The story of how Emmanuelle Pagano’s 340-page French short story collection, Un renard à mains nues, became the 128-page International Booker Prize nominated English collection Faces on the Tip of My Tongue is almost as interesting as the stories themselves. Peirene Press, the English publisher, exclusively offers books that can be read “in the same time it takes to watch a film,” so Un renard needed to be drastically shortened. Translators Sophie Lewis and Jennifer Higgins narrowed down the stories to those that best conveyed the themes, then divvied them up, translating alone before trading drafts back and forth and critiquing each other’s work.
The result is a charming, disorienting, tightly connected collection that literally does something that many a novel tries to metaphorically do: forces the reader to consider different perspectives.
“The Lake’s Favourite” and “The Jigsaw Puzzle” open the collection, and are relatively benign, but quite touching childhood stories. The mood starts to turn in “Short Cut,” a brief story of a woman who returns to her rural village to attend her cousin’s funeral. We return to this scenario, focusing on mistaken (or misrepresented) identity of the cousin, the woman’s suicide, both lead up and aftermath, from several different angles.
The other thread starts in “Blind Spots”, about a man who startles drivers by lurking on the side of the road. Why he does it, and why he eventually stops, is threaded through the rest of the collection, like one of the town’s meandering roads.
One of the strangest stories, “The Automatic Tour Guide”, can be read as a broad metaphor for the act of reading itself, the door of a shack becoming the cover of a book:
Ever since that evening, since Uncle’s funeral, Ukalo has been the automatic tour guide….Whoever’s staying in the gîte has only to open the back door any time between eight in the morning and midday, and then again from one to five, and Ukalo will begin his stories, not letting anyone reply or comment. You open the door and he talks, and to make him stop, you have to close the door.
The closing story “Glitter” similarly comments on the reading life, specifically, reading in the bath, borrowing from the library, and reading books of substance when those around you read “…sparkly books, full of obvious symbols and sweet-smelling words, books you can’t get lost in, that never really get under your skin. These are books that leave my friends tired and lethargic, that they forget as soon as they take a shower.”
Call it book snobbery, but I love this woman:
I’ve got lots of wrinkles around my eyes and mouth, from reading and laughing, and for me those wrinkles are the traces of my life, my fun. I’m alive and I read real books. Not dead books that simply submit to being read.
I love that the metaphors and flourishes in between the plot threads are centered on reading rather than writing. Fewer tortured artists and more joyful readers, please.
Faces also forces the reader to consider what it means to read a translation, a worthy subject in International Booker Prize season. I can’t claim to have read Un renard à mains nues, because the book I read has a different title, far fewer pages, a different focus. But I can’t exactly said I *haven’t* read it either. If I met someone who’d read the French, I could still talk to them about it (assuming they could speak English, or my DuoLingo lessons lead to a sudden breakthrough…)
This was a good start to my #IBP2020 reading, and an accessible one for overseas readers. Check out my guide to the prize for Canadians which should be pretty valid for Americans too.