by Claudine Dumont
translated by David Scott Hamilton
House of Anansi, 2015
Captive by Claudine Dumont, translated by David Scott Hamilton, comes with a hell of a twist. It’s a twist so big that you might want to consider stapling the last few pages together in case you accidentally read the equivalent of “The butler did it.” It’s a twist so huge that readers would be grateful upon reaching the last page to find a message from House of Anansi’s Arachnide imprint: “To read the end, please email us with ‘Spoiler alert’ in the header.” It’s a twist so game-changing that it makes the novel. It shapes our impressions of everything that came before; it’s what remains with us long after we put the book down.
But what about all that comes before the twist? It’s not bad either. Emma finds herself taken out of the world around her. She has a dead-end job and drinks to forget: “I can’t get to sleep without it. I can’t forget the empty box of my life without it.” She dreams of getting stuck inside a falling elevator. Then suddenly she wakes one night to find two men in her room, one on either side of her bed. “Dressed in black. In black masks.”
She has been snatched. Kidnapped. Taken by these mysterious intruders to an empty concrete room, swapping the falling elevator of her nightmares and the “empty box” of her life for another, all-too-real empty box. A cell. Thirst comes first. There’s no water. Then the inevitable question: “Why am I here?”
Emma is washed and groomed by her captors every night once she has passed out from the sleeping pills they drug her drinking water with. She maintains a modicum of dignity. She doesn’t have to use the bathroom except to pee. She doesn’t have to eat, just drink the water. They’ve even fitted her with an IUD.
Hours, days, weeks, months pass. “An unending string of empty moments. […] A hell in which nothing happens and nothing moves.”
Then, everything changes.
“I hear a noise. Irregular breathing. It’s not me.”
“Are you okay?” he asks. There’s a man in the cell with her: Julian, a stressed-out financial consultant, who hates his work. She resents him being there, wants to make him disappear. This is her prison, her punishment, her personal hell. What’s he doing there, restricting her freedom even more than the room’s four walls?
And so we make progress. Chapters mark the passage of time, but how much time has passed between them? One day? One week? One hour?
The reasoning is as staccato as ever, thought building upon thought, often going back to contradict itself, the repetitive vocabulary and turns of phrase perfectly bringing across the circular thinking and lack of progress that come from being trapped between four walls all day.
And then, suddenly, there is a shift in gear. The same short, staccato sentences build more quickly to create tension and breathless panic.
“Silence. There’s too much silence. He’s speaking to me. I can see that he’s yelling. I don’t hear anything. He stops. He claps his hands. I don’t hear anything. I shake my head. He brings his fingers to his ears. He shakes his head. He shows me his ears. He can’t hear a thing. I can’t hear a thing. I mouth, ‘No.’ I scream. I can feel a vibration in my throat, but I can’t hear a thing. He’s standing. He’s looking at me. He doesn’t move. He can’t move. I can’t find the strength to get up. A thousand thoughts rush through my head at an impossible speed. I feel like I’m going to implode. My fingers begin to go numb. I recognize panic. The tightening in my throat, my stomach contracting. The cold in my fingers and toes. No. I don’t want to lose consciousness. Not now.” The experiments have begun. Away from alcohol, work, friends, family, television, and everything else that tends to stand between us and life, Julian and Emma are subjected to a series of increasingly cruel and unusual tests. Why them? What is this? Some kind of twisted reality TV show? But here they are, labs rats. “Rats running around in a circle.”
All will be revealed in the end, but in the meantime, we have the writing. Dumont’s distinctive pacing and phrasing. The sparse but poetic prose as tears fall like rain. And David Scott Hamilton’s translation.
Overall, the translation is nice. Scott Hamilton doesn’t hug the French for the sake of it. “Mon estomac se contracte” becomes, for example, “My stomach clenches” rather than the more literal “contracts.” “I’m the girl who can disappear without a ripple [“sans remous”],” Emma says to herself, leaving us with a pleasant image in English. But for every “lousy pay” (paye de misère), there’s a “pertinent” question or a “When I reached the age of majority” as the English text can be a little heavy on nouns. “How long before someone notices my absence?” Emma thinks, when “before someone notices I’m gone” might have gone over more smoothly.
Similarly, “I can’t even conceive of the possibility” sounds a little strange coming out of the mouth of a young woman stuck in a dead-end job, while — and here’s the important bit — the original French sounds perfectly natural. And when “C’est une transgression si énorme de mes droits” becomes “It’s such an egregious violation of my rights,” to me at least “egregious” sounds more like David Scott Hamilton’s voice than Claudine Dumont’s or Emma’s as occasionally the translation slips into a higher, more foreign register than the French original.
Sentences like “Je ne peux pas m’habiter” are admittedly difficult to translate into natural-sounding English. Scott Hamilton’s “I can’t inhabit this body” gets the job done, but perhaps taking another step back from the French to “I can’t live in this body” would have been a bit less faithful to the original while sounding more natural in English. These are perhaps the two or three sentences per novel that literary translators — and their editors — have to spend most time on. It’s easy to let them slide by, but that’s at the risk of exposing the translation to death by a thousand cuts, each tiny slippage where the language is off being just enough to detract from the reading experience.
I am nitpicking, though. Translation is such an art, not a science, and it’s based so heavily on instinct and personal preference that it’s difficult to weigh up impartially. And who am I to judge? David Scott Hamilton does a fine job of stepping to one side and letting us enjoy Dumont’s distinctive narrative. Right up until that memorable twist at the end.
Review by Peter McCambridge