“Ravenscrag,” a review

by Alain Farah

translated by Lazer Lederhendler

House of Anansi, 2015

“My name is Alain Farah. I ate my mother. Everything is under control.”

It’s complicated. Written by Alain Farah, Pourquoi Bologne, here translated by Lazer Lederhendler as Ravenscrag and published by House of Anansi’s Arachnide imprint, involves a writer named Alain Farah who is simultaneously living in Montreal in 1962 and 2012. (In fact, at one point there is even a further collapse of time as Farah’s mother becomes a child once again, asking for her father: “The year was 1962. For my mother, it was 1912.”) There are no markers to indicate time changes, only hints of context that make it more or less obvious that the narrative has advanced or fallen back 50 years with a change in paragraph.

“The year is 1962,” the narrator explains at one point. “I don’t know where I come from or where I’m going.” And later:

“The year is 2012 and 1962. The year is 1962 and 2012. It’s cold. Something’s not right, but what? Someone, somewhere, is controlling us.” This is the problem. But will there be answers?

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There is a long digression on Blade Runner and even the odd brachiosaur. Paranoia and the looming shadow of mysterious CIA-funded experiments are everywhere — “tying my tie would silence the voices in my head telling me my face is not my face” — and our narrator is, naturally, unreliable.

“You’ve read my books, but everything I say in them is false,” he tells a young woman at the inauguration of Place Ville Marie. “You know nothing about me other than my name.” And to add to the Russian dolls effect, Alain Farah the character goes on to tell her that he himself is writing a novel, called Nevermore (also the title of this novel’s final section). He even wishes he was a character in a novel at one point.

“I concentrate very hard on the action to grasp its hidden significance,” he confesses to the reader a little later with a nod and a wink, “but it’s no use, the meaning grows more opaque.”

The novel’s effect is indeed playful and confusing in this dreamlike narrative as nonsense sequences parade by, sentences frequently tacked on without bringing any meaning or logical flow to proceedings:

“The woman is charged with murder; her fingerprints were found on her sunglasses.”

The reader is addressed directly. Nothing particularly new there, but Farah does manage to go further than most, beyond the “It’s freezing in this office, don’t you find?” and up to the point of calling for characters so we can see them for ourselves:

“Hold on, I’ll call her again on the intercom to ask her to come by to see us, since we’re talking about her. I’m sure you’ll love her.”

It all makes for a writing style that veers from the pleasantly self-conscious to the mildly infuriating:

“I’ll cut here, before my mother’s reaction. One might say I’m leaving her off camera, but it’s actually an editing effect, to be read not as something done out of a sense of decency, but as the recognition of failure that comes whenever I write. Literature simply doesn’t measure up to life.” This fiction/reality dichotomy exploring the Alain Farah the character/Alain Farah the novelist relationship is given further depth in translation. A new layer comes not only with the translation from French into English but also Lederhendler’s rendering of dialogue in English in the original, which has been changed and tidied up in his version of the text.

Farah’s “Anyways […] something is wrong” becomes Lederhendler’s “Anyway […] something’s the matter,” for example, with “Push, Mrs. Safi, push, you are almost done” also changed to “Push, Mrs. Safi, push, you’re almost there.”

Lederhendler’s translation is every bit as good as we might expect, by the way. I had a great time of things flicking between the French and the English and seeing discrète translated as inconspicuous, chasser become shoo away, a skirt shaken subtilement in French shaken delicately in English, and even a cockamamie story crop up (une histoire tirée par les cheveux). Lederhendler does however belong to a generation of translators that still translates “Vous n’êtes pas obligé de” as “You are not obliged to” — when is the last time you heard anyone say that? — and there are a few clunky phrases here and there, like an “inciting incident” (un événément déclencheur). Lederhendler sticks close to French-sounding words whenever possible (implication in someone’s death rather than involvement, posséder is possess, participer is participate, je perçois son existence is I perceive its existence), a school of translation that I recognize to be entirely valid, although it is not one I belong to. There are even a few additions that make the English text sound more French than the original (edifice for Farah’s structure, veracity for réalité). That said, the translation certainly doesn’t detract from the reading experience, with readers more likely to be frustrated with Farah’s postmodern anti-narrative than find themselves quibbling over the occasional word choice.

The reading experience is scant on reward, but the book nevertheless provides a useful snapshot of a current of literature being published in Québec at the moment, much of it by Le Quartanier. Often dubbed “difficult” literature, it is short on plot and heavy on artifice, more often than not feeling to me at least like an exercise in style that outstays its welcome over the course of 200 pages.

“In the end I’m like you,” the narrator admits to the reader halfway through. “I don’t understand what I understand.”

It’s all very clever. Yes, it is confusing and playful. But it’s not the most satisfying read.

Review by Peter McCambridge

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