A Short Story from New Caledonia about Japan. Translated from French

Origami

by Anne Bihan

(© Translation by Patricia J.F. Worth)

Trembling.  It’s what I do best. I’m an expert at trembling. I have an incredible mastery of trembling. Had it since I was very small. Since the day I started kindergarten, the teacher has been telling my mother who comes to pick me up every day, running from the Sendai–Minami Sanriku train; she has been telling my father who never misses a fete at the Shizugawa school: Your daughter, she trembles; it’s amazing how she trembles; it’s amazing how well she trembles. Perhaps she didn’t say exactly that at the end, Your daughter, how well she trembles, but she looked so impressed that I think she did. I am the best at trembling.

It began the first time someone said, All children under the table. At first, I hesitated. When the voice repeated, All children under the table, the Earth is trembling, I thought, it’s the table with the red tablecloth, and on top of it all the flowers and the birds and the horses and the multicoloured lanterns of the origami class for the school fete, if it starts trembling, us underneath, no one to watch it, everything will be knocked to the ground, the fete knocked to the ground. But the voice insisted, so I slipped under the table with the others, and I thought the only thing to do was to tremble all together, me, us, the table, the flowers, the birds, the horses, the multicoloured lanterns of the origami class for the school fete. And that’s what I did; every time, that’s what I did and the teacher said, Your daughter, she’s an earthquake on legs; and the old doctor Tokiji Watanabe looked at me for a long time, a long time, and he said, There is actually a sickness called ‘Essential Tremor’ or ‘Familial Tremor’, but to be sure, we’ll have to wait till she grows up, and she’ll have to learn to live with it.

Learn to live with it; Papa says, It’s Shinto, it’s knowing that everything is connected, nothing and no one is ever separated, it’s our pride. I’m not sick, my name is Katsumi, Victorious Beauty; my father chose my name and he never misses the school fete that takes a long time, a long time to get ready, sometimes all year, and every day when parents ask, What did you do today?, me, Katsumi, I answer, Today we got ready for the school fete, and the next day, and for days and days, when Papa or Mama asks What did you do today?, always the same answer, Today we got ready for the school fete.

This morning, Friday 11th March 2011, for the school fete, for the origami class, I brought in some beautiful old paper that Grandma Sadako gave me. There’s a drawing on it that frightens me, but Papa says, Fear is like the tengu, like trembling, you must tame it; take this picture, it’s by Hokusai, our ‘Old man mad on painting’, his Great Wave off Kanagawa, it’s everywhere in the world, it’s our pride. So I dared to take it because folding, it calms my trembling, and especially because I saw her in the folds, the creases, the teeth and the claws of the sea on the paper: the crane of my dream. She was just waiting for me so she could fly away. And that’s what I did. All morning, I had to fight with this rotten drawing and my trembling. In the end, she was standing on the table with the red tablecloth; the one‑thousandth crane for Grandma Sadako, who folds one every day, saying, It’s my prayer; and she was the most beautiful, too.

She’s Prussian blue and yellow ochre, with greys like you’ve never seen over her whole body; here pale like shellfish soup, there dark like pea soup, and a very white spot on her throat. The great wave living inside her doesn’t frighten me any more. Papa is right. Everything is connected, no one is separated. It was 2.30pm when the voice shouted, All children, quick, the Earth’s trembling. I held her close to me under the table with the red tablecloth. Both of us lying down, folded, patient. When I put her up to my ear, I clearly heard the roar of the sea; Mama, running from the Sendai–Minami Sanriku train; Papa, his footsteps, full of pride, coming to the school fete. She was just waiting for me so she could fly away. I’m not trembling any more.

Anne Bihan, Noumea, New Caledonia, 29 April 2011

'Great Wave off Kanagawa', Hokusai
‘Great Wave off Kanagawa’, Hokusai (Image courtesy Wikipedia)

 

54 great opening lines: 7

Trembling.  It’s what I do best.

Origami, Anne Bihan (Translated by me)

*****

You may have read this short story in French.  🙂  But if you didn’t, then let me show you what it looks like in English.  The author, Anne Bihan, has given me permission to blog my translation of it, so, after dinner, I’ll post it.  If you’d like to see the original French version, go to p. 13 of the online publication, Il y a toujours une guêpe pour piquer le visage en pleurs:  http://issuu.com/ecrireenoceanie/docs/il-y-a-toujours-une-guepe

54 great opening lines: 6

The day broke grey and dull.

Of Human Bondage, W. Somerset Maugham

*****

It’s a great opening line, and it sets the mood for the book, even to the contrasting last line:

‘Cabs and omnibuses hurried to and fro, and crowds passed, hastening in every direction, and the sun was shining.’,

a line which I assume is supposed to fill the reader with optimism.  I closed this book with a groan, my mood still grey and dull.

54 great opening lines: 5

I had the story, bit by bit, from various people, and, as generally happens in such cases, each time it was a different story.

Ethan Frome, Edith Wharton

*****

This week’s WP Photo Challenge, Kiss, prompted one blogger to tell us that his hometown isn’t a place where public kissing is encouraged.  He compared it with Starkfield in Ethan Frome.

54 great opening lines: 4

I was brought here from Senegal when I was two years old by the chevalier de B., who was then governor there.

Ourika, Claire de Duras, translated by John Fowles

*****

John Fowles was the author of The French Lieutenant’s Woman, whose opening line I posted yesterday, as no. 3.

54 great opening lines: 3

An easterly is the most disagreeable wind in Lyme Bay – Lyme Bay being that largest bite from the underside of England’s outstretched south-western leg – and a person of curiosity could at once have deduced several strong probabilities about the pair who began to walk down the quay at Lyme Regis, the small but ancient eponym of the inbite, one incisively sharp and blustery morning in the late March of 1867.

The French Lieutenant’s Woman, John Fowles

*****

If The Hobbit is one of my favourite books but far from my favourite movie, The French Lieutenant’s Woman is a favourite in both forms.  I was once obsessed with the movie, hiring it and playing parts of it over and over.  Before writing this novel, John Fowles had translated a French novel by Claire de Duras, Ourika, based on a true story about a Senegalese girl taken to Paris as a baby and raised separately within the nobility.  As she grew older she was surprised to find she lived in a culture of racial segregation.  Fowles believed that this story affected his telling of Sarah Woodruff’s tale as the fallen and outcast French Lieutenant’s Woman.

54 great opening lines: 1

There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.
Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë

*****

From today I’m going to attempt a self-imposed challenge:  post 54 great opening lines from books on my shelves.  After reading a post by Zany4Days about challenging himself to paint a watercolour every day for 30 days, 100 days, the whole year, I’ve decided to study the first few words in good stories, an activity which might, which should, affect my own writing.  The opening lines that I post will be in English, but not all of them will be from English-language stories.  Some will be my translations of great French opening lines.  After browsing my bookshelves, I initially chose a figure of 50, but I could possibly come up with four more and make it 54, my age from today…

I’ll begin with the first line from a novel I read when I was 13 which gave me a plan for my life, a plan I haven’t always followed but, in hindsight, I see has often followed me.  It begins with:

There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.

366 unusual things: days 99-108

8th April – My son is on a camping holiday for four nights at the Folk Festival, fifteen minutes from home.

9th April – The 100th day of this year.  A guest brought us some Hot Cross Buns from a Vegan bakery.  On the packet it says ‘cruelty free’.  How much cruelty is there in producing a sweet bun in a traditional bakery?  (Each of the six buns was wrapped in cling wrap.)

10th April – A hairdresser washed my hair, then massaged my head for minutes and minutes and minutes.  She seemed to be luxuriously filling in spare time.

11th April – In a book of short stories I found that the Q is the Queen of Capital Letters with an attention-seeking train.

From "Elizabeth's News" by Monica McInerney, in "10 Short Stories you MUST read this year", 2009

12th April – Survey results today show the greatest editorial barrier to publishing literary translations is the ‘cost of paying translators’.  I’ll push on with my novel translation anyway, for the love of it.

13th April – Went to my son’s wedding rehearsal in the forest.  The bride’s father was mowing a path, an aisle, for her to enter along.

14th April – The wedding day;  the most unusual wedding I’ve ever been to.  The bride played a ukulele (which she has just learnt) and sang, in the sweetest voice I’ve heard, a song by Ingrid Michaelson, You and I.  (Note the chair – refer to my ‘unusual thing’ for 5th Feb;  note the table – she found it at a flea market and painted it this week;  note the bunting – she made it.)

Photo by Craig Tregear

15th April – At dinner with my son and his bride, she was still wearing her wedding shoes which she bought online from Sweden.  (See photo above)

16th April – Years ago I opened a long-term investment account at the bank with $500, and tried to do it again today.  The minimum they now take is $5,000.

17th April – Watched a documentary about an Australian man who gave up a wealthy Hollywood life to establish schools for kids from the rubbish dumps of Phnom Penh in Cambodia.  He started the Cambodian Children’s Fund:  http://www.cambodianchildrensfund.org/

Dear reader…

To my surprise, in my summer years, I find language and words filling my life.  On any day, I spend hours dealing with language.  This weekend, for example, the last day of 2011 and the first day of 2012, I have helped an eight-year-old learn to read;  I have read chapters and chapters, on a recommendation, of Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage (it’s my third go at this book);  translated part of a 19th-century French novel into English;  written six postcards telling foreigners of the wonders of Australia;  written a calligraphic quotation for a German penfriend;  listened to my neighbours, government housing tenants, swearing twenty to the dozen as it pleases them on this New Year’s Day.

I recently (last month) graduated with a Master of Translation Studies, and now I’m in search of things to translate.   There’s the interesting 19th-century novel, the one I worked on today, and there’s a French book on teaching three-year-olds to read which I use when I’m tutoring and which would be just as valuable to others, if they could read it.   And there’s my older thesis about French villagers who sheltered refugees in the 1940s, the one I wrote in French and would like, before my winter years, to translate into English.

Meanwhile, I’ve found this blogging way to share my father’s photos, and later his poetry, as a background for my interests, though the connections will at first appear vague to a reader.