Friday, May 27, 2011

No and Me, by Delphine de Vigan: Sacre bleu my mind with a translation done right!

No and MeNo and Me
by Delphine de Vigan  (Translated by George Miller)
New York: Bloomsbury, 2010

 ISBN: 978-1-59990-479-5

 Precocious and bright Parisian thirteen-year old Lou is both intelligent enough to have skipped several grades and to realize that she is less mature than her older classmates.   Scientifically minded but shy, Lou panics when forced to publicly announce her plans for a class presentation and announces she will be interviewing a homeless woman, though she knows no homeless people.   Lou takes to the task like one of her scientific product tests, and soon has found her subject: No, a homeless young woman she meets at the train station.   No, and the interviews with her, open Lou's eyes to the heartbreaking world of the homeless that is hidden in plain sight as she comes to realize, visible only to those who choose to see it.   Having suffered a family loss, Lou's mother has been recovering from a deep depression for years, leaving just her often busy father to care for her, thus opening the door for naive Lou to throw herself into what becomes a near scientific obsession with trying to save No, going so far as to convince her parents to let No move in and get back on her feet.  As one may suspect, things don't go exactly as planned, but while there are some hard lessons learned and Lou's childish naivete is shattered, this gorgeously translated, thoughtful, and carefully constructed novel does not fall into cliches and is a testament in many ways to the qualities of hope, perseverance, and unflinching love.  It is strongly recommended for all collections, teens mature enough to understand the complexity of the issues (grades 8-12) and would be an easy sell to many adults as well.  

Remember when I went on and on about how I thought the translation of The Invisible was...okay?  Well, THIS, my friends, is a translation done right.  The language is gorgeous and moving, almost melodic.  As a former language major, I can assure and reassure you that translating words is easy - translating the feelings and emotions behind them and maintaining the original beauty is a tremendously difficult thing to do.   Behold:
 Sometimes I leave her there, in front of an empty beer glass.  I get up, sit down again, hang around, try to find something to comfort her.  I can't find the words.  I don't manage to go.  She looks down and says nothing.
And our silence is filled with all the world's impotence.  Our silence is like the return to the origin of things, their true state. (51)
I mean, DAY-YUM, shiver me timbers.  That's some weighty prose for a book marketed to kids.  That's not even the best of it; I'm just too lazy to search for more.  Mad snaps for George Miller, who has made me want to learn French just to read this in the original too!  But regardless, this book is wonderful because it takes what could turn into a totally cliched everyone's-feeling-sadface story (homelessness, depression, awkward teenage years, feelings of abandonment all around) and doesn't do exactly what you would expect with it in all cases.  Yes, it is not a "we saved a homeless girl, high fives all around" happy ending.  Unless you are possibly a teenager reading this, you realize there is more going on with why No is homeless than just that she has no home and nobody to care for her.  It's easy enough to spot how Lou is both scientifically obsessed with finding a cure for homelessness, starting with Lou, and how No is also filling an emotional void in Lou's life, left when her infant sister passed away and her mother disappeared into a very serious and long lasting depression.  Part of growing up, though, is realizing that not everyone wants to or can be rescued; as de Vigan says "things are always more complicated than they seem," (72).  Despite the potential to tie this story up with a shiny ribbon (and Lordy, Lordy, do I like things tied up), I found the "there is no one solution to this problem" ending quite satisfying, even refreshing because it recognizes that there is no one simple solution to a huge societal problem, but that it is one that we cannot ignore.  Perhaps my favorite passage in the whole book sums this one up, one which both foreshadows what Lou already may know in her heart and yet doesn't realize due to her youth:
Dogs can get taken in, but the homeless can't.  I thought to myself that if everyone took in a homeless person, if everyone decided to look after just one person,  to help him and be with him, perhaps there'd be fewer of them in the streets.  My father told me that wouldn't work.  Things are always more complicated than they seem.  Things are what they are, and there are lots of things you can't do anything about.  You probably have to accept that if you want to become an adult.  We can send supersonic planes and rockets into space, and identify a criminal from a hair or a tiny flake of skin, and grow a tomato we can keep in the fridge for three weeks without getting a wrinkle, and store millions of pieces of information on a tiny chip.  Yet we're capable of letting people die in the street. (71-72)
Double DAY-YUM.  Doesn't the optimism and teenage idealism just shank you right in the heart?  Don't you want the solution to be so simple?  And when you put it in those terms, it really is bananas that there is no solution, until, as Lou points out (and learns), you realize as an adult (or really with-it teen) that there are more factors in play than just the obvious problem.  This book takes what is at best a complex, philosophical, societal, moral, ethical, insert a few more descriptive words in here, problem and presents a story that is moving, yet not preachy, and more importantly, frames it in a way that is accessible without dumbing it down or pretending that there is an easy solution.  Well played, Delphine de Vigan! I will certainly be adding this to my collection and encourage all libraries, especially those serving privileged kids, to do so as well.

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