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From Maylis de Kerangal, one of the most exciting novelists writing in France today, comes Birth of a Bridge, a literary saga of a dozen men and women – engineers, designers, machinery operators, cable riggers – all employees of the international consortium charged with building a bridge somewhere in a mythical and fantastic California.
Author Martine Desjardins describes Birth of a Bridge as “a grandiose, gravity-defying feat of narrative structure, acting as a bridge between reality and myth.” Told on a sweeping scale reminiscent of classic American adventure films, this Médicis Prize–winning novel chronicles the lives of these workers, who represent a microcosm of not just mythic California, but of humanity as a whole.
Birth of a Bridge has now been translated into English by Jessica Moore and is available from Talonbooks for $16.95.
Below is a generous excerpt from the book to wet your reading-list whistle. (Please note this excerpt contains some coarse language.)
IN THE BEGINNING, IT WAS HIM AND THE ground. Northern Yakutia, where he worked for three years – Mirny, a diamond mine to crack open beneath the glacial crust, grey, dirty, desperate tundra trashed with old wasted coal and refugee camps, deserted ground bathed in nights of chilblains, sheared eleven months of the year by a skull-splitting blizzard beneath which still sleep great beasts, scattered limbs and giant beautifully curving horns – furred rhinoceros, woolly belugas, and frozen caribou – he imagined them in the evenings while sitting at the hotel bar with a glass of strong translucent alcohol as the same surreptitious hooker lavished him with caresses, all the while pleading for a marriage in Europe, in exchange for loyal services, of course, but never did he touch her, couldn’t, rather have nothing than fuck this woman who didn’t really want him, he left it at that. So – the diamonds of Mirny. They had to dig to find them, break the permafrost with dynamite blasts, bore a Dantesque hole as big as the city itself – you could have tossed in headfirst the fifty-storey apartment buildings that already sprout up all around – and, equipped with headlamps, descend to the farthest depths of the orifice, pickaxe the walls, excavate the earth, branch the galleries into a subterranean arborescence lateralized to the furthest, hardest, darkest extent, reinforce the corridors and put down rails, electrify the mud, and then dig in the glebe, scratch the scree, and sift the guts, keep watch for the marvellous sparkle. Three years.
When his contract was up, he returned to France aboard a rather undemocratic Tupolev – his seat in economy was completely battered, a ball of wire drifting around beneath the fabric of the seatback, piercing it here and there and bruising his ribs – a few contracts later and we find him again as foreman of a site in Dubai with a luxury hotel to conjure from the sand, vertical as an obelisk but secular as a coconut tree, and of glass this time, glass and steel, with elevators like bubbles streaming up and down golden tubes, Carrara marble for the circular lobby where the fountain sounds its deluxe petrodollar glug glug, all this adorned with polished green plants, split-leather couches, and air conditioning. After that, he was on fire, he went everywhere. Football stadium in Chengdu, outbuilding for a gas port in Cumaná, mosque in Casablanca, pipeline in Baku – the men in this city walk fast in their dark gabardine coats that skim the hips, the knots of their ties like tight little fists under hard collars, black hats with three humps, sad eyes and thin moustaches, all of them look like that old crooner Charles Aznavour (he phones his mother to tell her) – water treatment plant north of Saigon, hotel complex for white employees in Djerba, film studios in Bombay, space centre in Baikonur, tunnel under the English Channel, dam in Lagos, shopping mall in Beirut, airport in Reykjavik, lakeside estate in the heart of the jungle.
TELEPORTED THUS from biotope to biotope, aboard long-haul flights that often end with a little prop plane, he never stays more than eighteen months on a site and never travels, disgusted by exoticism, by its triviality – absolute powers of whites against the vengeful colonization of amoebae, drugs and women docile for Western currency – and lives with very little, usually in an apartment near the site rented by the company – a place this radical is practically a joke, none of the tchotchkes people drag along with them, no photo tacked to the wall, just a few books, CDs, a huge TV with images in Classico colour, and finally a bike, a magnificent machine in carbon fibre, the expensive transporting of which from site to site becomes a contractual clause unique in the history of the company; he buys everything on-site – razor shampoo soap – eats his meals in greasy diners hazed with smoke, twice a week wolfs down an international steak in a hotel restaurant, if there is one; he gets up early, works regular hours, every day a short nap after lunch, and, on days of meteorological grace, mounts his bike for at least thirty miles, wind against his forehead, chest bent low, and pedals as hard as he can; at night he goes out into the streets, walks or sidles, temples cooled and brain alert, learns the local idioms in nightclubs, bordellos, gambling dens (the language of cards as a kind of pidgin English), and in bars. Because a dipsomaniac he is, everyone knows it, and has been for a long time.
TWENTY YEARS of this regimen would have had the hide of anyone, each new site requiring that he adapt himself – real conversions, climatic, dermatologic, dietary, phonologic, not to mention new patterns of daily life that bring about hitherto unknown acts – but his hide, on the contrary, reinvented itself, grew stronger, became expansionist; and some nights, going home alone after the last team had left, he would place himself in front of the map of the world pinned to his office wall, arms spread, skin and pupils equally dilated; and in a handsome lateral movement from Easter Island to Japan, his eyes would slowly inventory all his work sites on the surface of the globe. Each site to come jostled against the preceding ones like you jostle your hips in a fast salsa, and hybridized with them, thus activating the entirety of his experience, this experience contained within him that was sought after the world over. Yet, though his continually displaced body didn’t get used up faster than a sedentary one (one defined by daily hour-long migrations), his mouth was a scene of upheaval: every language spoken on-site and easily picked up came to intimately shake up his French – a French that was already quite disturbed – so much so that he sometimes found himself at sixes and sevens in the short letters he wrote to his mother. All in all, twenty years of this regimen was nothing to him, didn’t even count.
PEOPLE WANT to find out what he’s made of, they ring him round. They describe him by turns as an engineer without a homeland, a mercenary of concrete and a patient clearer of tropical forests, an ex-convict, a gambler in rehab, a suicidal businessman who smokes opiates in the evenings beneath the frangipani trees or lets his gaze wander out over the Mongolian steppe, a chilled bottle between his knees; they call him the laconic cowboy, from nowhere, bent on his mission without a single wasted gesture and ready to do anything for the bonus – ah, there they were touching on something, a fragment of truth at least, a vague nuance, and they laughed at it – and likely he was all these men, simultaneously, successively; likely he was plural, drawing upon an assortment of variable dispositions, passing through life with a hook, crocheting it on all sides.
They would have liked to find out that he was searching for himself, mysterious, passionate; they speculated on a gnawing secret estrangement that sent him running, pictured some regret, some abandonment, a betrayal, or better yet the ghost of a woman who had stayed behind in the city, with another man no doubt, who he had to flee – this woman exists, in fact, and is nothing like a ghost: she’s alive and well, and lives with another man; he sees her sometimes when he’s passing through France – they meet in Paris, she arrives on time, hair in her face eyes shining pockets full, and there they are, they’re back, and wend their way through the city, bodies disjointed but hearts in tune, talk all night long in a bar somewhere, beer after beer making them slowly drunk so that they kiss at the moment when the sun rises, they’re inside love, then, caressing each other’s bodies, carried away, and then they separate, calm, king and queen, time doesn’t exist, it’s pure invention, and turn away from each other with such trust that the whole world murmurs thank you. People said being alone to such an extent, no one does that; they said it was a waste, unhealthy in the long run, a man like that, a force of nature; they imagined women deep within the consulates, beautiful women, innocent women, devoted women; they imagined young people, they imagined lice, an original sin, an origin at least, some intimate flaw from his childhood; they whispered that he was broken, at heart – though at the heart of what, no one knew. Plus he hardly ever went back to France (what about his mother? He must have a mother since he writes to her, doesn’t he think of her, then?) – he flew over the country with a charged silence, kept only the nationality inscribed on his passport, a sagely padded bank account, a taste for conversation and for a certain amount of comfort, and he never missed watching the Tour de France. People would have liked to know that he was seized by an inward experience, isolated, vulnerable even – that would have been so simple, so much easier to believe – a man as solid and deep as he was, with such a brutal passion for alcohol, is always hiding something; they would have liked it if he didn’t know how to love, if he were incapable of it, if he worked like a dog in order to forget. They would have liked it if he were melancholic.
BUT THOSE who had known him on the sites choked to hear this nonsense: fantasies of old ladies, cringe-worthy poems, sugary little clichés. They toppled this cardboard cut-out with a few shrugs and mocking glances, because they had actually seen him at work, had rubbed shoulders with the guy. They said: okay, it’s true, time is nothing to him, that which passes, that which flies, all that is nothing to him, doesn’t slip past or cause adherences or brackish fog – and is it precisely because we are alone in time, alone and losing at every turn, noses buried in our losses, in the sloshing bacillary liquids at the bottom of the bucket, in the tatters of sadness sewn to our fingertips like old bandages that must finally be torn off with our teeth? – he’s not immune, true, but he doesn’t think about it, isn’t interested, hardly has the luxury to, and couldn’t care less about origins, about history, has mixed his blood, thinks about death every day like everyone else and that’s all there is to it. They said: his time is counted in snaps of the fingers – uno! dos! tres! vámonos! – and here, they joined the action to the word, miming a starting signal that was already headed for the finish line, the goal, delivery of a work whose deadline penned in scarlet ink at the bottom of the work order lays out days according to a careful plan, according to a duly calculated phasing, according to contracts and seasons – the rainy season especially, and the nesting season – that one is never in his favour, as we’ll see. They said: his time is the present, it’s now or never, do it right, deal with the situation at hand, that’s his only moral and a lifetime’s work, it’s as simple as that. And also: he’s a hands-on kind of fellow, a grassroots man, that’s his element – he would even say so himself, eyes half-closed, cigarette dangling, mocking, would add without batting an eye that’s where the adventure is, that’s where the risks are, that’s where my body is alive – and with these words, he would beat his chest with two closed fists like a gorilla in a tropical forest – but sometimes, all joking aside, he would lift his head and say stormily, the thing I abominate is a utopia, a tidy little system, the quixotic jewel floating above the earth blah blah blah, it’s too closed, always too miniature, and so well oiled, it’s bad shit, take it from me, there’s nothing for me in that, there’s nothing there that interests me, nothing that gets me hard. My name is Georges Diderot and what I like is working with the real, juggling the parameters, being on the ground, all up in the face of things, that’s where I’m complete.
HE TAKES control of zones, excavates fields, occupies ground, raises up buildings, feeds himself with the multiple, the loquacious, the sonorous, with all the motley clutter and odours of skin, with the crowds in the megacities, with revolutionary unrest, with ovations in the stadiums, with the jubilation of carnivals, of processions, with the gentleness of wild animals watching the construction sites through forests of bamboo, with open-air cinemas at the edge of villages – the screen stretched into the night sky, those hours when spaces fit one inside the other and time plays within them – and with the barking of dogs at a bend in the road. Always outside, concentrating, empirical, disbelieving: the inner experience is never within, he says, laughing when those who are disappointed by his triviality badger him for more inwardness and more depth, it’s not a folding inward, it’s a tearing apart, and I like to tear it up.