Winner of the 2020 Governor General’s Award in Translation
A World Literature Today Notable Translation of 2020
Sliding doors open and close automatically, exit to the left, entrance to the right. Beyond it, cars go by, and pedestrians and cyclists. A large park behaves as if nothing has happened. The mirage of a world intact.
In an instant, a life changes forever. After he falls from a scaffold on the construction site where he works, the comatose David is visited daily by his wife, Caroline, and their six-year-old son Bertrand—but despite their devoted efforts, there’s no crossing the ineffable divide between consciousness and the mysterious world David now inhabits. A moving story of love and mourning, elegantly translated by Lazer Lederhendler, If You Hear Me asks what it means to be alive and how we learn to accept the unacceptable.
About the authors
Pascale Quiviger was born in Montreal. She holds both a Master’s degree in Philosophy and a degree in Fine Arts. She lives in Italy, where she paints, writes and teaches visual arts. She has exhibited in both Canada and Italy, and has published a collection of short stories, Ni sol ni ciel (2001). Her novel Le cercle parfait won the 2004 Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction in the French Language; the English edition, A Perfect Circle, translated by Sheila Fischman, was a finalist for the 2006 Scotiabank Giller Prize.
Lazer Lederhendler is a full-time freelance translator specializing in contemporary Québécois fiction and nonfiction. His work has earned him many distinctions in Canada and abroad, including multiple nominations for the Governor General’s Literary Award, which he won in 2008 for the translation of Nikolski by Nicolas Dickner. He is also the translator of Gaétan Soucy’s novel, The Immaculate Conception, which was a finalist for the Scotiabank Giller Prize and the Governor General’s Literary Award for French to English translation, and the winner of the Cole Foundation Prize for Translation awarded by the Quebec Writers’ Federation. Lazer Lederhendler lives in Montreal.
- Winner, Governor General's Award in Translation
Excerpt: If You Hear Me (by (author) Pascale Quiviger; translated by Lazer Lederhendler)
The First Hour
Hard to believe, but I’m alive.
In fact I’ve never been so present.
I see everything.
Roger cursing and pacing back and forth, scolding the men one by one.
Body in the middle of the street, on the pavement, helmet lying near the head, a tool in between—the level, cracked. Liquid seeping out from it.
Martin running over, pushing aside Max and Vidal. He kneels on the glove, places his ear close to the lips, detects nothing. Looks for the pulse on the neck—no pulse. Opens the shirt, buttons flying in every direction. The red stain, on the chest, alarms him. Several ribs are soft, possibly broken. He hesitates. Makes a decision. He lifts the chin, feels the inside of the mouth, blows air into it twice, stands back, changes position, dares to press down, hands interlocked, elbows straight. By the book. His assurance is surprising, such a shy man.
He persists. Patiently, rhythmically.
In spite of everything, the lips, the blue nails, the white cheeks.
Roger paces up and down anxiously watching the far end of the street, the ambulance, the ambulance, the ambulance?
Finally, Roger yells, raising his arms skyward.
Martin steps aside
mops his forehead
goes to sit down alone, in the shade, in a corner
the paramedics unpack their equipment
lift the eyelids
one blue eye, the other black, a bad sign
insert a tube in the trachea
open a vein in the arm
what are they injecting?
too brightly lit.
Men, women, with gloves, masks
Swollen face, shaved skull
neck in a harness
one arm in a splint.
Serum dripping drop by drop.
Each drop reflecting the neon lights, snail tracks.
Green garments, their folds like mountains, valleys
the weft and warp of the cotton, worn thin.
The body is young, robust, muscular, broken
familiar, but neutral
Nothing of this belongs to me.
Not the limbs, not the face, not the threads, not the seams.
Not the air in the tube,
not the lungs.
Just barely a point of transit.
I’m up here, at the ceiling, floating
between leaving and returning
within hazy boundaries
within a slack envelope
within a habit.
Early this morning I woke up, showered, shaved, ate three toasts with peanut butter.
The sun was shining, for once, and I remembered to put a brownie in my lunch box.
In top shape, just one filling, no eyeglasses.
It’s 11:43. That’s what it says there, on the clock.
These bones aren’t mine anymore, nor these tendons, these ligaments. This isn’t my skin anymore.
Just barely a possible location.
An alarm sounds.
It’s my turn to go fetch Bertrand at school this afternoon. I said we’d go play in the park.
Caroline always wears an ankle bracelet that tinkles like a little bell. Her cream has a scent of musk rose. She likes dark chocolate, she talks in her sleep.
The body, down there, is the only way I have of staying with them
two hundred and six bones six litres of blood seventy kilos
this intubated body is the only life I know.
The alarm never stops. The lines crawl, almost flat, across the black screens. He already looks like a corpse. The waxy skin. The immobility. The resemblance is perfect.
Yet seen from up here, it stays ready for use by a living man. You can tell from up here, it’s plain to see.
Plain to see, a possible life, and then nothing—black black.
It draws me upward, it buzzes, it goes fast, it goes without saying. I’m not afraid. It’s natural, after all, to die, why does it always bother us so much? It’s gentle.
The tunnel, yes, but no words to describe it.
I’m drawn by presences. I let myself glide. It’s good. It’s like giving in to a first love, on a perfect day of vacations, health, a wide-open future. I’m gliding at speed
slowly, though, s-l-o-w-l-y
until it strikes: the light
strong white unbearable
I explode without a sound.
I spread out, to the greatest length, to the greatest breadth, in all directions
my thoughts pure crystal
my heart swathed in cotton
I’ve just come back home after a long, harrowing journey
I evaporate like a puddle in August and it’s good
it’s so good
and true, so very true.
Threads that bind me to the living unravel
change into coloured beads
move off into unfathomable space
driven by what?
For a long time: the void
In the void I hear:
You can still choose.
Dark, once again, sticky.
Screwed, nailed, heavy,
little lights come on, thunder rumbles,
I don’t feel pain.
I feel the point of contact between my skull and the table, a point where
for a fraction of a second
the whole universe is gathered.
I feel my heart beginning to beat
like a horse shaking its head with a snort
Good boy, says a tired voice.
Monday, June 6, 2011
Caroline has just come in with the groceries when they call her on her mobile from David’s phone.
“Hi there, Golden Muscle,” she answers.
At the other end, the response is slow.
They offer to pick her up to take her to the hospital. They refuse to provide details; the fact is, they don’t have any. Roger Pitt, the foreman, comes to get her himself. He had to stop everything anyway, send the guys home, and have the scaffolding inspected. What’s more, he feels guilty; there’s nothing like a work accident to spoil his week. He drives the pick-up without saying a word. Caroline looks straight ahead.
At the hospital, a receptionist at the front desk guides them toward the intensive care unit. She gestures for them to take a seat in the waiting room. They sit down as far as possible from two nuns consoling each other in a barely audible whisper. Judging from the thermos bottle and the pile of cushions at their feet, and especially from the dark rings around their eyes, Caroline infers that they spent the night here.
“You really should go get some rest! Otherwise you’re going to end up on the other side,” the receptionist urges, pointing at the large swinging doors bearing a “No Entry” sign, behind which she then disappears herself.
She returns with a curvaceous nurse, who walks straight toward Caroline and plumps down in the adjacent chair. Her name is Sue, and this is the first time she has sat down since her shift began. Getting right down to brass tacks, she fires off a series of questions about David’s general health. No diabetes, no heart condition. No alcohol problem either. She promises to come back shortly and is swallowed up by the swinging doors.
The interval is filled with a hypnotic rosary that irritates and reassures Caroline at the same time. After three Sprites and a bag of ketchup-flavoured potato chips, Roger Pitt looks in vain for an excuse to leave.
“I have to get going, Mrs. Novak. Take a cab home, ask for a receipt, the company will pay.”
These are the first words he’s spoken since they got out of the pick-up.
A half-hour later, Sue comes back and sits down next to Caroline. She explains the situation in simple terms: David has suffered internal bleeding, a cardiac arrest, chest and head injuries. Also, a broken arm and collar bone, which, under the circumstances, are hardly worth mentioning. The attending doctor will be able to tell her more in a moment. See him? Of course. But not right away. Later.
Caroline thinks about nothing. The shock has completely emptied her mental space. She concentrates on the large beige wall tiles; the slightest crack turns into a living human or animal form, a hallucination.
They’re torturing me, that’s it! This is a torture room. I’ve got razor blades under my skin. Where? Somewhere under my skin. This is my body—get out! They’re flaying me alive. Long shreds of throat. A train rolls by, close, too close, it scrapes the rails, the cars screech, the cars reek. Is it day or night? I hear my heart, machines, orders, a saw. Dogs. A tank? Must be Nazis. Am I going to die again? They’re going to kill me. A dirty, long, painful death. They want me to talk to confess to own up to snitch—I won’t tell them anything. I have nothing to tell—what exactly do they want? This is a mistake. I have to defend myself. I have to stand up, to open my eyes.
Caroline decides to walk in order to set her brain in motion again. She ambles down the corridors, goes up and down stairways, and stops at random in front of the pediatric department. She keys her in-laws’ number on her cell phone. Karine answers with her sandy voice. They exchange a few brief sentences that poorly convey the magnitude of the situation. The love of their life has fallen from a scaffold. He fell just a few metres, five or six seconds, that’s all; whatever the outcome, it will take them months, years to get over it.
Caroline is overwhelmed by a wave of loneliness as soon as she hangs up. She suspects that a similar wave came over Karine at the very same moment. She doesn’t know her very well, but she intuits her. Underneath the prominent cheekbones, the delicately arched eyebrows, the porcelain skin, under the still striking beauty and unstinting kindness, Karine is a self-sufficient island with a fragile ecosystem. Everyone knows glaciers are melting in the north and oceans rising in the south. Islands will be the first places to get wiped off the map.
I should have been more cautious, too. I should have paid my electricity bill. But, then, it just arrived. They’ve slit open my guts with a kitchen knife. They want me to talk—I’ve got nothing to spill. They’re beating my head with a rifle butt, my head, my head. They’ve hung me from the ceiling by the wrists and are waiting for my shoulders to pop. They shout, they laugh, they bang on pots and pans. The leather around my wrists, the metal. The leather, the metal, my head.
Praise for If You Hear Me
“Lazer Lederhendler has presented challenging subject matter with sensitivity, nuance and elegance. His language is powerful yet limpid, understated yet heartbreaking, and lightly humorous. He delicately navigates complex layers of trauma in the immigrant and the patient, lingering between life and death, dream and reality. The finely drawn characters in this novel wait, as we all do, for release.”—Jury Statement from the Governor General's Literary Award for Translation
“A tender and engaging examination of one family’s deepest connections to each other and how our own conscious being can affect and be affected by those around us. It’s a novel of impressive emotional resonance.”—Winnipeg Free Press
"Pascale Quiviger’s Si tu m’entends was made accessible to English readers in 2020 as If You Hear Me, a heartening sign of the continuing trend for cutting-edge French-language Quebec fiction crossing over ... An engrossing combination of experimental and conventional techniques ... Exploring the aftermath of a man’s workplace accident and subsequent lapse into a coma, the novel provides a challenge that anyone who appreciates unflinching fiction—say, Emma Donoghue’s Room—will relish."—Montreal Gazette
“A difficult subject, realistically treated . . . moving, but not tearful . . . intelligent and well-written.”—Le Figaro
“Ingenious narrative techniques, depth of character, finesse of the pen: Pascale Quiviger plunges into her subject with remarkable skill."—Danielle Laurin, Le Devoir