In Concrete

BOOK REVIEW by Willard Manus

It’s the best comic novel I’ve read in ages, a laugh-maker from start to finish.
IN CONCRETE is the work of Anne F. Garreta, a French novelist whose day job is Research Professor of Literature and Romance at Duke University. Garreta is also a member of Oulipo, an association of madcap French writers. Her first novel, “Sphinx,” told a love story set in nightclubs and cabarets without disclosing the name or gender of the protagonist.

Garreta is equally outrageous this time around. IN CONCRETE is narrated by an unnamed 12-year-old girl who is bawdy, irreverent and rebellious. She makes Holden Caulfield seem like an altar boy.

She has a younger sister, Angelique, whom she calls Poulette because she has a black hen for a pet, and a father who fails at everything he tries but is never discouraged. Think M. Hulot on steroids.

When the latter is given a birthday present of a red concrete mixer with a 2-HP electric motor, chaos follows. The family begins to pour concrete whenever and wherever it can, on an industrial scale. “We’d concrete every weekend in the countryside, even some of summer vacation too. Every time we drove to town for groceries, our father would say, coming out of the butcher’s, for example: ‘How’ bout we go grab a bag of cement next door?’”

By book’s end the hapless father has botched every concrete job he attempted, such as pouring a slab on the earth floor of an inherited farmhouse. By the time he and his girls cleared out the “underlayment,” they nearly suffocated from the dust, debris and vermin. And with no water available, they had to wash up by spitting on each other.
The family dysfunction didn’t keep the sisters from enjoying their childhood, thanks to their skill at organizing war games in which all the town kids–the “neighborhood bumpkins”--took part. Wearing costumes and helmets scrounged from attics and basements, they re-created long, bloody battles from the age of King Henry II. “It was a beautiful spectacle,” our heroine says gleefully, “an onslaught of bicycles, rakes and pitchfork handles.”

Garreta’s loving portrait of anarchic childhood is made even more striking by her playful and dazzling use of language. As her translator Emma Ramadan confides, “the trickiest part of translating IN CONCRETE was capturing the narrator’s voice, because it is in fact a multiplicity of voices, a language bath.”

She adds, “Most painfully and most satisfyingly, there are the plays on words. The never-ending plays on words. The infinitely expanding and interlooping plays on words...The puns, jokes, French idioms, sexual innuendos, scatological innuendos, homoerotic innuendos...”

Ramadan concludes: “Even when translating experimental, intricate texts whose wit and charm relies heavily on the mechanics of the language they were originally written in, there are always solutions in translations, there are always ways to bring the spirit, voice, sharpness and hilarity of the author’s text into a new language. But it requires calling on different methods, breaking different linguistic rules, inventing different comedic patterns, pulling ourselves back from the brink of defeat and finding new ways of peering into our own language to tease out all of its potential.”