While leisurely making my way through a collection of winning entries from the 2006 French young writer’s competition, I was brought up short by “Ils viennent toujours en l’automne.” Although there were many fine stories in the collection, including works both from France and from other French-speaking countries, I judged Vincent Mondiot’s to be the strongest and most absorbing, and I immediately decided to translate it.
One of the great pleasures of literary translation is the opportunity to work with authors. That does not always happen, of course: the author may be inaccessible or no longer living. But in this case it was easy enough to track down Vincent on the internet and send him the translation for approval. He is a reflective young man (twenty-one when he wrote the story, twenty-six today), who willingly took the time to clarify my understanding of certain passages in the text and to offer penetrating comments about tone and word choices. He is now deservedly on the verge of a breakthrough in his literary career: a major Parisian publishing house has picked up Vincent’s fantasy novel, Teliam Vore, which he and his co-author, Raphaël Lafarge, had previously self-published online. The print edition is due out in the spring.
When Vincent learned that Words Without Borders had accepted my translation of his story for the special “Horrors” issue, he was delighted but also a bit bemused. “I’m honored that my story was classified within that genre,” he told me, “and I agree that it is horrific. But it is far from the most extreme work I’ve written.”
Though I am by no means a student of the horror genre, his words got me thinking. Like almost everyone, I am familiar with horror movies, which typically employ crude, visceral images (think blood-drenched chainsaws grinding away) to evoke fear and revulsion in their gleefully shrieking audiences. (That’s the paradox, isn’t it? A frisson, a flutter of the pulse can be pleasurable, like a sudden jolt of turbulence in an airplane.) Film directors command all the resources of their medium, and they cater to a target audience that expects supersized thrills. By contrast (and without denigrating the virtuoso ghastliness of Stephen King’s books), it seems to me that the best literary examples of horror make use of subtler, more psychologically calibrated effects to stir their readers. Consider Poe’s “The Pit and the Pendulum” (OK, maybe a bit overwrought) or Robert Browning’s chilling poem, “My Last Duchess.” Mondiot’s story is one of those that horrify us by slow degrees.
He does a masterful job of evoking an atmosphere of foreboding and dread. As readers, we are aware of what he is doing, yet we eagerly embrace the experience. All the same, it is worth teasing out some of the devices and elements Mondiot deploys to make the story succeed within the genre:
—Indeterminacy of time and place
—Bleak, inhospitable landscape.
—Vivid description of the raw, dreary weather that prevails during the unnerving wait for the reapers.
—Painstaking build-up of suspense as to whether the reapers will come, whether there is any way to elude them, and whether they can be dissuaded from taking Achab.
—A sense of inevitability even as the suspense mounts. (They will come. They always do . . .)
—Eerie metaphors (the sky “a viscous and unacknowledged contagion, like a relentlessly spreading amoeba that imposes passivity on all in its path.” Of course, the reapers likewise impose passivity on those who await them.).
—Strongly visual, even cinematic orientation (the terrifying moment when the reapers finally loom up over the horizon and cast their tentacular shadows all the way to the house).
—The mystery surrounding the reapers: Who are they? Who sends them? What do they do with their captives? Many of these questions are articulated through the character of Suzanna as she struggles to understand, but others arise in the reader’s mind.
With all that said, the power of the story arises less from its accumulation of atmospheric effects than from its almost archetypal resonance. Vincent insists that he did not consciously set out to construct a story along mythic or allegorical lines. Rather, it began simply with his vision of a village in the middle of nowhere, menaced by a sinister and recurring force that no one ever tries to resist. Yet those deeper currents emerge, even if their meaning cannot be expressed in a logically straightforward way.
Each reader’s response to the story is colored by individual experience. Even so, we are all moved in some manner by the story’s portrayal of the universal human experience of loss and acceptance. Each in her own way, the three female characters confront the human condition. Suzanna, the most mature, struggles to find some reason for her impending loss, but in the end she can only reconcile herself to it. When Elicia, the elder daughter, proposes running away, Suzanna merely smiles and professes her love for her family. Of the three, only little Théa thinks it may be possible to fight off the reapers. Suzanna resolves the resultant scuffle by telling the reapers to take her son and go.
The conclusion strikes the right note of poignancy without being mawkish. The three women are drained, they are wounded, they face a life of pain and hardship. Still, we see the first stirrings of their resilience, and we sense that they will sustain one another.
Read Paul Curtis Daw's translation of “They Always Come in the Autumn” in the “Horrors” issue of WWB over here.