The Alexander Express

I’ll not get past this passage today, from Mathias Enard’s Zone, translated so elegantly by Charlotte Mandell. Dreams of an endless train journey through old, weary places. If I read a better book than Zone this year I shall be fortunate.

” . . . and the employee (a blonde Venetian, a kind of barrette held in her mouth like a toothpick) had looked at me stunned, to Alexandria but there’s a train, and in that immediate confidence one has in professionals I had pictured, for a second, a train that would go from Venice to Alexandria in Egypt, direct via Trieste Zagreb Belgrade Thessalonica Istanbul Antioch Aleppo Beirut Acre and Port Said, a challenge to geopolitics and to the mind, and even, once I had understood her confusion, Alessandria in Piedmont, I had began to dream of a train that would unite all the Alexandrias, a network connecting Alessandria in Piedmont Alexandria Troas in Turkey Alexandria in Egypt Alexandria in Arachosia, possibly the most mysterious of them all, lost in Afghanistan far from railroads the train would be called The Alexander Express and would go from Alexandria Eschate in Tajikistan to Piedmont through the lips of Africa in thirteen days and as many nights . . .”

17 thoughts on “The Alexander Express

  1. I will be interested to hear how you like the book at the end. I’m a bit of an outlier on this one, I don’t have the same love others do. I didn’t hate it, but I found it an arduous read through the mid-section. I note that I did underline a large section of the passage you just quoted though.

  2. Two comments – I read an interview with Charlotte Mandel that she does not read a book before translating it, she translates as she goes, and that Enard’s prose made this harder than usual. As I can imagine. Also, I met Enard last year when he gave a lecture/discussion at the Michalski Foundation near here. It was one of those fantastic sessions – between him and an academic from the University in Lausanne, who knew his work nearly by heart, all of it – where two highly intelligent people have a marvelous discussion about everything and nothing to do with the books in question. He struck me as vivid and thoughtful and a little odd, which I always like.

    • So fascinated by the idea that a translator has not read a text beforehand. What would be gained by that, do you think?

      “vivid and thoughtful and a little odd”: that surely encompasses all my favourite people in the world, writers or otherwise.

      • Her point is an interesting one – she absorbs the text as she goes, engages with it as a reader as much as a translator. I think this would be a lot of fun and I’m sure it retains a freshness for her as she works with it. And I liked overall what she had to say. A small part of me, however, remembered that this is the privilege of a translator who can pick and choose projects offered to her, which is rare indeed and many couldn’t attempt this on a professional level, even for the aesthetic exercise it offered, because it is more often the translator hunting for a publisher than vice versa.

  3. I rather liked this (in fact I think I may have made it my book of the year that year, though I can’t now recall). It helped I read some of it on a train. Like many fat novels, like War and Peace which I’m reading presently, you sort of have to abandon yourself to it and let yourself be carried by its own rhythms and logic.

    Mandel’s approach would I think have been trickier than usual here, I can see that.

    It’s structurally very clever, which I rather like. I’ll be interested to hear your thoughts on the short story collection the narrator reads within the novel. Views on that (and its significance) vary widely.

  4. Thanks, Anthony – no, Fog Island Mountains hasn’t been sold into any other languages. I’d love to see it in French, (and French publishing is more interested in Japan-set fiction than some other countries) but it’s pretty unlikely it will ever get translated into Japanese. I can dream : )

    Also meant to ask you if this is the first Enard that you’ve read?

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