The Literary Tourist is a column of conversations between literary translators about newly released books in translation. This month Andrea Gregovich interviews French translator Jeffrey Zuckerman. Jeffrey received the PEN/Heim Translation fund grant in 2016 for his translation of The Complete Stories of Hervé Guibert and has two recent novels in translation, Ananda Devi’s Eve Out of Her Ruins (Deep Vellum, 2016) and Antoine Volodine’s Radiant Terminus (Open Letter, 2017). Radiant Terminus is a notorious pseudonymic author’s sci-fi tale about life in a future Siberia after a widespread nuclear disaster.
Andrea Gregovich: As a Russian translator, I was sucked into this book far more than I’d expected: it takes place in a future, post-apocalyptic Siberia but is written by Antoine Volodine, a French author. The details of life in the taiga, the vibe of the collective farms, and the institutions and overall culture felt authentically Siberian and Soviet to me, even in this dystopian take. What is Volodine’s background with Siberia and the Soviet Union—how is it that he’s so skilled at writing about it?
Jeffrey Zuckerman: It’s lovely to hear from you, Andrea, and I’m so glad this book has captured a world you probably know well. The (former) Soviet Union is a space that Volodine often returns to in his writing, and while he doesn’t seem to be on the record as having lived there for extensive stretches of time, it’s true that he has Slavic heritage—“Volodine,” after all, is the French transliteration of Володин.
When I first fell into the water, although I was perfectly aware that this was all really happening, it felt as though I was still stuck inside a dream. I’m walking along the road, lifting my feet with that sluggishness found in dreams, that heaviness caused by the water sloshing inside my rain boots. Neither sadness, fear, nor despair, but gravity, endless and immense, has taken hold of me. I’m wandering between the houses, their numbers painted on white signs. I must be lost. It seemed I’d experienced brutal acts but could no longer remember them. No, I was simply struck by the sense of memory’s intangibility, torn between struggling to recall certain events as something concrete, and the instinct to leave them safely in the nebulous past. But such dreams were nothing new for me, and I didn’t need to fight against the confusion; to a certain extent I actually enjoyed it. Even as the surface of the water broke my fall, I wasn’t afraid. I saw pots of limp geraniums on a windowsill, the white drapes drawn, glass dolls with scarily large pupils, and green Christmas candles. I waved. As firecrackers snapped in the middle of the road, a yellow tram went by. Benny ran barking along the water’s edge, where early bluebells bloomed between patches of unmelted snow. Nothing’s the matter, Benny. This is only a dream. But no sound emerged from my throat. Benny was barking even louder. He ran into the wood that grew by the water, gradually speeding up so that in the end he was nothing but a blurry white ball, revolving with the world’s axis as its center. What could have happened to upset him? I wanted to comfort him. My love, everything’s alright. Just wait there and I’ll come right back. There’s a good boy, my love. But Benny couldn’t hear me and streaked away, passing beyond my sight. Then the incongruous figure of a postman dressed all in yellow joined the scene. He’d parked his bicycle by the side of the road and was pressing the doorbell, holding the letters in one hand. There’s no one home, so he’ll just stick the letters in the mailbox; just as I was thinking this, I felt the first stab of the cold water, piercing the top of my head and the nape of my neck and the rim of my ears. The next moment I felt the weight of the water pull me under, cold hands seizing me and tugging me down. The cold was lethal, and my limbs were rapidly becoming numb. I’d fallen into the water, I knew this perfectly well, yet I kept on mechanically lifting my feet up and down. I imagined that I was walking down a flight of stairs—stairs of water, which were rapidly extending downward as I placed my feet on the next step. Without needing to look behind me, I knew that they were disappearing as I descended, that the section I’d passed had already dissolved into the water. The thought suddenly came to me that “returning” is merely a word, not something referring to a real possibility. I was going to mumble that something had gone wrong, but my frozen lips wouldn’t part. Icy water had seeped in between them when I first fell in, freezing them into immobility after my initial cry of distress. Water bearing the deep chill of midwinter, water that pierces and penetrates warm winter clothes, cold enough to carry off my soul. A devil was stabbing me with an ice poker. When I broke the surface I’d felt a pain as though my lips had been gashed on sharp rocks, as though a bone had broken in my left side, so extreme that I saw fireworks flash in front of my eyes.
It’s always the same. I load the weapon. I raise it. I stare down the barrel for a moment, as if it had something to tell me. I point it at my left temple (yes, I’m a lefty, so what?). I take a deep breath. Screw up my eyes. Wrinkle my brow. Caress the trigger. Notice that my index finger is moist. I slowly release my strength, very cautiously, as if there were a gas leak inside me. Clench my teeth. Almost. My finger bends back. Now. And then, as always, the same thing happens: a burst of laughter. An instantaneous laugh so raw and meaningless that my muscles quiver, forces me to drop the gun, knocks me off the chair, prevents me from shooting.
I don’t know what the devil my mouth is laughing at. It’s inexplicable. However downhearted I feel, however ghastly the day seems, however convinced I am that the world would be a better place without my annoying presence, there is something about the situation, about the metallic feel of the butt, the solemnity of the silence, my sweat dripping like pills, what can I say, there is something impossible to define that I find, in spite of myself, dreadfully comic. A millimeter before the trigger gives way, before the bullet travels to the source of rest, my guffaws invade the room, bounce off the window panes, scamper through the furniture, turn the whole house upside down. I’m afraid my neighbors also hear them, and to add insult to injury, conclude I am a happy man.
Devote your life to humor, a friend suggested when I told him of my tragedy. But except when I’m committing suicide, I don’t find any jokes funny. Continue reading