The consortium of workers who gather during construction of a mythical bridge – engineers, designers, divers, overseers, protesters – with their various nationalities and social classes present a microcosm of not just California, but humanity as a whole. Through strong use of metaphor, the story of the bridge's construction becomes, in a sense, the story of construction of the novel.
About the authors
Jessica Moore is the author of a collection of poems, Everything, now (Brick Books, 2012), and the translator for Mend the Living (Talonbooks, 2016), a translation of the novel by Maylis de Kerangal, which was longlisted for the 2016 Man Booker International Prize and won the Wellcome Book Prize in 2017. Moore’s writing has also appeared recently in BOMB, Canadian Art, Arc, CV2, The New Quarterly, Carousel, The Volta and The Antigonish Review. Moore lives in Toronto, ON.
Excerpt: Birth of a Bridge ebook (by (author) Maylis de Kerangal; translated by Jessica Moore)
from Birth of a Bridge
by Maylis de Kérangal), translated by Jessica Moore
In the middle of the huge, indefinite field that borders the river, a man shouts in a port voice, “Anchorage One,” “Anchorage Two,” and so on until “Anchorage Six.” Men jump from shuttles that have carried them along the river to here, move forward on the quay built roughly against the edge of the bank, and form small teams that walk towards the end of the esplanade, where two enormous stationary machines sparkle in the sun.
Anchorage. Anchor the bridge. Dig to ensure solid foundations for the structure: two holes in the river bottom to plant the piers that will hold up the towers, and another hole on each bank – sixty million tons of concrete will be poured before the placement of the cables.
Tackle the bridge from below; then start from where it’s darkest, dirtiest, most elementary, begin in reverse, advance by receding, start by subtracting, digging, emptying, smashing. Work like a dog. We are dogs, this is what Diderot thinks as he docks in the Zodiac and it hits him once again that, in order to create a work, to erect it before the eyes of the world, to make it rise up from the ground, you have to first stick your head into the dirt and the depths of the ground. And Mo, who’s wiping his precious glasses on the fabric of his overalls, says exactly the same thing to himself, because he’s one of those who think first about the hole before evaluating the structure. He remembers that there were not always mines in Datong, they didn’t just appear, one fine morning, as though issued from a divine breath, chasms two hundred metres deep buttressed like cathedrals, complete with cages to carry men and mine-cart tracks down, no, they had to be built, these gigantic caverns, and one day, walking between his parents in the red mud that coated the city streets as soon as the first rains came, an idea had seized him, alarmed him, and with his feet sunk in the ground of the People’s Square (transformed into a thick and viscous wading pool), he had asked his parents: What was here before? What was here, even before Datong shone as a first-class industrial city of the popular Republic? The man and woman, of the same height and wiry build, had frowned, and then remembered, as through a haze, emerging for a moment from the coma of labour – yes, they had known the city when it was still covered in green, the suburbs where miserable little troglodyte hovels had proliferated, the skinny fowl and the little grey pig, they had known the ground when it was intact, but were sincerely puzzled by their son’s question, because that was a long, long time ago; it was another time, a time before the Revolution – in other words, before the light of reason had shone across the country; that was the prehistory of humanity and they lowered their eyes chastely, surprised, it’s true, they had been among those who had built the tool that rendered them useful, that had made them into agents of Progress, they had made with their hands the iron cage that had thrown them below, they had dug the holes.
Mo looks at the field and looks at the men, fear sweeps the ground out from under him, his head spins and he has to fight the urge to run away. Before him, the excavators warm up their motors and set themselves in motion, slowly, mechanical mastodons capable of digging a hole the size of a football field and twenty-five metres deep in a single day. His eyes widen and he stifles a cry, he thinks he recognizes them, they’ve travelled all the way from the open-sky mines, all the way from Datong, from the crucible of black mud that he’d left behind. They’ve found him here, crossed the ocean and come up the river at a high price, in dismantled pieces they’ve come to remind him. The men assembled are admiring them, ah, the heavy artillery of Pontoverde, while Mo is seized by a nightmare, stunned, no longer hearing the foreman who harangues them as though they’re an army heading into combat – boys, we’re attacking the anchorage phase, we’ve got a bridge to build, a bridge that will be the most beautiful bridge in the world – Mo panics, tucks his head down between his shoulders, and moves forward to dissolve into the Anchorage Five team.
Fifty metres from Mo, Soren Cry’s head also spins – crazy, all these guys in a daze – at the first shout of “Anchorage.” But it’s not the proclamation of the inaugural phase of construction that he hears, not these orders shouted as though they were performing a military manoeuvre, leaving the barracks, not this bombast meant to galvanize the workers: it’s the call of a wolf that tears at him, and with it the shame of having been thrown out of paradise lost. In another life, Soren Cry had lived in Anchorage, Alaska – he would speak of it like this, he would say “in another life,” because this past no longer belongs to him, he can’t even tell the story, but oh he feels it like a burning brick forgotten in the back corner of his brain; he had liked his life there, felt no different from the other guys who passed through the place, men disinclined to conversation, seasonal workers whose focus was hardly distracted by bowling, beer, and sex. Soren works as a carpenter first, on a naval construction site. After three days, he calls his mother from a telephone booth at lunchtime – an extraordinary gesture for him, since he didn’t really speak anymore – clears his throat and says: I’m gonna stay here, this is the city for me, I think it’s gonna work. At the other end of the line, the woman with her hair in pale green rollers and a negligee the same colour nods her head without really knowing what to think, this enthusiasm is suspicious, doesn’t sound like Soren – so incapable she is of seeing the possibility of such a conversion in him, she imagines at first that he’s in the clutches of a sect, drugged, in danger. Meanwhile, in anchorage, Soren likes living far away from his mother, loves the blue light and the glassy cold. The darkness that bathes the streets eight months out of twelve saves him from his own ugly face. It gives him a second skin that protects, a camouflage that hides: he dissolves into the polar night with a newfound joy and quickly gets used to this place, this wild life where men live side by side with great furred mammals: bears make garbage out of houses, linger in the change rooms of stadiums, swagger on the shores; moose hang out in the parking lots of supermarkets, grizzlies venture right up to the doors of the McDonald’s and finally – above all – there are wolves. Death prowls, men are armed, all around are enormous and carnivorous animals, and Soren feels more alive here than he has anywhere else and makes his way among them all. Once the construction is finished, he becomes a warehouseman in a fish factory, then a bus driver. In the end he knows the city like the back of his hand, the smallest street, the smallest suburb. He drives his little yellow four-wheel-drive bus, picks up kids after school, helps the disabled, even waves to the old folks. Often, after his shift, when night has fallen, he drives north, gets out of the car, and moves forward into hostile Nature. At the foot of the first ice hills, he listens to the rustling of space, he becomes part of it. Listens to the wolves. Calls to them. One night, a girl is there recording the pack, crouching in the dark. These human cries are wrecking her work, she shouts at him in the night. In the end they find each other in the half-dark, she’s a researcher in a zoology lab, he knows the place well. Soon she comes to live with him in his two-room place where the electric heat dries out their hair and makes their eyes red. Soren cooks for her, they drink quietly and go out on farther and farther excursions into the wild. And then it all goes to shit. One morning, Soren flees the city, takes the first plane to Chicago, gets on a Greyhound, his eyes bulging at the dreary, muggy countryside that comes back to him all at once, sticky as fate. He heads for Kentucky. The next morning, seeing him come through the door of their house, his mother understands but says nothing. He sits down on the couch, takes off his shirt: his winter coat is spattered with brownish stains and so is the bottom of his jeans. She doesn’t ask questions, just stuffs everything into the washing machine and turns it on, so happy he’s home.
The excavators churn up the ground, the men dig, and they’re off. The field seems to offer itself up without resistance, loose, cleared now of human habitation, though the imprints of geometric shapes in the earth attest to the fact that, until just recently, this ground was occupied. Strips of thick grass border bare surfaces, traces of tires brush them, some tracks layered so thickly they leave crevices in the earth; there are several stinking pits, hearths covered with phaneritic ash, and if you look closely, if you lean over the ground carefully, you can still find lots of things here that could fill a trash can.
Diderot trips over a deflated soccer ball and tucks it under his arm. He knows little about the expropriation campaign that preceded the start of the project. On this field, for example, the inhabitants had been reluctant to go, complicating the task of the men from Pontoverde. These men had protested at first – no one here possesses the least title of ownership; in truth, these are nothing but squatters who, after years, put their mobile homes up on concrete, slapped a roof onto their sophisticated tents, weatherproofed their wood cabins – like the second little piggy’s house – dwellings all rigged up with a satellite antenna on the roof. Nothing worse than habit, the Boa had cursed, scratching his head, we’re screwed. Pontoverde had finally hurried in an armada of supertechnical young lawyers armed with laughable repossession notices, but the people were dogged and quick, they knew their rights, the jurists didn’t have a leg to stand on, and the furious Boa demanded that they be sent home: he would do the negotiating himself. New, functional lodgings in the suburbs of the city were offered to the inhabitants. Some of the women went to visit them, suspicious, haughty, inspecting the taps, testing the switches, flushing the toilets. They came back spitting, No, rather die than leave their homes. Cameras were set up in the field, and before long these families were given the chance to speak every evening. Their refusal to submit was praised, as were their contempt for modernity and their freedom. The sausages speared on sticks and cooked over a wood fire, barefoot kids growing like wild grass, the warmth of community against the anonymity of the prefabricated, urban solitude and individualist instincts. These images warbled of endless holidays, the coolness of everyday princes: the inhabitants of the field became heroes. According to the Boa, all this was a bluff and the bids rose higher. He smiled: would they really prefer their potholed strip of grass on the river’s edge to a new duplex, these tribes, these huge families, these marginal, long-haired characters? But soon, fearing the negative effects of a police raid at dawn, billy clubs in hand, evacuating the dwellings and pushing screaming families into vans before work on the bridge even began, and weary, the Boa turned again to Pontoverde. The company would compensate the inhabitants, pay for the moving costs, and find housing for everyone downtown.
A mile to the south, Duane Fisher and Buddy Loo jumped onto the dredger, side by side – these two who don’t let each other go for a second, sleep side by side at night under the same blanket, drink from the neck of the same bottle, in the same tin shack hidden on the green bank – watched the movement of the group on the beach behind, and were soon spotted by the officer mechanic, Verlaine, who took down their names in a spiral notebook before leading them through increasingly narrow passageways into the machine room, where the din was so loud no one could speak. Duane and Buddy had never been in a boat this size – the dredger is a hefty vessel, some thirty metres long, sixteen wide, equipped with a hydraulic drilling machine capable of digging up to twenty metres deep, attached to which are vacuum tubes and discharge nozzles – these two only know dugouts propelled by motors borrowed from speedboats, whose owners tanned dark in the fifties, off the coast of Florida, water skis bikinis fishing all with big jugs of rum coconut whisky lots of quick turns and vertical jets of water like celestial rain; they only know pistons unscrewed quickly, broken-down cars where you’d attach an axle and a propeller, and Verlaine’s aware of this, the guys they send him are always the same, there isn’t a single one who knows anything, he seethes – conversely, Verlaine himself (who’s sometimes seen in the Gare du Havre when he goes home to visit his two sons) only knows service boats, dredgers, tugboats, the barge that never leaves port and hobbles along in the canal on one foot, lame, with a measured step. Duane and Buddy are appointed to control of outflow – they keep an eye on the regularity of flow in the pumps, make sure the motors don’t overheat, it’s a job that requires a good ear, and these boys have two each (so at least they aren’t deaf): you have to hear when it shakes, when it drags, and when it gets tired, Verlaine explains all of this to them in rudimentary English, and at every chance he gets joins the gesture to the word.
The dredger advances slowly in the river’s current, heavy and stubborn; it clears out, scrapes, sucks, scours the riverbed of all the shit that’s been thrown there, that’s still thrown there, day after day; blasting the channel, it’s hailed as the marvellous, irreplaceable scullery maid, as its enormous drill with three heads – three times the strength and power of the best deepwater oil-drilling rig! – digs into the rock to carve out a passage for the hulls of majestic ships, cargo freighters, and state-of-the-art oil tankers. The two boys take a step back in front of the cisterns where the river bottom is poured out, blackish sludge of sediment risen from the depths, ageless alluvium, no sparkle in there, nothing, still they watch for a section of a wreck, a piece of iron, some human debris, maybe a skull, yes, a skull or a chest full of gemstones, a treasure, yeah, that would be awesome. They’re getting excited, grinning, seeking nothing, hoping for nothing, not even luck, the future has no form for those who live day to day, with no other weight on their shoulders than the weight of youth, they hold out their hands with giant palms and able fingers, always ready to play with what’s next at hand, to make a little cash, always ready to take off on the next shit plan.
In the fourth week, the divers show up. There are fifty of them. Their aura precedes them, and a plume of anguished admiration, and when they get out of the black vans from the Deep Seawork Company, jumping out one after the other in agile bounds executed at regular intervals – Navy commandos when it comes to projects – everyone scrutinizes their faces the colour of Dove soap, their heroic faces. After which their reputation pushes its way through the crowd of assembled workers, the waters part, the divers advance in slow steps, relaxed, large sports bags slung over their shoulders. Among them, the deep-sea divers get the most attention: amphibious creatures twenty-thousand leagues under the sea, they elbow moray eels, dragon fish, and lantern fish, graze stray jellyfish migrating towards the surface, caress the bellies of cetaceans and tug on the moustaches of seals, are blinded by plankton suspended in the bars of light, marvel at the coral, collect strange algae; multiplane workers, they walk with heavy feet, helmeted, upon the earth’s crust, a hookah giving them something to breathe from the surface; frogmen, they dive with webbed feet, a reserve of gas attached ad hoc to their backs. These are mutant men, and the darkness of the abyss is their office, their factory, it’s here that they toil, repair, solder, smash, explode, dynamite the river bottom, pulverize the sedimentary layer, cut the banks anew, level the shallows, it’s here that they assist with the drilling operations launched by the engineers above water, activating a satellite system on the surface able to integrate the least variation in the earth’s curve into the job to be done, they control the extraordinary precision of the work – they are as meticulous as box hedges planted in a French garden. Underwater, their lungs inflate, hold bit by bit the compressed air; their rib cages crack under the pressure, their hearts are heavy inside but little by little they adapt and beat more slowly, and their malleable bodies hold up.
Diderot greets them personally, shakes the hand of the team leader for a long time, a small man with a waxy pallor that he recognizes from projects in the port of Busan, South Korea, where reinforced seawalls had required powder ...
"Flowing through the incredibly technical material of this novel is the river, and from it springs the drama of strike threats, environmental disputes, sabotage, accidents, ambition, and love and relationships ... Here, ages and social classes no longer exist, and everything converges towards erection of the finished bridge - and opening fireworks."
– Le Nouvel Observateur
"One of the most exciting French novelists today."
“Strong emotion carried by a lexically rich style.”
– Journal du Dimanche
"Maylis de Kerangal excels at describing the landscapes that lie in the heart of this work – and, frankly, they are of great beauty for the reader who wants to travel by reading."
– La Presse
"The whole narrative unfolds in a dreamlike manner, and Moore's translation is elegant and sensitively attuned to the author's wordplay and neologism."
"Credit to Moore for managing the shift into English well, and to both author and translator for their use of language, which is striking but not opaque, and appealingly (as opposed to annoyingly) unusual."
– the complete review
"[an] audacious narrative … For all the satiric symbolism and the many cultural references and sideshows, this pragmatic, defiant story is, almost surprisingly, also about building a bridge. … sharp, original, funny and shocking, merciless in its multiple ironies. J.G. Ballard would have applauded it; Don DeLillo would smile wryly. Her prose is snappy, emphatic and muscular, and her use of language, as with names, is free-wheeling. Jessica Moore, the book’s translator, provides a three-page note on the linguistic challenges and unusual word choices. … The story, or rather the project, is the bridge; it is the centre. The humans are minor players. … Although this novel is blunt and plainspeaking, there are moments of beauty … an original, laconic, astute and relentlessly topical morality tale that scores several direct hits."
- Irish Times
“kudos to Jessica Moore for what was clearly a taxing task in translating it so ably.”
– A Life in Books
De Kerangal´s voice is passionate, and Jessica Moore´s translation of the book into English honours her style of writing. The plot races back and forth between characters, between different moments in time and between different places; but the reader is never lost.
– Marie Anderson, student newspaper