September 29, 2016
They Were Coming for Him
By Berta Vias-Mahou
Translated by Cecilia Ross
Hispabooks; Tra edition (June 21, 2016)
by Alcy Leyva
“In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.” Albert Camus, the famous French-Algerian philosopher and Nobel prize winning author, is well known for using language to reveal the intimate dualities in our lives. The influences of Absurdism, though some would point out is only loosely tied to Camus himself, is likewise explored in They Were Coming for Him by Berta Vias-Mahou. Translated by Cecilia Ross and featured by Hispabooks Publishing, the novel first saw publishing in 2010, but is now seeing its debut in the states. While the novel only displays a few missteps while using the framework of a fictional narrative to house its very real, very famous character, Mahou (and likewise Ross in her focused translation) exudes a confidence in blending both to weave a story of loneliness and self-reflection. The story opens with our narrator in his apartment, languishing in his feelings of alienation in France. Common threads are spun, including Camus’ relation to poverty, his connection with nature and naturalism, and he even mentions his disagreements with Sartre, whom he calls “Monsieur Néant” (an obvious allusion to Sartre’s work L'être et le Néant). As the subsequent chapters unfold, we find that the narrative does not stay within his thoughts alone . In fact, it’s not until we see these other lives that Mahou’s talent begins to shine. The following chapter, for example, entitled “The Bacillus of the Plague”, features a woman by the name of Marie Cardona and her son Antoine discuss the life of their caged bird Caligula. We are privy to their thoughts, to their relation to silence and distance with several beautiful lines from Mahou that adds to the overall simplicity of the scene. Lines such as, “The poor, when they have any time, spend it watching life go by” is a perfect blend of Camus’ patience and observation. Ultimately this intimate moment, and these characters’ lives, is immediately disrupted by an explosion which erupts outside. The scene then crescendos with the disturbing image of a child’s severed leg hanging from a tree.
This is the balance Mahou’s strikes for his story which then asks the reader to draw closer to Camus’ philosophy through his writing. In seeking to expose dualities in life, Mahou has infused within the narrative. and in every character we come to meet in They Were Coming for Him, with a very real conflict within themselves. Though he pines for a different and easier life, Camus (using his alter ego “Jacques”) is constantly haunted by “the reoccurring dream of them coming for him, to chop off his head.” Mahou definitely imbues each chapter with a sense of dread that only builds as the story draws closer to the 1960 car crash which would claim Camus’ life. Though violence like this comes swift and without warning throughout the story, there is always a sense that there are powers at work outside of the characters’ lives. Even after the car crash, Mahou leaps into the minds of the government conspirators who sabotaged the car, thereby fully endorsing the theory that his death was an orchestrated effort implied in the book’s title.
Of course this poses the inevitable question which needs to be addressed when approaching a novel like this. Is the story crafted primarily for followers tuned to Camus’ classics such as L’Etranger (The Stranger) and Le Mythe de Sisyphe (The Myth of Sisyphus) as well as his life, or can the uninitiated jump right in? With Mahou’s detail and careful eye, one can take the story for its merits alone. There is a considerable amount to digest in every scene without needing a biography of Camus as a companion piece.That being said, there were a few times in which some insight may have helped keep me connect to a few of the allusions Mahou was crafting. Remembering that names such as Maria Cardona and Caligula both call back to his work and philosophy, for instance, gives me a thoughtful appreciation for their stories upon a second reading. Both Mahou and Ross do supply, in both the Author’s and Translator’s notes in the back of the book, a few explanations to how certain phrases and thoughts were tied to what is known or what has been written about Camus. The information only adds to the read as a whole and is almost worth delving into beforehand to fully grasp the novel’s scope.
Regarding the translation, Ross shows that she is aware of what Mahou has set to accomplish and works to keep it intact. A valuable thing to note: in English, I find, it is easy to tell a story without the need for repetition. In Spanish, it is more common to see reiterations of phrases and themes, which promotes a style of chorus and refrain in its narrative’s musicality. There are a few places where Ross has kept these as Mahou intended, allowing for the less astute reader to confuse Mahou’s intent as being long winded or repetitive. There is always a cultural gap to cross when reading a translation, but there isn’t much to traverse between the marriage of Mahou’s prose and Ross’ interpretation.
As a whole, They Were Coming for Him bonds both narrative structure and philosophical undertaking with the life of an inspirational voice in literature. We follow him through events and decisions which ultimately lead to that voice being silenced. Mahou allows us a brief look into the secret the philosopher and writer was harboring at the time of his death, and the effects of those secrets spilling out to disrupt the world. This novel sets out to prove that Albert Camus was aware of his impact on the world and how he began to notice the world shaping around him. This is embodied best than Camus’ famous quote, “The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.”