Mend the Living by Maylis de Kerangal

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Translated by Jessica Moore

Reviewed by Annabel

It is easy to see why this novel (in this translation; Sam Taylor has translated it in the USA as The Heart) has been longlisted for the International Man Booker Prize 2016 for it is a true original. Published in France in 2014 as Réparer les vivants, it has already won prizes. It is an intellectual novel with few concessions for the reader, but once you get into the author’s particular style, it will hook you as firmly as any thriller yet keep your brain totally engaged.

The novel begins with a single sentence that sprawls over an entire page. It introduces us to Simon Limbeau – and his heart:

What it is, Simon Limbeau’s heart, this human heart, from the moment of birth when its cadence accelerated while other hearts outside were accelerating too, hailing the event, no one really knows; 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;  […] and on this night – a night without stars – while it was bone-crackingly cold on the estuary […] this heart was sounding the regular rhythm of an organ at rest, a muscle slowly recharging – a pulse of probably less than fifty beats per minute – when a mobile phone alarm went off at the foot of a narrow bed, the echo of a sonar inscribing the digits 5.50 a.m. in luminescent bars on the touchscreen, and everything suddenly shot ahead.

Twenty-year-old Simon goes surfing with his two mates early one morning. The surf is up and we experience his sheer exhilaration as he rides the wave, gets pulverised by the water’s ferocity, it ‘crushes him as it liberates him, saturates his muscular fibres, his bronchial tubes, oxygenates his blood’; yet he paddles out to do it again and again.

You start reading this book knowing that Simon will die and that his heart will live on – that’s not a spoiler. Yet it is a shock to find out that the accident in which he will be critically injured doesn’t occur in the surf – but an accident in the van with his mates on the way home. Simon was the one sitting in the middle without a seatbelt. It is his mother, Marianne, who gets the sad news that her son lies in a deep coma in hospital – it’s irreversible – like Simon’s tattoo, ‘the word comes back to her like a boomerang: irreversible.’

The heart stopping is no longer the sign of death, from now on it’s the cessation of brain function that is the indication. In other words: if I don’t think anymore therefore I am no more.

For us this reversal of Descartes’ famous proposition is clear, but to Simon’s parents it takes time to sink in. Yet they will give their consent for his organs to be harvested for transplantation, much to the relief of the transplant coordinator, nurse Thomas Remige.

The medical procedures surrounding organ donation and transplant and the jobs of all the doctors and nurses are detailed, necessarily viscerally described, yet in a non-sensational manner. The author allows enough of the medics’ personalities through the medical process to fascinate further and fill you with hope that Simon’s heart will live on. From Doctor Revol who admits Simon and the nurse Cornelia Owl who is new to the ICU, to the surgical team who fly in to harvest the heart to take back from Le Havre to Paris and singer Thomas, we experience their day, alongside that of Simon’s heart.

It is later in the story that we will meet the intended recipient of Simon’s heart, Claire, an older woman with heart failure. She has moved to a dark and claustrophobic apartment near the hospital to be at hand when the call she hopes for comes. She is understandably apprehensive about the emotional consequences of the transplant.

Her surgeon will be Mr Harfang, who hails from a dynasty of surgeons and is a cutter extraordinaire, a celebrity in the heart surgery world. He is the only character that grates of slight cliché in this novel, yet you know that Claire will be in good hands.

The breathless prose of Maylis de Kerangal rolls through this novel like the surf at the start, in lengthy, multi-claused, almost stream of consciousness sentences which are rarely unfocused. In their emotional investment, they vibrate with the rhythms of the still beating heart at the centre of the story. Life and death, living and grieving, ebb and flow around the medical drama.

There is an epic quality to this tragic story in which Simon is a hero, cut down in his prime. A French reading guide for this novel suggests comparison with the historic French tradition of Chansons de geste –epic songs of heroism, like the Song of Roland who dies a martyr’s death in battle. I feel this comparison is a little stretched, but I do like the concept.

Maylis de Kerangal’s translator, Jessica Moore, has done an incredible job to render her myriad phrases from French to English. The translator’s note after the novel is fascinating – discussing the author’s precise choices of names for all the characters; her ‘language hold-up’ style of writing; the complex vocabulary she uses. One word that struck me was ‘sagittal’ used to describe Simon’s view of the cliffs as he waited for the wave to come, this medical term means a line bisecting the human body vertically. I loved this metaphysical experiment of applying medical language to the world surrounding Simon’s heart.

Mend the Living is undoubtedly a breakthrough novel for Maylis de Kerangal. Luckily, Moore has also translated her previous book, Birth of a Bridge, and I shall await more with great interest.

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Annabel is one of the editors of Shiny New Books, and couldn’t help thinking of the classic Guinness ‘Surfer’ advert during the opening scenes of this story.

Maylis de Kerangal, Mend the Living, trans Jessica Moore (Maclehose, 2016). 978-08570533879, 240 pp., flapped paperback.

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  1. I just found my way here from a link at the end of another review. I thought about this novel – and your review of it – all day. You have ensnared me, mind and heart. Thank you.

    1. Thank you so much Roz. It is an amazing book and a magnificent feat of translation. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

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