, the ex-girlfriend who drove our narrator to leave France in the first place, and by far the least skillfully developed character in Electrico W. Whereas the siren Aurora – a young girl who sings her way to Antonio’s heart (and libido) – is a multi-faceted, if mysterious figure, Irene represents the archetypical femme fatale, all “provocative saunter” (140) and little else. Rounding out the cast of female characters is Manuela, the lesbian foil to the ham-fisted and awkward Vincent.
But where the character development stumbles – Antonio’s personage, too, falls flat, while the reader yearns to learn more about the elusive Duck, whose sole physical appearance in our narrator’s life is too brief – Le Tellier’s narrative structure shines. We’re alerted to Electrico W’s main conceit, i.e., a novel about a writer writing a novel, in the prelude:
Something unfamiliar had insinuated itself inside me. I can think of no other way of putting it: I no longer saw a thirty-year-old man in flesh and blood sitting beside me on that seat with its cracked leather, but a character, a character from a book. That same evening I made the decision to write it. I didn’t let my ignorance of the plot or framework hold me back. I had no Ariadne’s thread, I just took my big black notebook from my bag and wrote these few sentences, in the past tense, exactly as they appear here, I have left them unchanged. People will suspect some sort of imposture, a feeble writer’s strategy. (2)
Adriana Hunter tackles this contemplative technique with ease, as the book-within-a book sprawls across nine chapters couched as journal entries. (Though, it’s hard not to want a bit more experimentation from the Oulipo writer himself.) Fanciful digressions break up the narrative, the most entertaining of which – and no doubt most challenging to translate – is Aurora’s poetic violin solo-cum-soliloquy, which runs some six pages long:
now she can see him running along the street and she understands yes yes yes he could have put down roots in her life like a lily on a pond who knows whether a water lily has roots or just floats on the water like Ophelia’s corpse (191)
Further fleshing out the novel is a series of odd short stories translated by Vincent from the fictional Portuguese writer Jaime Montestrela, who appears in other Le Tellier works and fittingly has his own Wikipedia page. Hunter’s translation of these alternately grim and comical vignettes adds yet another layer of subtext to the work, not present in the original version. Further enriching Electrico W’s linguistic layers are welcome snippets of Portuguese, notably a poem by Fernando Pessoa, followed by its English translation (188), and evocative terms like carvoejadores, people “cursed by charcoal” (43) and moleque da rua, “a little black street urchin” (43).
Chock piled with obscure allusions – be they literary, mythical, or historical (i.e., an earthquake in Mexico and the death of Italian writer Italo Calvino) – it is little wonder that Hunter deemed Electrico W extremely difficult when she accepted her well-deserved Annual Translation Prize from the French-American Foundation and the Florence Gould Foundation in New York City on May 22. Not that the difficulty of the text shows. While one can easily imagine Hunter toiling over Le Tellier’s understated prose until, say, she got the description of young Aurora swirling bamboo sticks in a pond just right, the end result is seamless: “It was as if she was forming letters, writing words long forgotten by the waters but carried to us silently on the shimmering wavelets (82).” Extra kudos to Hunter, who is British, for making the work accessible to American readers (a detail highlighted by the prize’s presenter, translator Linda Coverdale).
The great success of Le Tellier’s narrative comes from the author’s ability to combine visceral imagery and emotional depth with, in Hunter’s words, a “sugar coating of intellectual ideas.” True, it’s easy to be disappointed by Electrico W’s conclusion, which wraps up the characters’ lives a little too succinctly, though, at the least, it offers the reader welcome closure via an unpredictable, not-so-happily-ever-after ending. After spending a few hours untangling the book’s deliciously intricate emotional core, beautifully rendered in Hunter’s translation, I can’t help deeming the read more than worthwhile.
Le Tellier, Hervé. Electrico W. Tr. Adriana Hunter. Other Press, Kindle Edition, 2013.