I’d not heard of Maylis de Kerangal before I came across Birth of a Bridge which says more about my ignorance than her obscurity as the novel comes garlanded with praise from all and sundry. It also won the 2010 Prix Médicis, adding to several other literary prizes awarded to her. All this is should stem my self-congratulation at having read more fiction in translation this year– I’ve obviously got a long way to go. It’s an ambitious novel that follows the construction of a massive bridge which will join two disparate communities in the back of beyond
The bridge is the brainchild of Coca’s new mayor, John Johnson – aka the Boa – whose trip to Dubai has turned his head. He plans to use it to bring ethanol in from the countryside, earning Coca gleaming green credentials. Even the international consortium which has won the bid to design the bridge is called Pontoverde. The towering red construction with its six traffic lanes, he believes, will catapult his bright new city into the future, burnishing his own reputation as it does so. Workers from across the globe flock to the site including Georges Diderot, engineer and veteran of many grand projects who will run this one, and Summer Diamantis, the only woman on the management team. The bridge takes nearly a year to complete during which affairs will be had, people will die, a way of life will be threatened, strike action averted and an opening ceremony conducted.
De Kernagal’s style takes some getting used to – I nearly gave the novel up in its early stages. Its rat-a-tat pace with few paragraphs makes it hard to read slowly but reading too fast means details missed. It’s this pace, however, which gives it an overwhelming feeling of a mass of people working at a furious lick. It brought to mind those astonishing pictures of workers in Sebastião Salgado’s epic series of photographs, grubbing away in a gold mine. It’s also very cinematic: perhaps it was the mention of ‘a modern-day Babel’ in the book’s blurb but that film popped into my head several times. Back stories are cleverly woven through the project’s progress – from the main protagonists to a doorman sending money back to a home he hasn’t visited for many years – all contributing to a powerful impression of a project teeming with a multitude of people from around the world. Striking language reinforces all this, sometimes giving the novel a fable-like quality. Lots to admire, then, and a good deal to think about. I’m still not entirely sure how I feel about the book but it’s undeniably an outstanding achievement, and kudos to Jessica Moore for what was clearly a taxing task in translating it so ably.