Getting translated into English is a tricky business. An anglophone book deal represents an opportunity for a writer to access a huge international audience because novels that appear in English have a greater chance of securing other language deals. But, with literary translations making up 3 to 5 per cent of publications in much of the English-speaking world, there is a narrow bottleneck to negotiate to achieve this kind of global reach.
For many books, time is of the essence. Editors love novelty and the idea that they are discovering talent before anyone else. As a result, most novels that don’t get picked up for translation in the year following their first publication are unlikely to make it beyond their original language.
Every so often, however – perhaps because of a news event or the efforts of a particularly tenacious champion – an exception breaks through. And sometimes books get several incarnations. Such is the case with Belgian author Jacqueline Harpman’s classic I Who Have Never Known Men, which was published in French in 1995, and first appeared in Ros Schwartz’s translation as The Mistress of Silence in 1997, before being republished under the more direct translation of its title in 2019, seven years after its author’s death.*
I was lucky enough to interview Ros Schwartz for the Royal Literary Fund’s Writers Aloud podcast some months ago. In a metaphor that feels uncannily resonant for the times we are living through, she used the French word ‘passeur’ to explain what translators do. ‘Passeurs were people who helped refugees escape during the war,’ she told me. ‘[A translator is] a passeur, a ferry if you like, between cultures.’
The image of the passeur is also relevant to Harpman’s novel. Narrated by a nameless girl who is one of 39 female prisoners held in a subterranean cage until the day an alarm sounds, leading the guards to flee while the door is open, the novel explores exile and alienation. Left to wander a deserted landscape that they cannot even be sure is Planet Earth, the women piece together the fragments they discover to try to understand what has happened to them and how to survive until the bitter truth finally reveals itself.
The richness and depth with which Harpman inhabits her narrator’s experience is astonishing. Indeed, it is no surprise that she was a psychoanalyst, for she presents the psychological shifts with which the protagonist encounters her predicament incredibly vividly. Those of us who have lived through lockdowns will recognise the truth in the heightened sensitivity you develop and the greater significance small events and objects take on when your world shrinks. Similarly, it is fascinating how thoroughly Harpman brings to life the experience of living without timekeeping devices and the ingenious way the narrator adapts to this.
The novel is also a powerful portrait of how we try to make sense of things – the ways we attempt to read situations we lack the necessary contextual information to understand. As so many of us do when confronted with texts that work differently to the kinds of stories we are used to, the women in the novel draw on their own limited knowledge to plug the gaps in their comprehension of this strange new world.
In the case of the narrator, who has been imprisoned since she was an infant and knows little of adult human civilization, this tendency is particularly clearly demonstrated in the naive fantasies she constructs around the young guard who keeps watch over the cage. Ignorant of the mechanics of sexual relationships, she tells herself stories that blend scraps of information with instinct and guesswork to bring about a mysterious ‘eruption’ in her maturing body. ‘This was extremely difficult because I was simultaneously the inventor of the story, the narrator and the listener awaiting the shock of the unexpected.’
Indeed, exploring the potential and purpose of storytelling forms an increasingly urgent theme. Repeatedly, along with questions about what defines human existence, the novel invites us to consider what a text is and what it does. Towards the end of the book, the narrator, who, we learn, is writing the account we’re reading, reflects on the strange alchemy that happens when someone reads a story: ‘The reader and I thus mingled will constitute something living, that will not be me, because I will be dead, and will not be that person as they were before reading, because my story, added to their mind, will then become part of their thinking.’
Yet, even as she examines storytelling, Harpman resists many of its conventions. There is a playful irreverence at work sometimes in the text: ‘Underneath, there were several items,’ writes the narrator at one point. ‘[…] But I shan’t go into the difficulties I had in identifying and naming all these things because that would be too tedious and I wouldn’t enjoy it.’ The reader’s curiosity is just one factor in the crafting of this story; this text must also serve its author’s pleasure.
At other points, the narrative seems to critique itself: ‘So few things happened during all those years of walking. I found the bus, I lost the road, I arrived here.’ It is almost as though Harpman is taunting the reader with her refusal to bow to plot conventions by withholding the revelations and resolutions the setup seems to demand. Indeed, on the face of it, this is a profoundly bleak and open-ended book.
To read it this way, though, would be to miss the subtleties at work beneath the surface that bring about the very transformation the protagonist claims reading is capable of effecting. For in being worked upon by Harpman and Schwartz’s fine words, we find ourselves changed from passive bystander to active participant. The story we hold in our hands may be a lonely one. But the fact that we are able to read it and enter into its protagonist’s strange experiences conveys a message of profound hope.
I Who have Never Known Men (Moi qui n’ai pas connu les hommes) by Jacqueline Harpman, translated from the French by Ros Schwartz (Vintage, 2019)
*Corrected on 1 March 2022 to include details of the earlier edition.