Valérie Zenatti – Mensonges

One of the public libraries near me is a “living library” – it’s meant for the local school population, is not silent, in fact can be quite animated when the students are there for the internet or to have a coffee in the “café” portion on the second floor. It’s a decent size, making it a wonderful resource for anyone living nearby. Also interesting is that the library only stocks “recent” books or magazines, those that were published in the last 10 years or so. (All books in French). It isn’t, then, a place to go looking for classics, but it’s a fantastic place to come across new-to-me Francophone writers.

I picked up Agnès Desarthe’s La Partie de Chasse (now in English as Hunting Party, tr. by Christiana Hills, Unnamed Press) this way a few months ago, and also books by Lydie Salvayre and Pascal Kramer and some others. In my endless quest for the perfect novella, I often pick out slim books by writers I’ve never heard of. Which is what I did last week, and this tactic awarded me with Valérie Zenatti’s Mensonges (Lies).

I am, obviously, always interested in translators who are writers (“interested” is a little slight, to be honest, I’m probably obsessed) and Zenatti is both. With that in mind, Mensonges was especially fascinating because it is many things at once: it is both fiction and personal essay, but it is also a comment on translation as well as the relationship between a translator and the author being translated.

Not all translators feel so strongly connected to “their writer” but some do, and Zenatti writes so beautifully about what the act of translating Aharon Appelfeld has brought her personally. The book—which is just 90 pages—is like a platonic love letter, an expression of extreme gratitude and grace.

The book begins with a first person biographical sketch that you only realize later has nothing to do with Zenatti. It’s a description of someone born in 1932, whose early life is marked forever by WWII: removal to a ghetto, death of his mother, deported to and escape from a concentration camp, years of hiding until he arrives in Israel (just before independence), and then his adolescence in Israel and the learning of a new language. She is writing in the voice of Appelfeld. A daring ventriloquism.

The next section begins in 1979, in Nice, and this is an 8-year-old Zenatti, coming to understand her Jewishness, how it situates her, how it will always define her. She writes of her childhood nightmares and she details what a Jewish child born at any point after the war, when so many survivors were still around to describe what it must have been like, must have felt: the specific fear of “this happened, this could happen again” but also the pointed understanding that “this would have happened to me.”

Each chapter then moves the reader through the different stages of her “encounter” with the Shoah. There are moments she admits how unable she was—her youth, her distance from the war—to truly comprehend the immensity of it, and there are moments when the immensity of it overwhelms her. She writes also of her time in Israel, learning Hebrew, forgetting French.

And then, in 2002, she “encounters” Appelfeld for the first time through his novel 1978 Les Temps des Prodiges (The Age of Wonders), and in 2004 she finally meets him in person in Jerusalem after beginning to translate his work. I won’t give details about her description of that meeting because it is, in many ways, the heart and the secret of Mensonges, and it leads to the final chapter – a fiction, a kind of fairy tale of two children, an older brother and a younger sister, lost in the woods, hunted by an army. It is haunting, and deeply moving.

I mentioned above that Zenatti’s ventriloquism of Appelfeld in the first section is daring, but it also makes sense she would dare it. Of anyone, after translating at least nine of his novels, I suspect she knows what it’s like to inhabit his words.

After finishing Mensonges, I did my research and Zenatti has a long and successful publishing history: she writes novels for adults and for children, she is a translator and a screenwriter. One of her young adult novels—Une bouteille dans la mer de Gaza, A Bottle in the Gaza Sea—was translated into many languages, including English, and was made into a film as well.

From what I can find, none of her novels for adults have made their way into English. I took one of them, Les Ames Soeurs, from the library and will start it soon. I’ve also never read Appelfeld and will remedy that immediately.

(I have read several books this year dealing specifically with the Holocaust, and others looking at political oppression and forms of fascism. This is no accident, obviously, and the echoes to the contemporary politics of several countries are deeply disturbing.)