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As I noted earlier this month in my interview with Charlotte Mandell, I’m hoping to run more interviews on this site in 2011. This is the second in my making good on that goal.
I read Jean Rolin’s autobiography/memoir/novel The Explosion of the Radiator Hose earlier this month for a review and immediately caught whiffs of Sebald and Chatwin. The book, which will be published in April of this year by the Dalkey Archive, is a fragmentary account of the author’s journey transporting a used car from France deep into the Congo.
As in books of this genre, the plot of The Explosion of the Radiator Hose is only one of many things going on here–a counterhistory of the Congo, an up-close look at the machinery of late capitalism, a inter-textual response to Conrad, Proust, and, yes, Sebald.
I’ve interviewed the book’s translator, Louise Rogers Lalaurie to convey more about this excellent book and it’s very interesting author, Jean Rolin. The Explosion of the Radiator Hose is the first of his books the be translated into English, but after reading this I think you’ll join me in wanting to hear more from him.
Here’s how Rogers describes herself in her own words:
Louise Rogers Lalaurie studied English, literary translation, and art history at the University of Cambridge, and worked in book and magazine publishing in London before moving to France in 1991. Her published translations include short stories by Delphine de Vigan, Serge Joncour, and Catherine Millet, and exhibition catalogs and monographs for leading Paris museums and fine art publishers. She is currently researching an MPhil on French livres d’artistes at the University of London Institute in Paris.
SE: Since this book is based on a strange sort of postmodern, Sebaldian adventure that Rolin undertook—involving sailing on a cargo ship and smuggling a car through Congolese customs—I wanted to get some sense of him as an individual and a writer. Is he known for being an adventurous sort? Are his previous books similar to The Explosion of the Radiator Hose?
LR: English-speaking readers will recognize Jean Rolin as a classic lone male traveler and writer, broadly comparable to authors like Paul Theroux, P.J. O’Rourke, and others. In France, I would say he’s probably had greater critical than popular success, although his backlist is long, and all of it in print! He’s a classic travel writer in many ways, but his full-length works are mostly presented as fiction, with elements of memoir and autobiography. I was talking about Explosion to a Paris-based English academic just today—he characterized him very aptly as a “psycho-geographer.” His travels are all real, as far as I know, but they are a process of self-mapping, too, and the vehicle for his distinctive worldview as conveyed in his writings. In this sense, he’s also comparable to Sebald and Bruce Chatwin. Like them, he might be said to have created a genre all his own—French reviewers have described his work as “Rolinian.” He has a clear preference for “underbelly” places, conflict zones, port zones, peripheral zones (literally, in the case of Zones and La Clôture, his explorations of the Paris beltway or périphérique, and the Boulevard Ney, part of the city’s petite ceinture). He portrays marginal characters with great humanity and empathy, and he also writes reportage and travel pieces for leading French magazines and newspapers, recently collected in L’homme qui à vu l’ours—which includes some of the source material for Explosion. Translating Explosion has whetted my appetite to read much more: L’organisation (written in the 1990s but describing a period touched on at the very end of Explosion) is his “hindsight” account of his involvement as a young man with the Gauche prolétarienne, a Maoist revolutionary group born of the May ’68 uprising; Chemins d’eau (“Water ways”) is an alternative tour of France on the country’s canal system; Un chien mort après lui, his most recent book, is a themed compendium of travels and encounters with stray dogs—a sidelong look at the human societies co-existing with them, and a book about “errance” itself. To name but a few.
SE: Throughout The Explosion of the Radiator Hose Rolin continually references W.G. Sebald and gives some reason to think he admires him as a thinker and a writer. (Rolin also prominently mentions Conrad and Proust as influences, among others.) At times the book even resembles Sebald in how it arranges the cultural history of European imperialism under the logic of Rolin’s personal adventure. Do you know of any links between Rolin and Sebald, and how exactly do you look at Explosion—history as otherwise told, memoir, etc?
LR: I’ve yet to meet Jean Rolin in person, and I’ve never asked about his links with Sebald, but I agree that his vision of the intersections of geopolitical and personal history (sometimes random and absurd, sometimes full of bizarre coincidences, immanent patterns) is comparable to Sebald’s. Explosion is quite like The Rings of Saturn in many ways—the wry humor, the affectionate cameo portraits, the lyrical descriptions, the historical scope, the “self-mapping,” and the underlying melancholy, with hints of death and suicide. As I mentioned earlier, the book is also a quite “Chatwinian” mix of travelogue and fictional narrative (both in the first person), with elements of memoir. As you point out, it also has a very strong sense of history, of crossed personal and geopolitical destinies, and (arising out of that), the “human comedy” and the absurd. Warren Motte, writing in the Review of Contemporary Fiction, has described Explosion as a “loiterly” novel—the narrator is bound up in his own past, his identity, his relationship with his father, but he digresses into great swathes of Congolese history, too: his extended, detailed and powerful account of Patrice Lumumba’s journey to violent death ends with the narrator figuring out (somewhat crestfallen) that the deposed leader probably didn’t cross the exact spot where the radiator hose explodes . . . With regard to Sebald, Rolin’s narrator (his fictionalised self?) takes him to task at times, accusing him of failing to quote his sources, and of anti-French sentiment. But it’s quite tongue-in-cheek – a kind of back-handed tribute, I think: the “little man” (Rolin’s self-deprecating persona in the book) squaring up to the literary giant. And as you say, Sebald isn’t the only literary heavyweight honored here—Conrad and Proust are everywhere.
SE: I loved the exchange you allude to here—Rolin first complaining that Sebald makes a “ridiculous, unpleasant character a Frenchman” before retracting it when “Sebald unleashes a series of violent anti-Belgian diatribes.” Rolin plays it quite well, implying a kind of Gallic outrage on behalf of his fellow Frenchmen before taking it all back when Sebald insults the neighboring Belgians. To continue on with the Sebald comparisons for a moment, Rolin seems to be a much more fragmentary writer than Sebald; whereas Sebald knit so much together into his lengthy chapters and paragraphs, Explosion is characterized by many, many short, discreet chapters (although the overall impression is of continuity amidst digression). With so much in the mix here, what did you see as the central strand of this book, that one thing that under it all this book was most “about”?
LR: “Continuity amidst digression” perfectly describes the book’s “loiterly” pace: Rolin’s and the car’s slow journey underpins everything. And of course, a river runs through it (to coin a phrase . . . ). Without wanting to sound too trite, it’s tempting to see the text’s relentless forward movement and eddying digressions as a metaphor for the stately Congo River itself. The chapters are carefully crafted building blocks, each one starts in a subtly or surprisingly different “place” from the last, carrying the reader along. I think the central strand of the book—and what has always touched me most about it—is its portrayal of human hopes and dreams, the quest for advancement and a sense of purpose in life, in Paris, Kinshasa, or anywhere. It’s about how people cling to hopes and delusions—through the life stories they tell themselves, and through tiny, practical, ambitious or utterly megalomaniacal schemes—and about how those hopes and delusions can be built up and shattered. This is what underpins the first-person narrative, and virtually every encounter and character sketch in the book, every historic life story retold. The Audi‘s gradual deterioration en route to Kinshasa, and the description of a transporter truck rolling out of a parking lot in northern Paris, bound for Africa, loaded with battered VW Combis packed to the roof, are brilliant metaphors or emblems of the same theme.
SE: It’s strange sometimes, the shape that hope and/or delusion can take. I’m thinking of when Rolin describes Che Guevara, who attempted to free the agrarian Congolese from the tyranny of the land, only to learn that they already owned their land and were indeed free. So Che reasons that “ways would have to be found of fostering the need to acquire industrial goods” in order to put them into a proper relationship of subjugation so that they’ll begin to want the revolution that Che knows they need. Rolin rightly, and ironically, compares this rhetoric to that of any multinational corporation looking to exploit these individuals. As with the Che anecdote, in this book we see so many forces that head into the Congo to shape it per their own wants and desires . . . do you see anything genuinely Congolese emerging in this story? Lumumba, perhaps?
LR: The passages about Che in the Congo are a great example of Rolin’s wry comedy and sense of the absurd! Also, the region’s surreal way of taking “in-comers” completely off-course, thwarting their schemes, warping their take on reality, leading them somewhere they never intended. That’s one “genuinely Congolese” characteristic, perhaps, that emerges here and in other Western texts I’ve read about the Congo, not least Heart of Darkness of course. It also seems to me that Rolin’s many portraits and cameos go some way to evoking a national character–I get a sense of a rich mix of irrepressibility and ebullience, gentleness and quiet dignity in adversity, pragmatism and archaic superstition, hard-headed realism and fervent faith in Christianity or traditional beliefs. There are touching portrayals of bravado and humility, coupled with allusions to past violence and atrocities experienced by people who cling to hope in the face of experience, finding ways to get by. We see level-headed self-preservation and concern for others; selfish, tricksy characters and people prepared to go far out of their way to help, with no thought of reward. Foudron (the exiled colonel whose family in Kinshasa are the recipients of the Audi) is resigned if philosophical, and a very sick man, but he doggedly pursues his carefully laid plan, doing what he can for the advancement of his family. Lumumba, as portrayed in the account of his last days, shows aspects of all this. In many ways, his character, story, and fate stand for the nation as a whole.
SE: I’d like to shift gears here and ask you a little about the translation of this book. To start, the prose throughout Explosion is excellent—it’s very honed and precise with some clause-ridden, intricate sentences, but it never feels overcooked or wordy. What do you think is most characteristic about this prose, and did you consult with Rolin or any particular source material while doing this translation?
LR: I think you’ve put your finger on exactly what is most characteristic about Rolin’s prose. He‘s a heroic advocate of long sentences, using clauses like building blocks, taking the cumulative effect of the discrete short chapters right down to the level of individual sentences. I tried hard to match Rolin’s register and clause sequences, and to preserve the flow of the original sentences. But while French grammar is very robust and can hold things together over many lines, English has a tendency to come apart in your hands if you over-stretch it! I did re-order the clauses very occasionally, for readability, and to keep things “up together.” Jean Rolin read the translation, and was characteristically concerned to check the precision of specific terms. We ran the ship-board terminology past a friend of his in the industry, so I learned the correct vocabulary in English for parts of container ships! With regard to his/the narrator’s family history, he also—naturally—wanted to make absolutely sure that the distinction between Vichy France and the Free French resistants (including his father) was clear in English. As with any translation, I checked Rolin’s quoted sources in English: Michael Hulse’s fabulous translation of The Rings of Saturn (which I’ve read several times before), Jerry Allen’s book The Sea Years of Joseph Conrad, snippets of Proust and Conrad… I also did some background reading, for example Tim Butcher’s marvelous travelogue Blood River (an almost exact mirror image of Rolin’s journey), and Barbara Kingsolver’s extraordinary novel The Poisonwood Bible.
SE: Did these source books go beyond serving as background information to furnish words or insights that aided you in the actual translation of the book?
LR: Well, to give one small example, Barbara Kingsolver’s novel clarified the term pagne (the traditional Congolese loincloth, but also a general term for the colorful cotton prints worn everywhere in sub-Saharan Africa). And Tim Butcher’s journey often corroborated placenames, political personalities, and historical events in English. But beyond that, both were invaluable as vivid, immersive accounts of the region, its atmosphere, and its people. Both texts compared and contrasted interestingly with Rolin’s narrative as travelogue, fiction, memoir and history. That applies to Sebald, too, but above all, The Rings of Saturn resonated in so many ways with Explosion’s narrative voice and technique, the hero/author’s personality, and his worldview.
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