Monday, April 27, 2009

Foreign Words (A Review)

Foreign Words
By Vassilis Alexakis
Translated by Alyson Waters
Autumn Hill Books
228 pages
April 1, 2006

Whereas in French, like in Greek, the negating adverb goes at the head of the sentence, in Sango it goes at the end. How can anyone not be surprised by a language that always presents things in a positive light, only to retract them at the end? If you want to express the idea that you no longer have parents, first you will say that you have them, and then you will add
pepe (the first syllable is middle, the second down, pepè), that is, "not," "not at all," or, in Greek, dèn: "I have my father and mother not."

Vassilis Alexakis was born and raised in Greece but exiled to France by the 1967 coup d'etat. His first novel, Le sandwhich, was written in French and the second, Talgo, was written in Greek and translated by Alexakis himself into French. Not surprisingly, the interplay between language, life, and loss is the dominant theme of Le mots étrangers (Foreign Words, translated from French by Alyson Waters), originally published in 2002. Nicolaides, the narrator, is also a Greek novelist living in France. Following the recent death of his father, he has decided to learn Sango, the main tongue of the Central African Republic (a former French colony). The resulting story is not plot-driven per se: it is a novel of ideas and introspection, in which events unfold organically, much as they do in real life. The depth of Sango proficiency exhibited in the narrative, as well as Nicolaides's strong biographical similarities to Alexakis, indicates a work that may be as much a memoir as it is fictionalized.

The first word of Sango Nicolaides learns is, appropriately, baba, which means "father." Now "orphaned" at age fifty-three, Nicolaides finds himself leading an ordinary, and somewhat stagnant, life in Paris. His last novel received lukewarm reception and his publishing contract demands he soon release another. He carries on a sporadic affair with a midwife named Alice and watches a friend fight cancer. Why he wants to learn a third language, particularly an obscure one, is something Nicolaides can't quite articulate at first, although he recalls that,
Whenever you begin to study a new language, you inevitably seem a bit foolish, you become a child again. Was I nostalgic for that time in my life when I didn't yet know how to speak? I had had no end of trouble getting the hang of French, but the effort had not been devoid of charms. Some of the words I encountered were so delightful to me, and I would enthusiastically try to combine them in different ways to form sentences. The French language has become less amusing since it has become the tool with which I earn my so-called living. It's no longer a foreign language; I learned it so long ago that I have the impression that I've always know how to speak it. Maybe I wanted to learn a foreign language simply because I didn't know any.
In fact, he was eventually so immersed in French he nearly forgot his native Greek. As a bilingual writer, Nicolaides is an individual whose life and work have been inevitably shaped by the dynamics of languages and how they reflect and act on the cultures that produced them, as well as the cultures they were imposed upon (i.e. French in the Central African Republic). That he would want to acquire yet another language is actually less surprising than it seems.

Nicolaides's subsequent journey is an intellectual one. The biggest action that occurs is his trip to the CAR, which - despite his boyhood fantasies of Tarzan, fascination with big cats, and some brief references to Heart of Darkness - is largely uneventful. Any "exotic adventures" happen in Nicolaides's mind. It is an intriguing and subtle take on the Western paradigm of Africa as the dark "other" where the wild things are and unwary white people fall victim to either "savages" or "primal influences" (i.e. Kurtz, Tarzan). Even reading the Sango dictionary, Nicolaides comes across sample sentences such as "Once I've killed him, I can throw him in the bush, can't I?" and "They tore Africa to shreds, like hyenas" that bring to mind the bleak, one-sentence "short stories" by Thomas Bernhard. Given the information presented in the book, in addition to the influence of American media images of Africa as a continent wracked by violence and famine, I fully expected something major to take place during Nicolaides's stay in the CAR. It turns out, however, that capital city Bangui isn't all that different from Paris and Athens. For all its economic poverty, it is yet another community of ordinary people working and living their day-to-day lives. The death of Nicolaides's parents had also revived an interest in his family history, including a photo of his grandfather taken in a Bangui studio (with the appropriate "exotic" flourishes) and a great-aunt who was well-known in Bangui's Greek community. In reality, then, Sango- and French-speaking Bangui is a largely familiar place, right down to the conflicts between French and Sango that mirror the tension between Demotic (Modern) Greek and Katharevousa, the official state dialect of Greece.

Foreign Words is ultimately a novel that gives the reader the pleasure of exploring new approaches to language and culture. It is a leisurely book that encourages meditation on the wonderfully compelling concepts it introduces. Anyone seeking suspense or action will be entirely bored; everyone else, however, is in for a learning experience skillfully embedded in Vassilis Alexakis's clean but deftly-composed prose. ("The wind that had risen at nightfall was making my new curtains ripple, filling them with air and then suddenly drawing them outside. I saw them fluttering like hankerchiefs. It was as if my apartment were leaving the neighborhood, waving good-bye to the buildings across the way.") Foreign Words is probably not a book with mass appeal, but thoughtful readers will truly appreciate it.


Related Posts with Thumbnails