"Well, here you are at last. We've been puzzled about you for so long;
although you left behind much love and devotion, you bequeathed us very
few facts." -- Nathalie Babel, 1964
Like a Beast, by Joy Sorman, I, translation by Lara Vergnaud
Literary translation is a seemingly impossible task – which explains why it is so fascinating. The English-language side of the literary magazine Salon .ll. is the go-to place for discussions which make translation possible. On its French side, Salon .ll. offers an excerpt from Comme une bête (Gallimard, 2012), a novel by the French writer Joy Sorman, side-by-side with an as yet unpublished English-language translation of the same text by Lara Vergnaud. The United States does not have the reputation of a country that translates a lot. Even so, literature likes to scoff at borders and there is no lack of readers, in the United States and elsewhere, when it comes to indulging oneself in the pleasure of discovery combined with the more intellectual exercise of comparison. It is to this subtle dialogue of languages that we now invite you.
Translated by Ellen Sowchek
Like a Beast tells the story of a young man, Pim, who loves animals. He loves them so much that he learns to butcher them. Perfectly. The author’s meticulous research helps carry the reader deep into the realm of its subject.
Pim is not the cerebral type; he is pragmatic and down-to-earth, ready to leave school and earn a living. He knows he loves animals and wants them to be an important part of his life, so he becomes an apprentice at the butchery training center at Ploufragan in Brittany. It turns out that he is gifted in his chosen field. Butchery is hard and often difficult work, but Pim is a perfectionist; he enters his profession as a novice joins a religious order. He becomes increasingly passionate about his work, perhaps too passionate. Pim is not the only one who knows he is a different sort of butcher, that he is an artist of the flesh. Women notice that he can mold emotion and sculpt passion with his bare hands, and he soon gains a following not just with meat lovers.
Like a Beast shows us what the meat trade is really like, taking us, along with Pim, from livestock on the hoof in the stall to the slaughterhouse, and finally to packaging ready for purchase. It is a vibrant homage to handicraft, a poetic and metaphysical fable on the relationship between humans and animals, as well as a glimpse into a little known and rough, but fascinating life.
From the first image he’s in the shot, girded in white and dignity, knife in hand. At first, you can only see his chest covered by an apron, his hands gloved in metal. Then the camera recedes, the young man appears in his entirety, all the parts are there, from foot to head: a butcher.
The image is racing, streaming at high-speed now against electro music with muffled bass: the butcher chops up pigs in fast-forward, disjoints vertebrae bone by bone, extracts a rack of ribs, carves a rump steak, scrapes fat from the muscles, tortures the flesh with a meat hammer then a tenderizer, de-veins livers and kidneys, grabs a pretty little calf’s head by the nostrils, opens it up, removes the trussing string, tosses the meat onto a sheet of butcher paper, weighs it and hands the packet to the customer.
You’re not sure you saw right. A thousand gestures broken down in 152 seconds. Immense hands bustling before the camera lens, palpating scarlet, gleaming matter under the projector lights. Closing credits, image fixed on the butcher’s youthful smile: his eyes sparkle, radiant, his eyes are wet, it looks like the butcher’s going to cry.
Pim’s the star of a promotional video on meat-related occupations, a small amateur film that will be projected in the dining hall right before the welcome reception.
Two years earlier young Pim is starting the new school year at the Ploufragan apprentice training center. It’s September, a cold wind rises above the trees in the small courtyard, the first autumn leaves flying low to the ground. The aspiring butchers gathered under the canopy have turned their pockmarked faces towards the dais: the director is holding court, his voice carries, thunders in a solemn drum roll, gentlemen, young lady, welcome!—he directs a smile both complicit and apologetic at the sole girl in the group. The director is three years away from retirement and traditional, à l’ancienne (just like tripes à l’ancienne once preferred over tripes à la mode de Caen which simmer in a marmite for five hours before being doused with a glassful of pastis in the final hour of cooking), shoulders forward, stomach bowed out, hands crossed behind his back, buckled shoes and charcoal grey suit:
Gentlemen, young lady, first thing, which will seem like a detail to you but it’s not. Understand that the butcher wears his hair short. A matter of hygiene, matter of presentation. I see a certain number of you who will have to visit the barber. Short hair is neater, it’s simpler, it’s also more courteous. As for you young lady, you can get away with pulling yours back.
For some time already Pim’s dreams have been contaminated by Technicolor vignettes of short-haired apprentice butchers. Images which stream in a slideshow or as a Panini sticker album, bright and constant images emerging from his REM sleep: the butchers stay there, chins sprouting thin beards, in the young man’s exceedingly transparent dreams. Visions of apprentices with crew cuts trimmed high on their necks, with reddened hands, with fingernails clipped at a right angle, hemmed in by chewed pockets of skin, with socks pulled up tight. They smoke in secret and the smell of cold tobacco on their fingers mixes with that of blood, sharp and metallic, neither of the two scents managing to mask the other. In Pim’s dreams smells are tenacious, they don’t fade until a few minutes after waking, once his fingers dip into a bowl of coffee.
Pim didn’t always dream of being a butcher, it’s not a calling, it’s not taking over the family business (his parents work for city hall, and their exchanges have the cold politeness of those who have never known the passion of discord and reconciliation), it’s escaping a school that initially leaves him indifferent, then bores him, and now ossifies him, it’s finding a job, making money, getting cracking as soon as possible, having a trade and let’s be done with it. Pim never feigned the slightest interest in the life of an intellectual, an academic career, in the justification that prolonged schooling would ensure he earned a decent salary, obtained responsibilities, attained a certain form of social merit. A diploma no longer guarantees anything, and certainly not lucrative and stable employment.
What’s more Pim is dexterous, that’s to say he’s blessed with long, pale hands—of a pianist, not a butcher, his father always tells him—with slender fingers, bony and agile. Pim’s never broken anything, not even as a child; his movements are rapid and precise and, despite their peculiar thinness, his fingers filled with fervor. He undoes the tightest knots, untangles the thinnest threads, steadily glues minuscule fragments of porcelain to a chipped vase, opens beer bottles with his hands, makes coins and elastics dance between his fingers, picks jammed padlocks.
The rest of his body is in the same vein: elongated, knobby, but alive.
At an age when kids like beer, skateboarding, or rock music, Pim likes his hands, he draws a certain glory from them, he finds them efficient and elegant. For touching girls as well.
Pim looks at his hands and he cries.
Often Pim cries, without cause and even without wanting to, the tears hurtle down out of the blue, inappropriate for the situation, unexpected and unjustified. His parents stopped worrying about it or even being upset about it, it’s been happening since forever, and at school there was lots of teasing. In the beginning they thought that it was a tear duct disease, a syndrome of ocular dryness, like grains of sand in the eyes, needle pricks or burning, but no, the tears always come when they’re not expected, at the wrong moment, the way you can get a nose bleed for no apparent reason. Pim cries at the sight of his hands or a dog crossing the street, at a chicken in the oven, at frizzy hair, and who can say if it’s his emotions. He also cries when he’s overwhelmed, unhappy, or angry and they’re the same tears, the same salt, they disfigure the same angular and long face, hollowed under his cat eyes colored bronze.
Pim observes his hands lying flat on the desk, his heart doesn’t tighten, his throat doesn’t knot up, his legs are still supporting him and yet he’s crying. Absence of feeling, no sign of trembling, but water that drips from a poorly shut faucet, a leak on the line, a mechanized fountain.
He doesn’t know it yet but these hands will ensure him a radiant future.
Pim understands nothing about economic mechanisms, about market laws and financial fluctuations but he doesn’t heed those who profess the end of the artisan, judging such trades obsolete, doomed to extinction, unworthy residues of a long gone stage of the economy. He happily leaves modernity’s ghostly professions—marketing or communications— to others, and will choose a dirty and concrete job.
Pim kept his head down until the end of ninth grade, mediocre student but polite, reserved and without drama. At the end of second semester the guidance counselor hands him a brochure about apprenticeships—Pim you know it’s not a dead end job, it’s the guarantee of a good occupation—, but Pim is a practical sort and the brochure promises training plus on-the-job experience, a vocational certificate in two years following ninth grade, over 4,000 positions to be filled in all of France’s butcher shops, an apprentice’s salary that varies from 25% to 78% of the minimum wage and a sector untouched by the recession.
And why not baking, masonry, or carpentry? Because butchery is lucrative, because the butcher doesn’t work outside in the wind and rain, and because meat motivates him more than wood, that’s how it is.
© Joy Sorman and Lara Vergnaud, 2014
Published with the collaboration of The French Publishers' Agency.
[Photo: C. Hélie. All rights reserved.]
Joy Sorman was born in 1973. She was awarded the Prix de Flore for her first novel Boys, Boys, Boys (Gallimard, 2005). Gallimard also published her other books, Du bruit, in 2007, Gros oeuvre in 2009, and Paris Gare du Nord in 2011.
Translator Lara Vergnaud