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by Pierre Magnan and Patricia Clancy, trans.
Minotaur Books, November 2009
256 pages
ISBN: 0312367201

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

When Séraphin Monge returns from four years at the front in 1919, all he knows of his history is that he was orphaned when he was not a month old. The story of what happened is so horrifying that the lawyer who hands over his meagre inheritance cannot bring himself to enlighten Séraphin. But shortly after he returns to the family home and finds work repairing the roads, a fellow labourer tells him in brutal detail about the night when his entire family, grandfather, two brothers, father and mother had their throats cut. Only Séraphin survived and the villagers still look on him with a superstitious awe. Three itinerant railway workers were guillotined for the crime, but they were in fact innocent.

His informant spares little in the way of detail and Séraphin experiences a profound shock, made worse by whatever he saw and did in four years of war. He immediately develops the notion that his dead mother is demanding that he avenge her. He can even taste the drop of milk from her breast that he was about to suck when she was killed.

Séraphin begins his exorcism of the past by first trying to destroy all the furnishings in the house and then, stone by stone, the house itself. As he goes about his work of deconstruction, he comes across what he believes to be the motive for the crime and indications of who committed it. He undertakes to kill each of the three villagers he believes are guilty, but he is strangely thwarted as someone else does them in before he can get the job done.

Clearly from this summary THE MURDERED HOUSE is not your ordinary crime novel, though it is identified as "a mystery." It seems to me to be like those 19th century sorts of novel, popular in both France and Britain, set in small villages and characterized by passion, obsession, and superstition. It was first published, however, in 1984, when it won a prize a best novel of the year and is thus a deliberate re-creation of an earlier literary style.

It is also a translator's nightmare, and this is the real problem with the book as we have it herre. Magnan has lived much of his life in Haute-Provence and in this book particularly, he lards his prose with provincial turns of speech that are essentially untranslatable. Indeed a number of readers who read the book in the original have expressed some dismay at the oddness of the language.

One way of dealing with this would be a translator's note explaining why some phrases had to left unrendered. Another, far riskier approach, would be to find an English equivalent of the patois that Magnan employs. Here, I suppose you might turn to Hardy and his Wessex farmers for inspiration, but you'd better be very sure of what you're doing if you take this route. Patricia Clancy does neither. She leaves the dialect untranslated and drops a footnote telling us what it means. This is a poor choice, as very few crime novel readers really want to be dealing with footnotes every couple of pages. But the much more serious problem is that Clancy's translation is earnest, literal, and therefore ultimately less than comprehensible.

I've been going on at greater than usual length about the quality of the translation for a reason. Happily, US publishers are beginning to take chances on crime writers who do not write in English and readers are responding enthusiastically to this opportunity to broaden their reading experiences. This English version first appeared ten years ago in Britain and it should have been have been subjected to a long hard look before being re-issued. LA MAISON ASSASSINÉE is a striking work, but its English version, THE MURDERED HOUSE, is something of a chore to get through. All the same, I do suggest you try it out, but remember, that in this translation, it is as though you are looking out through a fogged window - there are looming shapes and fascinating images out there, but what exactly they may portend is a bit hard to tell. Siân Reynolds has shown that it is possible to translate a difficult French original into readable English - I wish she or someone like her had been turned loose on Magnan.

Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, November 2009

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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