Faces on the Tip of My Tongue is a book difficult to describe in one sentence. It caught my attention at its launch event in London when my thoughts dissolved into a conversation with the co-translators Sophie Lewis and Jennifer Higgins. It was presented as a book about people on the fringe of society, and being naturally drawn to stories about marginalized people (my debut novel Four Minutes explores this topic too), I couldn’t wait to start reading it.
It’s a collection of interlinked short stories but it could also be read as a novella made out of vignettes. It has a slow-moving narrative that lingers in a moment of time without the need to rush, to present a turning moment or some kind of unexpected ending. In fact, it’s that ordinariness of the events, the prolonging of the moment that helps you find pleasure in moving through the pages.
It follows the story of the residents in a French village, their seemingly ordinary lives with the occasional disappointment or a joyful event. There are hints, almost invisible to the reader’s naked eye, hidden in between the lines – subtle details interwoven in the narrative, which move the story along and hold it together at the same time. These signs are often carried by the characters themselves: people on the periphery. In these interconnected fragments, each story is told by a different character, and so, its voice is distinguished. The translation renders this chance of voice beautifully, without affecting the rhythm or pace. The co-translation process, perhaps, has allowed this distinguishing of voices in the first instance, before the translation styles amalgamating in the final homogenized text.
The English volume is much shorter that its French original. Partly, this is dictated by Peirene’s Press mission to publish books no longer that 200 pages that can be read in the same time it takes to watch a film. They pride themselves on publishing truly big stories in small packages, and this one proves it. The selection of stories was a collective effort of the writer, publisher and the two translators, organized around thematic clusters and continuation of the narratives. The English title also differs from the French. The original French title is Un Renard à mains nues, which could be translated as ‘a fox with bare hands’ – dark but beautiful and intriguing, and somehow revealing a bit too much. Cultural differences played a role in selecting the English title: one that is less open and, although still suggestive, referencing the range of characters, subtly presenting their commonalities such as the theme of mental confusion.
The book, albeit a slim volume, reveals a great complexity of characters and also an experimental style. Sometimes, the protagonist in one story is a character briefly sketched in the one before, and thus changes the point of view with each vignette. In a previous conversation with Sophie and Jennifer I mentioned that for me, this is a book of empathy. And it is because these different voices, taking stage at different times, enable the reader to see these different viewpoints – it’s only then we can fully understand the reasons behind someone else’s motives.
There is one particular sentence that stood out for me and could be seen as a metaphorical representation of the whole book. It’s from “The Loony and the Bright Spark” and it reads: “He is irreducible, he can’t be explained or understood, even if we put together all the fragments of him lingering in the memories of all the drivers.” The way the loony is discovered bit by bit by the passing drivers resembles the novella structure and the way we interpret it. The meaning is in between these separate yet linked stories, never quite within reach. We consume it in its fragmentation. But it’s not only about the experimental style; in this passage the theme of marginalization erupts, too. The loony is seen by the people driving pass him, standing always at the same spot but he remains on the margins of their vision, in their blind spot. Similarly, all stories in Faces on the Tip of my Tongue expose this blind spot in our society – where we see these people often every day, they are right before our eyes, and yet remain unnoticed.
The stories in Faces on the Tip of my Tongue might all be different – be they the loony waiting for his long passed relatives to return and standing by the road every day at the same time, waiting for them, or the girl who saved a trapped fox by killing her, for which she’s been imprisoned in therapy sessions, or the woman who takes her own life. But there are common threads in all on them: characters circling around obsessive thoughts, experiencing grief and loss are often present, as well as the surprising acts of kindness. Unaccepted and misunderstood, the characters often live alone and this physical isolation is closely linked to their emotional separation from the society they live in.
Children’s memories is another cluster that spreads across several of these stories, and often unhealed childhood trauma, trapped in the character’s mind for years, bursts on the surface later in their life. For me, this was also not accidental but carefully thought-through element in the book. Marginalized people are not living on the periphery by choice: it’s often an unintended event or a series of choices that has created the chasm between them and what’s seen by society as ‘normal life.’ Whose fault it is? – The book doesn’t ask this question and doesn’t seek answers. It reverses center and periphery by giving voice to those unheard.
Pagano, Emmanuelle. Faces on the Tip of My Tongue. Peirene Press. 2019.
Nataliya Deleva is a Bulgarian-born writer living in London. Her short fiction, novel excerpts, essays and book reviews appeared in literary journals and anthologies, such as Words Without Borders, Fence, Asymptote, Empty Mirror and Granta Bulgaria. Deleva recently completed her second novel. Twitter: @nataliedelmar.