More reading

Fred Vargas, Pars vite et reviens tard. À lire.

Now for some reading material that’s more commonly considered escapist: mystery novels.

First I have to make a shameful admission: I knew that Fred Vargas is a woman, but didn’t pick up on the fact that she is French. English first name + Spanish last name = American, in my heuristics. I therefore put off looking at her books until my next foray into one of the better English-language book stores.

I corrected my error, and have just finished reading Pars vite et reviens tard. An excellent book, much closer to Frances Fyfield in the use of metaphor, recurrent phrases and psychology (but with more straightforward plotting) than the Léo Mallets and Daniel Pennacs the foreign reviewers compare her to.#[1]

There is a mediocre review in the Guardian (the reviewer likes the book, but I’m not sure he or she has read it very thoroughly), another one at Tangled Web, and one that tells too much of the story and misspells the name of one of the main characters.

The English title, Have Mercy on Us All, sounds slightly strange to me. I’ll return to this later since this means uncovering a bit of the story. If you want to discover the book for yourselves, you can stop reading in time.

The book offers other translation matters that piqued my interest. One is about how to describe a symbol that is central to the story and depicted on the book cover here (image file).

The first passage describing the mark (twice) goes as follows:

Maryse [a witness] s’appliqua à représenter un grand quatre fermé, en typographie d’imprimerie, au trait plein, à la base pattée comme une croix de Malte, et portant deux barres sur son retour.

– Voilà, dit Maryse.

– Vous l’avez fait à l’envers, dit doucement Adamsberg [the detective]en reprenant son calepin.

– C’est parce qu’il est à l’envers. Il est à l’envers, large au pied, avec ces deux petites barres au bout.

So the mark looks like a number 4, but an uncommon one. À l’envers clearly means flipped left to right here. Otherwise, it could mean upside-down (as the Guardian reviewer wrongly writes). For “the world is turned upside-down”, eg, French uses “le monde [est] à l’envers“. But in the case of an upside-down symbol, I think (but am not quite sure), that French would prefer renversé.

The other reviews employ “backwards looking figure ‘4s’” and “reversed 4s”. In any case, the book cover is helpful (the French like the English version).

We also find the delightful use of an eggcorn to link and characterise the two central protagonists#[2]. The eggcorn’s “original” is a bit of French legalese, a noun (post-)modifier, y afférant. The English translation of this is thereto relating, like in The Inquiry Committee shall receive a copy of the grievance form together with all documentation thereto relating taken from here.

One of the protagonists, the police commissaire#[3] Adamsberg, has just transferred to a homicide unit. He reflects on what lies behind him: dealing with housebreaking, theft, etc. and the inevitable paperwork, “les kilos de papiers y afférants”.

Earlier in the novel, we meet Joss Le Guern, a former sailor who has reinvented himself as a town crier. He uses a home-made letterbox to collect the messages he reads out three times a day on a public square. On this letterbox, he has painted a list of “prices and other conditions” y affairantes. The bit of legal language has stuck with him from a brush with the law that has turned his life upside-down (or flipped it left to right). Having heard it a lot of times during his trial, he obviously believes it to derive from affaire, meaning “business”, or “matter” in general#[4], like the affaire that brought him before a court.

Last, there is the matter of the title I mentioned above. Its literal translation is “Leave swiftly and come back late”. As the plot unfolds, we learn [and this is why I left some spoiler space] that the letters CLT that are left, signature-like, next to the number-four shaped graffiti, come from the Latin phrase Cito, longe, tarde (”fast, far, late”), the long version of which is Cito, longe fugeas, et tarde redeas, ie “Flee fast and far away, and come back late”. This, in turn, is a traditional piece of advice given when the plague threatened.#[5] And yes, the plague is very significant. Why was a suitable translation not good enough for the book title? The German version managed, with “Fliehe weit und schnell”.

[1]: Do reviewers always have to go on about “the atmosphere of Paris”, or of “the 14th arrondissement of Paris”? What hidden nostalgia lies behind this tendency? Vargas isn’t particularly concerned with local colour. Sure, the novel is set in Paris, recognisably so. Sure, a particular neighbourhood the history of which holds some degree of significance, and which happens to be located at the north-western edge of the 14th arrondissement, is the scene of much of the action. But its characterisation, brilliant as it is, draws more on the grotesque than on what the real Paris is like.

[2]: Note to self: I really need to start writing about French eggcorns in French.

[3]: Yet another translation problem. If I understand British police ranks correctly, a Commissioner would be a bit above a French commissaire. The equivalent might be a Detective (Chief) Inspector. As for corresponding US ranks, this translation would take too much liberty with the particular setting of the novel. Using one of these terms would clash as much as when French translations use ANPE for another country’s unemployment office. Which, unfortunately, sometimes happens.

[4]: But not “love affair”, which is liaison or aventure.

[5]: I couldn’t find out since when exactly (there was one attribution to Hippocrates, but I’m far from sure), but at least since Latin was commonly used for treatises about the plague.

1 comment(s) for 'More reading'

  1. (Comment, 2004-12-18 20:15 )
    #1 — edda

    danke für den Lesetip! 22 h brauchte ich (einschl. 4 h ‘Orestie’ in Regensburg + Essen + Schlafen brauchte ich, um ihn zu ‘fressen’ - in D ist er Krimi des Jahres - egal, ich bewundere die Schilderung dieser aktiven Frauen - die Männer liefern Wissen + Psychologie - ich finde das stark für eine 47-jährige Historikerin - Hut ab!