Saturday, July 08, 2006

Six characters in search of a translator, part 1

In addition to the aforementioned Deborah Eisenberg, I've been reading André Héléna's Les Clients du Central Hôtel (The Clients of the Central Hotel). I picked up this wonderful noir novel in Paris a few months ago. I had never heard of Héléna but the back-cover blurb caught my eye: Not only was it a reissue of a 1959 novel and I've been enjoying post-WWII French noir lately (Jean Amila, for instance), but the action was said to take place in Perpignan at the very end of WWII (one of my favorite historical settings—not Perpignan specifically but WWII in France and particularly the issue of resistance vs collaboration) and the book was said to offer "a cynical, unromantic vision, black as blood, of a time often presented as idyllic." Black as blood!

Amazingly Les Clients lived up to that description. It follows the various characters who reside at the Central Hotel, including the owner, Madame Poteau, addicted to cocaine and occasionally sleeping with a prostitute who lives at the hotel; a French woman nicknamed Lily Marlène because she sleeps with the enemy; the wife of a resistant, who ends up raped three times by French men who used the chaos of the liberation to pillage and abuse. And so on. This novel is as good—meaning as gloriously nasty, relentlessly bleak—as a vintage Georges Simenon. (Allow me here to refer to one of my own reviews.) Simenon and Héléna make Neil LaBute feel rather quaint in comparison.

As it turns out, Héléna was a rather prolific pulp writer in the post-WWII years. Like many of his peers, he mostly focused on noir but also wrote a series of erotic novels. (And again like so many French pulp writers of that time, he used a lot of pseudonyms, many of them—such as Andy Helen, Kathy Woodfield or Patricia Wellwood—American/English-sounding.) E-dite Editions, in Paris, has reissued several of his books. If they're as cruel, as unsentimental—and as deserving of an English translation—as this one, Héléna is among fiction's most unjustly neglected dark gems.

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