Thursday, September 21, 2006


There is a certain aptness to reading Nicole Brossard’s 1987 novel Le Désert mauve in translation: Mauve Desert, which was recently returned to print by Coach House Books, is superbly rendered by Susanne de Lotbinière-Harwood. It’s a high-risk endeavor for any translator, since one key dimension of this novel is the presumption that it is itself “translated” as well as “written.” Indeed, what we have here is a Borges-like project – a tale of just 36 or so pages that we are told is Mauve Desert as written, presumably in English, by one Laure Angstelle. This is followed by a meditation on translation itself, a section called “A Book to Translate,” which in turn includes other sections on Places and Things, Characters – one is a photo essay of sorts – Scenes, and Dimensions, a further meditation on translation¹ and finally Mauve, the Horizon, as translated by Maude Laures, which reads a great deal just like the original. Here is a three-paragraph passage from the second chapter of Mauve Desert:

Here in the desert, fear is precise. Never an obstacle. Fear is real, is nothing like anguish. It is as necessary as a day of work well done. It is localized, familiar and inspires no fantasies. Here there are only wind, thorns, snakes, wolf-spiders, beasts, skeletons: the soil’s very nature.

At the Motel though, fear is diffuse. televised like a rape, a murder, a fit of insanity. It torments the mind’s gullible side, obstructs dreams, bruises the soul’s trouble.

I was fifteen and I’m talking about fear, for fear, one thinks about it only after the fact. Precise fear is beautiful. Perhaps it is possible after all to fantasize fear like a blind spot producing a craving for eternity, like a hollow imaginary moment leaving in the pit of the stomach a powerful sensation, a renewed effect of ardor.

Here is the same passage 156 pages later in Brossard’s book, as “translated” in Mauve, the Horizon:

In the desert fear is exact, well-proportioned, wears no mask. It is useful, precise, does a good job. Fear, here, is frequented like a natural history. It is exceptionally succinct, a few illustrations: beaks, fangs, stingers, forked tongue.

At the Motel though, fear frightens. On the screen as in thought, it fragments bodies, assassinates daily. Fear sniffs boredom and sends chills down the back. Fear insists, amplifies the torment of living, permutates certitude and farfetched stories in the brain.

I was 15 and I’m talking about fear still for it always takes me by surprise. But exact fear is beautiful. Every night it can be seen wandering, strong remnant of eternity in the petrified forest. Yes, exact fear kindles the plexus and plaits strange suns in the eyes.

In addition, each chapter of the twin works operates in two parts – one very factual passage concerning a crazed scientist – the Los Alamos testing ground is referenced on numerous occasions – named Longman in the original and in the photo essay, O’blongman in the “translation,” then a longer section recounting events from the perspective of Mélanie, the 15-year-old daughter of a motel owner (Kathy Kerouac!), a woman who appears to have only recently taken on a lesbian lover. Much of the “story” told in the two versions of this book consists of Mélanie sensing her mother’s heightened sexual feelings, her own half-envious/half-appalled (it is, after all, her mother) emotions, a trip to visit a close cousin with whom she may or may not be experimenting sexually, driving around the desert, especially at night, and then dancing in the motel bar with the one woman scientist she knows from Los Alamos.

Thus we have referential characters and characters who exist entirely as writing styles – we sense the presence of a translator how, precisely? In one section of the long meta-chapters that separate Mauve Desert from Mauve, the Horizon, the translator “interviews” what she concedes is the imagined author. But she does so through the persona of the woman scientist.

Of all the elements of fiction, character is the most “meta-“. Here, at moments, we have Mélanie seen through at least three layers – her self, her writer, her translator. We have key elements, even key objects, picked apart theoretically. There is a gun in the glove compartment of the car Mélanie drives and we are told, repeatedly, that it is hot or warm. Yet one gun does go off in this story, and it is not that one.

In a sense, Brossard’s Mauve Desert (as distinct from Angstelle’s, or from Laure’s translation) is a narrative onion – peel and peel until at last you get what exactly? The layers of onion are the onion.

There is one thing I ought to make clear amidst all this – Mauve Desert is also, at all points, a fascinating, even entertaining read, even just at the “he said this, she did that” level. The level of control of the writing is always completely precise, which is exactly what empowers passages like the two above, neither one of which can be truly said to be the “it” of referentiality. If Longman / O’blongman seems a little under-realized as a character, that is also his role in the narrative itself. It’s no accident that you never see a face in the photo essay that is “his” portrait.

Nor is it any accident that Nicole Brossard is the most widely translated Canadian francophone author. Mauve Desert is a classic of post-avant writing because it manages to do more things well at once than other novels would dare attempt. But if you try to get to the “there there” behind the writing, I swear you will only make yourself dizzy.


¹ Marcella Durand has a terrific interview with Brossard on the subject of “self-translation,” which includes a discussion of Mauve Desert, in the second issue of Double Change.


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