French Author Maylis de Kerangal's "Heart" Explores Empathy Amidst Tragedy
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This article is part of a series of profiles of ten Francophone authors who have been long-listed for the Albertine Prize, a reader’s choice award launched this year by the Albertine bookshop in New York. Albertine booksellers selected ten of the best French novels translated into English in the past year; US-based readers can vote between March 16 and April 30th on the Albertine site here.
Maylis de Kerangal’s Réparer les Vivants (Mend the Living) was published in France in 2014, garnering no less than ten literary prizes as well as being adaptated to theatre and to film. Her story about the 24 hours following a terrible accident explores the subject of organ donation and the end of one life that ultimately gives hope to another. The translation of her novel into English has been equally successful—the UK and Canadian version, Mend the Living translated by Jessica Moore was shortlisted for the Wellcome Book Prize while the US version, The Heart, translated by Sam Taylor, has received glowing reviews from the East to West Coast.
De Kerangal’s novel opens innocently enough, even if the reader immediately senses impending doom:
“Christophe Alba, Johan Rocher, and Simon Limbres. The alarms went off and they pushed back their sheets and got out of bed for a session agreed upon only just before midnight with an exchange of texts, a mid-tide session, the kind you get only two or three times a year: heavy sea, regular swell, low wind, and not a soul around.”
When the three teenagers get back into their van after their early morning surfing session, the reader breathes a sigh of relief. And that’s when the fatal accident happens; Simon is declared brain-dead, his heart still beating. Therein begins the chain of events triggered by an organ transplant.
De Kerangal, who has worked as an editor, and is the author of numerous prize-winning books, has hinted in interviews at being slightly shell-shocked following the tremendous success of The Heart, which touched a wide span of readers including many in the medical and scientific field for its scrupulous research. While imagining the journey that Simon’s heart begins, ultimately traveling towards Claire, whose heart is ailing, describing Simon’s shocked and grieving parents, and the various members of the medical teams, de Kerangal balances a highly emotional situation with medical details, posing ethical and philosophical questions. De Kerangal has described how she strove above all for empathy, situating her story from the donor’s perspective, since most organ transplants are seen from the receiving and very hopeful end. What interested her, she has said, is the desacralization of the human heart, in the end, placing it back into a common pot for humanity.
De Kerangal’s original title in French comes from a line in Chekhov’s Platanov, in which when asked what to do, the character, Nicholas, replies, “Bury the dead and mend the living”.