A thousand first sentences, if not to say all, rush to my quill with a howl of collective suicide.
This early spring, believe me, was colder than the cold of winter.
The three squat floors of the Rats and Vermin Hotel were rotting away, piled up at the end of a cul-de-sac in the twelfth arrondissement of the city.
It was here that I was dying.
Not living had taken its toll. The bloom had lost its rose.
I couldn't remember life before the hotel. I had forgotten. Was it that I had seen so little of the world that I no longer remembered it, or had the world so completely deadened me that I could have forgotten?
I didn't know. (p. 3)
Rarely do works capture my attention so completely on the first page, yet French author René Belletto's 2002 novel, Dying (published in English translation in October 2010 by Dalkey Archive), manages to do so. Here is a first-person narrator talking not just of "dying," but also on "not living." What does he mean here? And what is this about not remembering "life before the hotel?" I wanted to know more and I ended up discovering that this story is much more than just a search for meaning and the defining of those boundaries between "dying" and "living."
Dying's back cover blurb describes it as a "metaphysical thriller about the lengths to which men will go to escape the inevitable - be it love or death..." and to a very large degree, this is true. It is a composite tale of two seemingly independent subplots that manage to interweave themselves, thematically at least, into a whole that is much more than the sum of its parts. There is a mystery surrounding an expectant father and his conflicted feelings about his mistress and their unborn child and there is a mystery revolving around the apparent death of another. Who "lives" and who is "dying" in these cases is much more than just the matter of events and situations, but rather is a set-up for so many of those central questions people ask themselves each day about the nature of their lives and the actions done and undone daily.
Belletto easily could have written a novel several times its slim 165 pages without repeating any of the motifs explored here. Yet in this small book he has managed to pack so many allusions to everyday life, our concerns, our pitfalls, and et cetera that the narratives' powers become even more effective because we are not allowed to become too distracted from the points he wants to explore via these fascinating characters. What is the origin of "prison" but in prehensionem, which itself contains its own fascinating etymology? What happens when the forger forges something that ultimately becomes genuine? In reviewing a novel such as Dying, perhaps it is best that the questions are considered at least as much as the possible answers which are provided (or in some cases, purposely left hanging for the reader to interpret as she may).
Alexander Hertich did a fine job translating Dying. There is a delicate sense of wordplay in this novel that appears to be largely intact in this English translation. Rarely did I feel that I was reading a translation, as the syntax was smooth even through the most intricate of passages. For those readers who value characterizations, Belletto's characters certainly do "live," even as they are "dying" in multiple senses through this novel. There were very few moments of tedium and the conclusion is a very fitting one for the novel. Generally, I discuss the plot specifics more than I have above, but this is the sort of novel where the explications can distort the effects created by the textual interplay. Dying is the sort of novel that will appeal most to those readers who want more than just an "easy" read where "more of the same" occurs. However, it is not so challenging that it limits its readership; it merely expects that its readers are curious, inquisitive beings who have questioned themselves at some point about matters of life and death and have not assumed that they know all the answers. For those readers, Dying will be just the sort of novel they will want to read.