REVIEW by Willard Manus
the best comic novel Ive read in ages, a laugh-maker from start
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. Wed
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 butchers, for example: How bout we
go grab a bag of cement next door?
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 didnt keep the sisters from enjoying their
childhood, thanks to their skill at organizing war games in which all
the town kidsthe 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.
Garretas 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 narrators 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...
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 authors
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.