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Piano, by Jean Echenoz; trans. Mark Polizzotti

A journey through life into the shadows

Amanda Hopkinson
Thursday 09 December 2004 01:00 GMT
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Jean Echenoz, major French author and winner of the Prix Goncourt, is far less known this side of the Channel, where only four of his dozen novels have been translated. This tryptich of a novel, in which a would-be pastoral idyll is flanked by a life visited first as tragedy and then as farce, is arguably his most innovative book to date.

Jean Echenoz, major French author and winner of the Prix Goncourt, is far less known this side of the Channel, where only four of his dozen novels have been translated. This tryptich of a novel, in which a would-be pastoral idyll is flanked by a life visited first as tragedy and then as farce, is arguably his most innovative book to date.

In Piano, the musician protagonist Max spends the first section in a state of advanced alcoholism, to conquer stage fright, and the last two as dead, from which state he returns as "Paul" to the "urban zone" of life. A dead hero is entirely appropriate to classical subjects with Greek references. One could almost say that Max the pianist makes the transition from pathos to bathos when recycled as Paul. Others will no doubt invoke Virgil as Dante's guide through the Inferno, or even Sartre's "Hell is other people" from Huis Clos - to which, apart from the claustrophobia of the concert halls where Max performs, Piano happily bears no resemblance.

It is perhaps a reflection of a modern inability to deal squarely with death that an afterlife so eludes our conception. Echenoz has, therefore, opted for the tradition of a public life on earth, where much is achieved despite the waste of personal experience. Max's Purgatory is something to be escaped at the earliest opportunity, even when founded on sensual fulfilment rather than denial; and Hell is the ultimate inescapable place, where disappointment is all.

It is to Echenoz' credit that this framework provides so much scope for character and delicacy, in a rapid-fire plot with hilarious interludes. The task of Bernie, the pianist's minder, is to get Max onstage in sufficiently sober a state. Parisy, the irascible manager, worries and bullies by turns. Several episodes are pulled off marvellously: such as when an inebriated Max believes the audience's applause is for his musicianship, rather than for his belated arrival onstage; or guest stars' appearances drawn from the US films of Max's childhood - a bucolic drive with Dean Martin, or a night of bliss with Peggy Lee.

Once in Purgatory, the god-like character B'eliart takes over (the only one who seems to know what's going on); while Dino (Dean Martin) becomes the spirit guide. And, in the last part, a Latin American crook named Jaime takes over as Paul returns, strangely changed, from the "rural" to the "urban zone".

Mark Polizzotti's translation captures the pace and personages of the original, but loses a little of the wit and exactitude. A running subtext in Echenoz' meticulous choice of vocabulary keeps us eerily aware of how commonly we invoke phrases like "in limbo" or "in the shadows" - without a backward glance.

Amanda Hopkinson is Director of the British Centre for Literary Translation, Norwich

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