Written by Maylis de Kerangal, it has been translated as Mend the Living by Jessica Moore and as The Heart (although I am not sure if that was by a different translator) for the US markets.
The story is incredibly simple: we follow 24 hours in the life of a heart transplant, from 5:50 in the morning until the following morning at dawn. The story certainly does not lack in incidents: we witness an accident – not a surfing one, although that is what we suspect at first – we see the emergency services spring into action, we see everyone rush around the young man in a coma – Simon – in a desperate manner: doctors, nurses – including the wonderfully named Cordelia Owl, new to the ICU unit (much more poetically called the ‘reanimation unit’ in French), organ donor coordinators, specialists all over France, the parents, friends and other families affected by this tragedy.
But, of course, the story is not about this febrile activity. It is all about the interior life of all the people involved: Thomas Remige the organ donor liaison nurse, who grew up on a farm in Normandy and likes to sing in the nude; Simon’s parents – French mother Marianne, New Zealand father Sean- who are currently living apart; his girlfriend Juliette who is slightly jealous of his surfing buddies; the recipient of his heart, Claire, who has put her life on hold for the past three years, living in a poky little flat just opposite the hospital in Paris which can do heart transplants, hoping against hope that this moment would come.
Do we need to know all those concerns (in many cases, peripheral) of people whose lives are touched (and in some cases, irrevocably changed) by Simon’s death? Too many descriptions, too many details? Take for example the multiple phone calls and sounds Marianne receives or tries to make, her Simone Signoret eyes, Charlotte Rampling eyes, the roads she drives on en route to the hospital – all this minutiae seems useless. But this accumulation of details slows down time – we feel the second hand ticking – which makes some readers give up, I can fully understand. And perhaps I would have too, if I wasn’t keen to compare the French and English language version and switched from one to the other constantly.
I interpreted this, however as a way of distancing oneself from the subject, avoiding sentimentality. The rapid switches from one protagonist to the next can be disorientating, and we have no time to connect emotionally with some of them, despite the wealth of details we are given – yet this contributes to that sense of urgency. Quick, harvest those kidneys, liver, lungs, heart before they perish… Ultimately, this is about the fragility of life itself, and what it means to be human, what remains of us after we die.
This is another example of a book which demands surrender to its rhythms and oddness and fragmentation. If you allow yourself to be hypnotised by its long sentences, patient accumulation of detail, then it becomes a most moving experience. To know if this is the book for you, just try that waltz of an opening sentence which goes on for 1 ½ pages – spiraling and twirling, up and down movement, all the rhythm of a heart beating, in ¾ time, with emotion and experience, the black box of a healthy 20 year old male body in love with the sea and adventure and surfing and a pretty girl.
‘ce que c’est ce Coeur, ce qui l’a fait bondir, vomir, grossir, valser leger comme un plume ou peser comme une pierre, ce qui l’a etourdi, ce qui l’a fait fondre – l’amour…’
‘What it is, this heart, what has made it leap, swell, sicken, waltz light as a feather or weigh heavy as a stone, what has stunned it, what has made it melt, love…’
A translation very close to the eccentric original, yet not afraid to change the order fo things for added musicality in English. The only thing I was unsure of was why Simon’s surname Limbres had to be changed to Limbeau in the English version.