A Trip to Australia

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I’m flying over Australia. It is 4pm in Noumea and 7am in France.
Are writing and living really compatible?

Way down below I see four murky-green, oval lakes. A patchwork of enormous fields – brown, green, ochre and purple. Roads criss-crossing as far as the eye can see. The work of Titans: this continent is not of human proportions. The earth is red, ailing, it drags itself crawling towards the ocean, desperately, as if it has been on a long quest:

Drink, I want to drink you, she said, immerse myself in you. Look at me, I am dried up, cracked and broken down languishing here like this. I was a red desert.

I was a sierra divided into squares and triangles. A skeleton carried me.

Finally, I see you. At first you are like a dream, a mirage, a galaxy curled around itself, boiling hot swamp, silver mirror, desert of salt and white mud. I surround you, you act cool, like the sky or a milky way that fell to the ground by mistake: who put you there? And why?

The birds are flying too low, and you are too white!

And these roads are too empty and my destitution is solitary. My children gather together on the lovely coasts, the gulfs and the bays hemmed with foam, from where their sails take off in graceful swarms of butterflies.

They have built proud cities there, at the very doors of my distress.
Sometimes I call out to them: the wind, that red demon, blows from the desert and covers them with a shroud of my colours.
It covers the sun with bloodstained clouds. Then, they think about their land.

When I am alone, I get bored, I take the wind’s quill and I trace hieroglyphics on the sand.
Nobody sees them.

Or else, using the wind’s force, I take the mallet and I sculpt the earth: a phoenix, wings spread, a zebra, head lowered, a grotesque pelican and then, weary of it all, I give up – they no longer have any sense these lines, traits, scarification, the scabs of my heart lying open to the winds…

Death is blinding, like a sun without energy, a liquid sun, an immense ball of mud and salt.

The sun pumps out the last traces of water. Soon, not a single drop will be left. A new desert forever: I love you and I am killing you.

(The temperature is increasing: I feel it through the plane window which is burning to the touch). It is 6pm. We’ve now been flying for two hours.

The magic starts to fade.

This desert is a giant, breathing effigy, an anatomical plate. I see its veins, nerves, diverse humours and circulations, lymph and living flesh with its keloid scars of reddish-brown and other white marks (burns perhaps?). Its imperfections: warts, wrinkles and the bumps and scrapes of our good old earth, seen here as we can never see it anywhere else.

Here, she is naked, skeletal, laid bare.
Here, she survives, solitary, hostile, barren, and all her passions are etched on her skin.

Here are the long, black streaks of her suicide attempts. Here is her hair, dishevelled like that of a bolting thoroughbred mare, spirited, when she dreams of her wild love-making.
(Does the earth dream?)

Here is the embryo, that minuscule dot, that labyrinth of new-life-carrying vessels.

(Does the earth dream too of all the embryos, animal or vegetable, like a woman dreams of the stranger forming [strange mystery, monster or marvel] in her womb?)

Here is the placenta, the irrigated matrix of her dream. Here she is going tirelessly in search of food, the manna of the desert, she is looking by casting out, in all directions, her arteries, veins, arterioles and nerves, as delicate as the finest of leaflets.

Look! An outpost shining unusually brightly: microbes standing guard! (Is this the role of men in the desert?) And, all of the sudden, she casts out again further and further, the smaller river then the long, silver river woven from her demands.

For she is greedy, not for herself but for this gestating dream, a dream that she must carry to term.

She stretches out her legs, rips herself open and scratches around herself to bring back to her belly the substance of her chimeras. By searching so hard and wanting it so much, voilà a watering hole, a tiny one, then another, two, three, four, and then no more.

She sculpts the shapes of her desire and her weariness.

Calm returns. Until a new madness takes hold of her: to give birth to her fantasies. Or else go and drown herself in the other immensity, the Pacific Ocean, another great creator of fantasies.
When the earth cries, traces remain, chiselled on her cheeks and shoulders.

The earth trembles and breaks in two.

At 6.20pm: Uluru.
A crater like a hollow breast (perfect circle, very big), with an erect nipple in the centre. And all around, the earth’s great witching hour – she sends her couples in relief into a frenzied jive.
A man embraces her, she seems pacified. Pause.

Further in the distance: a group of rocks, an enormous flock of stones are grazing in solitude.

The foreground is clear: the first one is a woman lying down, pregnant, waiting for her merciful release with her face lifted toward the sky.

Further away again: men huddled together in the foetal position. Are they awaiting death?

Yet more mountains. A woman, her head raised, her long hair flying in the wind. Or that other woman, with a bird on her head, who is violently attacking a monster or is it a man? With contempt and disdain.

And then more: intertwined paintings and sculptures.

And more again: large canvases, a flight of colours, in matching shades, in a volley, violent slashes of colour or a profusion of pastels.

A dragon lying in a dried-up swamp of fire, another phoenix with a flaming crest, wings spread and the train of its long tail (or is it clutching a snake in its claws?)

And still more: a squad of little clouds of light, the first for hours! They move forward, or rather it’s our plane that is moving away from them, but their shadow remains still.

We’ve now been flying at nine hundred kilometres an hour for two and a half hours over this desert.
She (the earth) tells me her story, she writes it, draws it and sculpts it for me.
And her story is also my story:
When, oh when, poor things of this world, will we reach the sea? The water?

Floating veils of clouds go past, like curtains that we pull.
Like water spreading between these steamy isles… Like fog drowning the valley… And now it’s the sky’s turn to tell me his story, his struggle and his suffering.

A great gust of cloud arrives.
I feel nauseous: it is drizzling outside.
Suddenly, I open my eyes: fantastic scenery!
The earth has become the sky, the bottom is on top, everything has been inverted.
All of this is in me, all of this is mine:

So I throw out my octopus tentacles towards you. On this earth, so many gigantic serpents come slithering out at night and hide in her bowels by day!
Monsters from the dawn of time, they climb out to destroy the creature in the black of night.
As for me, I throw these huge green and black rings out to you, eye of the day.
Suddenly, I tense up, overcome by an icy pain that climbs in a wide, circular motion towards my heart. Once again I have lost trace of you, and my stealthy black chargers break free, dispersing in all directions. A faint light radiates the horizon: could it be You?

My tears of salt and blood have dried on my flat cheeks: where is my splendour?
I am she of wind and fire. My breasts have dried up. My emaciated belly is barren!
And yet I conceal gold and diamonds and the powerful uranium that promotes men to the level of gods and the rarest minerals of all the colours of the rainbow.
My misery and my strength.
My death is rebirth!

 

Written by Hélène Savoie translated from the French by Karin Speedy

© Karin Speedy 2010

Reference

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)

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A Taste of Transnational Writing from the Pacific Region

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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”…

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Let me see your beauty broken down like you would do for one you love.

Leonard Cohen

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

 

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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

Reference

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)