Foreign Words Paperback – 28 Mar 2006
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About the Author
Vassilis Alexakis is the author of "Avant, " "La Langue Maternelle, "and "Papa, " all in French, and "Talgo," which he wrote in Greek and later translated into French. He has also produced four films and a collection of drawings. Alyson Waters has translated Louis Aragon's" Treatise on Style," Tzvetan Todorov's" The Morals of History," and Reda Bensmaia's "Experimental Nations, or The Invention of the Maghreb." She lives in Brooklyn, New York.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
The writing--and the translation--are very well done, little details put here and there to add shape and texture to the world of the novel and its characters. I also especially enjoyed the things that didn't actually happen in the novel--bits of conversations he only imagined, backstories he projects onto otherwise background characters. Nicolaides worries about being older (fifty-two), but in some ways he is like a big kid.
Alexakis is the author of many novels, but this is his first available in English, thanks to publisher Autumn Hill Books and translator Alyson Waters.
P.S. Make sure to take notes on the Sango Nicolaides teaches you throughout the novel--you're going to need it :)
The first word of Sango Nicolaides learns is, appropriately, baba, which means "father." Now "orphaned" at age fifty-three, Nicolaides finds himself leading an ordinary, and somewhat stagnant, life in Paris. His last novel received lukewarm reception and his publishing contract demands he soon release another. He carries on a sporadic affair with a midwife named Alice and watches a friend fight cancer. Why he wants to learn a third language, particularly an obscure one, is something Nicolaides can't quite articulate at first, although he recalls that, "Whenever you begin to study a new language, you inevitably seem a bit foolish, you become a child again. . . The French language has become less amusing since it has become the tool with which I earn my so-called living. It's no longer a foreign language; I learned it so long ago that I have the impression that I've always know how to speak it. Maybe I wanted to learn a foreign language simply because I didn't know any." In fact, he was eventually so immersed in French he nearly forgot his native Greek. As a bilingual writer, Nicolaides is an individual whose life and work have been inevitably shaped by the dynamics of languages and how they reflect and act on the cultures that produced them, as well as the cultures they were imposed upon (i.e. French in the Central African Republic). That he would want to acquire yet another language is actually less surprising than it seems.
Nicolaides's subsequent journey is an intellectual one. The biggest action that occurs is his trip to the CAR, which - despite his boyhood fantasies of Tarzan, fascination with big cats, and some brief references to "Heart of Darkness" - is largely uneventful. Any "exotic adventures" happen in Nicolaides's mind. It is an intriguing and subtle take on the Western paradigm of Africa as the dark "other" where the wild things are and unwary white people fall victim to either "savages" or "primal influences" (i.e. Kurtz, Tarzan). Even reading the Sango dictionary, Nicolaides comes across sample sentences such as "Once I've killed him, I can throw him in the bush, can't I?" and "They tore Africa to shreds, like hyenas" that bring to mind the bleak, one-sentence "short stories" by Thomas Bernhard. Given the information presented in the book, in addition to the influence of American media images of Africa as a continent wracked by violence and famine, I fully expected something major to take place during Nicolaides's stay in the CAR. It turns out, however, that capital city Bangui isn't all that different from Paris and Athens. For all its economic poverty, it is yet another community of ordinary people working and living their day-to-day lives. The death of Nicolaides's parents had also revived an interest in his family history, including a photo of his grandfather taken in a Bangui studio (with the appropriate "exotic" flourishes) and a great-aunt who was well-known in Bangui's Greek community. In reality, then, Sango- and French-speaking Bangui is a largely familiar place, right down to the conflicts between French and Sango that mirror the tension between Demotic (Modern) Greek and Katharevousa, the official state dialect of Greece.
"Foreign Words" is ultimately a novel that gives the reader the pleasure of exploring new approaches to language and culture. It is a leisurely book that encourages meditation on the wonderfully compelling concepts it introduces. Anyone seeking suspense or action will be entirely bored; everyone else, however, is in for a learning experience skillfully embedded in Vassilis Alexakis's clean but deftly-composed prose. ("The wind that had risen at nightfall was making my new curtains ripple, filling them with air and then suddenly drawing them outside. I saw them fluttering like handkerchiefs. It was as if my apartment were leaving the neighborhood, waving good-bye to the buildings across the way.") "Foreign Words" is probably not a book with mass appeal, but thoughtful readers will truly appreciate it.
* Review copy *