A few weeks ago, I had a rather dramatic flying experience. Travelling from New York to a mystery destination (which will be revealed in the next World bookshopper post), I ended up having to take three flights in place of one when my plane was unable to land because of high winds. We were sent back to JFK and flew back for a second (successful) landing attempt later the same day.
Spending seven hours doing a journey that you had expected to take less than two is rarely fun. Luckily for me, the silver lining in this – rather turbulent – cloud was that I had an excellent novel with me that managed to keep me enthralled for much of the journey. The book was The Man Who Snapped His Fingers, the English-language debut from French-Iranian author Fariba Hachtroudi – and it impressed me so much that when I finally got off that third flight, not only shaken by the journey but very much stirred by what I’d read, I knew that I wanted to tell you about it.
Premises don’t come much more gripping than this one: years after a brief encounter in a torture chamber, a former senior official of a tyrannical Theological Republic and a woman who was one of the regime’s myriad victims come face to face. This time, the power balance is reversed. The former colonel is in the final stages of a last-ditch attempt to secure asylum in a northern European state; the erstwhile victim is his translator, and his only hope of winning the visa that will save his life.
As the translation angle might suggest, this is a book about words and storytelling, and the power they have to free, enslave and condemn. As the narrative alternates between the perspectives of the asylum seeker and the translator, gradually revealing their troubled and intertwined histories, we witness the way that human beings construct accounts in an attempt to establish and preserve their identities. With the drip, drip, drip of what happened comes the erosion of the concept of objective truth.
The writing, translated by Alison Anderson, ably reflects and develops this theme. The descriptions are sharp, vivid and brutal. Calling to mind some of the best passages of works such as Jérôme Ferrari’s Where I Left my Soul and Jáchym Topol’s The Devil’s Workshop, they stretch language on the rack of human experience, testing its limits to contain and express suffering and trauma.
As a result, this is not a book for the fainthearted. It is also not a book for readers who prioritise plot over substance.
When I started it shortly after take-off, I half expected the narrative to pursue a sensationalist line, with the translator exploiting her power to twist and shape the asylum seeker’s story as a means of exacting revenge. In fact, Hachtroudi’s choices are much more interesting than that and the novel is much richer and more thought-provoking as a result. Instead of events, ideas take centre stage – from the ways we construct ourselves, to conflicting notions of love.
This may mean that the The Man Who Snapped His Fingers is too diffuse and slow-moving for some tastes. Indeed, Europa Editions has done well not to jump on the thriller marketing bandwagon with this one. (The grabby premise is only loosely described in the jacket copy, with the emphasis placed instead on the sifting of the past that the character’s encounter provokes – a much more accurate reflection of the book than a campaign focusing on the opening hook would probably achieve.)
All the same, from where I was sitting (in seat 17C or thereabouts), the slower pace and looser-than-anticipated plot only heightened the novel’s appeal. I was gripped, through three rather bumpy attempted landings, a return flight, an hour’s wait and yet another take-off. I’m not sure many books would stand up to such a test.
The Man Who Snapped His Fingers (Le Colonel et l’appât) by Fariba Hactroudi, translated from the French by Alison Anderson (Europa Editions, 2016)
Sounds like a fantastic book. Hey, who knows, maybe your flight had to be rearranged for a very good reason 😉
Another one for my list! Your flight experience sounds like a version of the movie Groundhog Day.
Just found your lecture on TED, and enjoyed it. For myself i grew up with several langugages and always felt it to be a good part of my life and that it gave me a Wide horizon ,,,, thank you for the blog ,
….must have been very appealing if you managed to read it during such a dangerous flight !
Now I’m very curious about it…Love slow-moving reading, by the way.
Looking forward to reading your whole adventure !
Good night,I am a Brazilian student. I saw your talk at TED and I was fascinated. I am also curious about the world literature and especially on how it is done comics around the world. In my country, English is not taught right in public schools, especially in the periphery, from where I come from, which is a great limiter, and the lack of money that will not let me buy some books (here they are expensive due to taxes placed on them), much also it is not translated and what comes out, translated, are usually best selling American or British. Within comics then, they are American or Japanese, and only now are opening a little space for the national comic. Usually when I want to read something out I have to resort to a dictionary or Google Translator, which is the way I’m talking to you right now, therefore, falls within any error, please … anyway, I just wanted to say this to you : I love your idea and someday when I can properly learn their language, hope to make an equal design to his only comic =)
Thanks Ketrin. I hope you get to read everything you want.
Just finished reading it as you know, and now reading your review again it has even more resonance, so great to read another readers perspective, especially as some have shied away from this one believing the torture to be too much, I guess I jumped into it naively, but Fariba Hachtroudi sounds like a fascinating writer and woman and so I wanted to read what she’d written and am in awe of it. How she constructs those two narrative voices and inlays the narrative with such tension, something we feel before we understand properly. Just brilliant.
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