A number of years ago now, I had the pleasure of translating a book of short stories, Half-Moon Lands, by New Caledonian writer Hélène Savoie. I wrote a fairly extensive introduction to the book, which you can read here.
Hélène Savoie takes the reader of Half-Moon Lands on a poetic, poignant and often fantastic journey of self-discovery as her stories traverse eras and spaces from the colonial to the postcolonial, from the New Caledonian and Hebridean bush to Noumea to Sydney, from dream to reality, from the land of the living to the land of the dead through heaven, hell and purgatory.
She uses the frameworks of both Kanak and European myth and legend and draws on personal and collective memories to highlight the great hybridity of the Oceanic spaces she inhabitants. She also traces the development of a local, yet transnational, identity among the descendants of European immigrants (both free and forced) in New Caledonia.
My introduction to and translation of Half-Moon Lands brings this francophone voice from the Pacific to the attention of English-speaking readers. My translation approach upholds the otherness of the stories by privileging their difference and local singularity, preserving the interplay between the inclusive and exclusive elements of the French text, thus putting readers from the so-called Pacific periphery at the centre.
The book is divided into two parts: “Half-Moon Lands (New Caledonia and the New Hebrides)” and “Pacific Sky (Australia)”. I have chosen two stories from the second half of the book to share here as they demonstrate quite nicely the transnational element of Hélène’s writing. The urban hell of Sydney in the 1980s that she evokes in “Pacific Sky” stands in sharp contrast to, yet also blends with, the paradisiacal natural landscapes of her island home that she describes in the first half of the book. Yet, perhaps because I am currently living in Sydney (and was a child of the 1980s), I find this section, full of junkies, prostitutes, dirt, rubbish, rotten smells, dark alleys, smoky bars, sterile man-made fountains and ugly buildings, quite striking. I hope you enjoy “Merlin Court” and “Eucalyptus Steam Bath”…
Let me see your beauty broken down like you would do for one you love.
This discrete hotel is lost down a quiet alley behind the Cross, the centre for night owls, and the place where drugs and prostitution are King. Near an Indian bazaar and a joke shop, where larger than life rattlesnakes slither among the demon, Chimera and witch masks, the white façade of a building rises above its neighbours. According to the sign outside, it is called “Merlin”, the magician of the famous Arthur Pendragon, the king who founded the English dynasty.
The hotel is lost in an exotic Forest of Brocéliande whose sweet scent, given off by the tiaré flowers, bewitches the few people who pass by.
In her room that night, she listened to the tinkle of the little bells shaped like pagodas, good luck charms that she had bought that very day in a Chinatown emporium as, according to the Chinese, they have the power to ward off evil spirits.
Darkness slowly descended upon the room, taking it over completely as she stood still, contemplating Sydney Harbour lit up by the incessant traffic of ferries and the cars crossing the Harbour Bridge.
She was overtaken by an insidious torpor as she recalled the one who had disappeared. Is not death but an appearance?
The fragrance of the tiaré picked that morning was as strong as a narcotic. A presence began to take shape in the shadows. She was alive, but the question was whether he was willing to come back to this side of the river to rediscover the smell of life’s perfumes? In an instant, she believed that she had caught a glimpse of the shadow of his fleeting silhouette against the crepuscular sky, but everything faded away.
The next day, the plane trees in the street captured the bright daylight in their multitudinous leaves, reflecting it in shades of emerald. As usual, she sat at one of the tables outside “Geoffrey’s Café” when a gust of wind swept down the street, whipping up a cloud of white dust that danced for a long while in the sun before finally settling.
A thought suddenly popped into her head – he was there, somewhere, a prisoner in a wretched, squalid King’s Cross flat and they had faked his death to protect his new identity. Who had attended his funeral?
Often she thought that he had been laid to rest in the Brontë Cemetery overlooking the Pacific Ocean from its high cliff top that was constantly battered by the winds coming from the open sea. A strange cemetery shaded by palm trees, whose old graves are watched over by marble angels with open wings, evoking even more so the dark Wuthering Heights than Paul Valéry’s Cimetière marin. She liked to walk in this place of silence and tranquillity.
It was in “Geoffrey’s Café” that she wrote the first pages of her story, and that of Merlin the Enchanter, victim of an evil spell, who was imprisoned forever in this Brocéliande Forest of the antipodes:
Once upon a time there was a discrete but luxurious hotel in an alley in the Cross, near an Indian bazaar… at its windows, little Chinese bells quietly tinkled. Merlin, the prisoner, was dreaming there, inebriated by the perfume of the tiaré flowers that was wafting up to his balcony.
But do we really know what effect fiction has on reality? Perhaps I am myself a variant of the fairy that keeps you here, a sad prisoner in this faraway land, after having stolen the secrets of your magic?
I sometimes seem to hear your sigh of defeat and sometimes, on the contrary, I hear the very far off echo of your joyless laughter, as if you were still mocking the futility of it all.
© Karin Speedy and Hélène Savoie, 2010
Eucalyptus Steam Bath
I walk alone in its wake. Night is wrapped around this city of shadows and desire, and its silence is shattered by police car sirens.
I am there, watchful of what is hiding in the dark, walking on the asphalt footpath that is still warm from the now faded heat of the day. I am walking towards the twinkling stars of this cruel southern city. Misery lets out its groan in one heavy breath in this almost deserted street, turned over to its night time residents, in a stench of rubbish and of lingering odours of nauseating, stagnant, greasy fat.
The Boulevard Hotel: how many times have I looked at this foggy red sign? The steam baths are on the 28th floor: a Chinese woman with a frozen face reigns over them. With her mummy-like smile that is more of a grimace, she welcomes me, along with other single men and elderly English couples, into the parlour.
“Eucalyptus steam baths”, said the ad in a brochure picked up in a hotel room, lost among the addresses of brothels and call-girl clubs. The slap slap of flesh being pummelled resonates sinisterly from the otherwise silent booths: this is where sex-starved oldies come to regain their vitality through some expert bottom smacking on the part of the masseuses.
Just as dark is the sauna bath in a thick fog of odorous steam. Here men and women slyly eye each other up in the half-light, like old injured animals ready to tear each other to pieces.
I flee this place, overcome with uneasiness and disgust, feeling tainted, soiled by mere association with these people, sick of body and soul, searching for their lost youth, their wilted beauty and the all-too-quickly exhausted pleasures of their flesh, now withered by the wear and tear brought on by time and all their vices.
I make my way up the last of the empty levels of the thirty-floor building: piano music is floating out of the restaurant overlooking the Harbour and the Bridge. The shopping arcades are all closed at this hour of the night. The twelve strokes of midnight of some imaginary belfry resonate through my body, and I find myself a prisoner in a waking dream, like a stranger wandering aimlessly though a pathetic comic version of a fairytale, where some fallen prince has replaced Cinderella.
A captive of my own despair and solitude, of my still unfulfilled desire to leave or to finish with it all, it appears more and more obvious that Fate has been toying with me. Sometimes I turn around quickly and look back towards the sumptuous lobby with wall to wall red velvet where my steps disappear, inaudible, muffled by the thick carpet, hoping that this abrupt movement will make she who has injected me with the poison of this incurable melancholy suddenly appear from the lift.
Who is she ? How do I know her? How did I meet her? I have no recollection whatsoever. I still don’t know what she looks like, I simply sense that she is there, near me, present on the other side of reality, so close and yet so far away, her mere apparition, it seems to me, would be enough to save me from myself.
She remains mysterious and hides, like Isis, behind the seven opaque veils from the invisible, where I drift in a maze of empty and incoherent images, as if this world had become a stranger to me.
So, like a man demented, I throw myself back into the heart of the damp darkness of the avenue, this river of lights with a violent backwash, I go up it until I reach the intersection of the Cross so that I can drown my senses in the dives and sleazy bars in this modern Babylon, certain that I will walk there alone until the end.
In her wake, only perceptible to me, sometimes floated the blended fragrance of a vanilla and ylang-ylang perfume whose trail I followed, in a hurry to burn the last years of an existence that had driven a wall between us. I was longing to escape from the imprisonment of the cloister of my life to find her on the other side of the mirror of appearances, where she has been waiting for me for such a long time.
© Karin Speedy and Hélène Savoie, 2010
Speedy, Karin and Savoie, Hélène. Les Terres de la demi-lune / Half-Moon Lands. Bilingual edition, Translated and with a Critical Introduction by Karin Speedy. ISBN: 978 2 296 11771 6. L’Harmattan: Paris, 2010. (280 pages)