Mend the Living by Maylis de Kerangal

Tank _summer 16_books _79

Translated by Jessica Moore
Paperback, 179 pages
Publisher: MacLehose Press (February 2016)
ISBN: 9780857053862
Languages: English, French
Selected by Barbara Epler

“This superbly paced and felt book, clinically details a life-and-death situation, but with real heart, as it were. Here with great intensity, and all in a single day, death kills, and death gives life, as a heart (with all its twists, joys, pains and suffering) is transplanted.” —Barbara Epler


What it is, Simon Limbeau’s heart, this human heart, from the moment of birth when its cadence accelerated while other hearts outside were accelerating too, hailing the event, no one really knows; what it is, this heart, what has made it leap, swell, sicken, waltz light as a feather or weigh heavy as a stone, what has stunned it, what has made it melt – love; what it is, Simon Limbeau’s heart, what it has filtered, recorded, archived, black box of a 20-year-old body – only a moving image created by ultrasound could echo it, could show the joy that dilates and the sorrow that constricts, only the paper printout of an electrocardiogram, unrolled from the very beginning, could trace the form, could describe the exertion and the effort, the emotion that rushes through, the energy required to compress itself nearly a hundred thousand times every day and to circulate up to five litres of blood each minute, only this could sketch the life – life of ebbs and flows, life of valves and flap gates, life of pulsations; and when Simon Limbeau’s heart, this human heart, slips from the grip of the machines, no one could claim to know it; and on this night – a night without stars – while it was bone-crackingly cold on the estuary and in the Caux1 region, while a reflectionless swell rolled along the base of the cliffs, while the continental plateau drew back, unveiling its geological stripes, this heart was sounding the regular rhythm of an organ at rest, a muscle slowly recharging – a pulse of probably fewer than 50 beats per minute – when a mobile-phone alarm went off at the foot of a narrow bed, the echo of a sonar inscribing the digits 5.50am in luminescent bars on the touchscreen, and everything suddenly shot ahead.

On this night, then, a van slows in a deserted parking lot, comes to a crooked stop, front doors slamming while a side door slides open, three figures emerge, three shadows cut out against the dark and seized by the cold – glacial February, liquid rhinitis, sleep with your clothes on – boys, it looks like, who zip their jackets up to their chins, unroll their hats down to their eyebrows, slip the bare tips of their ears under the polar fleece and, blowing into cupped hands, turn toward the sea, which is no more than sound at this hour, sound and darkness.

Boys, now it’s clear. They stand side by side behind the low wall that separates the parking lot from the beach, pacing and breathing hard, nostrils inflamed from piping iodine and cold, and they probe this dark stretch where there is no tempo besides the roar of the wave exploding, this din that swells in the final collapse, they scan what thunders before them, this mad clamour where there’s nothing to rest your eyes upon, nothing, except perhaps the whitish, foaming edge, billions of atoms catapulted one against the other in a phosphorescent halo, and, struck dumb by winter when they’d stepped out of the van, stunned by the marine night, the three boys get hold of themselves now, adjust their vision, their hearing, evaluate what awaits them, the swell, gauge it by ear, estimate its breaker index, its coefficient of depth, and remember that bluewater waves always move faster than the fastest speedboats.

Alright, one of the three boys whispers, this is gonna be awesome, the other two smile, then all three of them back up together, slowly, scraping the ground with the soles of their shoes and circling like tigers, they lift their eyes to bore into the night at the end of the village, the night still sealed shut behind the cliffs, and then the one who spoke first looks at his watch, another 15 minutes, guys, and they get back into the van to await the nautical dawn. 

[1] The Caux region in Normandy sits on a chalk plateau. It is known for its 120 kilometres of white cliffs known as the Côte d’Albâtre.