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Books in Translation: Three tales touching on French colonialism

Meghan Collins Sullivan

The idea of anticolonial translation — picking works, and approaches to those works, that resist or examine the effects of empire — has gained increasing sway among English-language translators and editors. It's a huge boon for English-speaking readers.

Consider three books — none of which come from the same continent, two of which were written in French, and all of which deal, glancingly or in depth, with French colonialism. Mutt-Lon's The Blunder, set in Cameroon, satirizes the racism and white saviorism of France's last wave of colonizers; Pina, by the Tahitian novelist Titaua Peu, is set in French Polynesia and portrays the intense disempowerment inherent to life in a 21st-century colony; and Thuận's Chinatown is a poetic monologue tracing one woman's journey from Vietnam to Soviet Russia to France. Read together, these three novels, totally divergent in their styles and attitudes, are a powerful testament to anti-colonial translation, and a demonstration of the great range of literature that such an attitude can bring to our shelves.

The Blunder by Mutt-Lon, translated by Amy B. Reid

In the 1920s, a French Army doctor named Eugène Jamot set out to fight sleeping sickness in Cameroon, which had gone from German to French colonial control not long before. One of his supervisees altered his treatment protocol, blinding over 700 Cameroonians as a result. Nobody was held fully accountable for this so-called "blunder," which is rarely taught or discussed and which is the jumping-off point for the Cameroonian writer Mutt-Lon's novel. In The Blunder, this wholesale blinding sets off a revolt; the book's protagonist, a French doctor named Damienne, gets enlisted in a comically doomed-to-fail plot to prevent inter-tribal conflict and prevent a "rejection of doctors [that] could quickly blow up into a rejection of the White Man altogether." By the book's end, Damienne has realized that she has no right to "play savior," and yet her racist condescension toward the Cameroonians around her barely wanes.

Mutt-Lon writes with a bracing mix of directness and humor, evoking intensely discriminatory attitudes with, as Amy B. Reid writes in her translator's note, "a wink and ironic distance." Yet he never creates enough irony to soften discomfort; doing so would be too easy, and The Blunder, no matter how swift and funny it gets, is an intensely complex novel, full of nuanced characters and difficult histories of colonial and inter-tribal prejudice and conflict. It can be tough to find satirical fiction that doesn't flatten the events it satirizes, which Mutt-Lon never does. The Blunder is an excellent model of bluntness mixed with sophistication — and, as such, an excellent and infuriating read.

Pina by Titaua Peu, translated by Jeffrey Zuckerman

Postcolonial family novels are a major mode of modern and contemporary fiction, ranging from Gabriel García Márquez's magical-realist classic One Hundred Years of Solitude to J. M. Coetzee's quiet, barbed Disgrace. Titaua Peu's Pina belongs to this tradition,but, crucially, it takes place not in a former colony but on Tahiti, in French Polynesia, where independence is an ongoing effort and debate. Peu evokes Tahiti with rough, unsentimental grace; Jeffrey Zuckerman, who has translated writing by French speakers from across the globe, translates chatty prose with force and fluidity. Pina itself is a fluid, sprawling novel, telling the freewheeling story of a Tahitian family whose "fates go any which way, barely any detail in common." In theory, its protagonist is Pina, the second-youngest daughter, but her interiority is more of an organizing principle than anything else. She is, however, a compelling character: a 9-year-old who takes care of two of her eight siblings, is preternaturally wise and empathic, and yet has "nothing fairy-tale about her," Peu writes. "This girl knew how to hate with all her being."

Indeed, hate is Pina's birthright, inherited from a father, Auguste, who grows deeply embittered on coming of age in a society "where men [of] his race, of his land, were never to be masters again, not even of themselves." Auguste turns inward, drinking and abusing his wife and children until his household becomes a site of utter chaos. Peu writes brutal scenes with wrenching immediacy, though she never lets the reader forget that the truest sources of violence in Pina are colonization and poverty. Ultimately, she maintains a tighter grasp on this idea than the plot, which moves so far and fast that it can be difficult to remain invested in the novel's events. Still, investing in its characters, Pina especially, is impossible to avoid.

Chinatown by Thuận, translated by Nguyen An Lý

Thuận's Chinatown opens in the Paris Metro, where an unnamed woman waits, her son asleep on her shoulder, for her train to resume moving after subway workers discover a suspicious package. Her mind roams quickly above ground and into her past, sending her into a reverie that mixes her childhood in 1980s Vietnam with her education in Gorbachev's Russia; her brief marriage to Ṭhuy, her high-school sweetheart, who her parents despise for his Chinese heritage; and her present-day life in Paris, including bits of a story she's writing.

Although she thinks often about her son, the novel's animating forces are her longing for Ṭhuy and her anger at the powerful anti-Chinese sentiment that restricts his opportunities — no life is "hard in quite the way that it is for a Chinese-Vietnamese," she writes — and ultimately separates the two of them for good. She's also in constant conversation with the legacy of French colonialism, as is the novel itself: Thuận explicitly puts Chinatown in tension with Marguerite Duras' The Lover, which fictionalizes the story of Duras' affair with a Chinese-Vietnamese man at the end of the French colonial period.

Like Duras, Thuận is an intensely poetic writer. She relies so heavily on repetition that Chinatown's text often seems to have refrains, like a ghazal or villanelle would. In many writers' hands, this strategy could be deadening, but Thuận excels at creating momentum through language, and Nguyen An Lý translates that momentum beautifully. Chinatown exerts a near-tidal pull on the reader. I swallowed it down in one gulp.

Lily Meyer is a writer and translator living in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: July 21, 2022 at 12:00 AM EDT
An earlier version of this review mistakenly stated that all three books were originally written in French. Chinatown was first written in Vietnamese. The content has been corrected here.
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