Bar Balto, by Faïza Guène, translated by Sarah Ardizzone, Chatto & Windus, RRP£11.99, 160 pages
Faïza Guène published her first novel, Kiffe Kiffe Demain, in 2004, when she was 19. Thick with Arabic-inflected Parisian youth slang, it was a comic novel set in the notorious banlieues, the miles of estates and tower blocks outside the capital’s ring road where the French state pens in its poor and its immigrants. It sold extremely well in France, though Guène’s French-Algerian background and argot-rich prose means that her reputation hovers somewhere between curiosity and stardom on the country’s frequently conservative literary scene.
Bar Balto, her third novel, shifts the action from the cités of Saint-Denis to the fictional community of Joigny-les-Deux-Bouts, at the end of Paris’s regional train line. The racist proprietor of the local café-bar has been stabbed to death, and suspicion falls on several inhabitants of Joigny, who each present their side of the story.
The cast is small – an Armenian working mother, her layabout husband and their two sons, a tearaway and a retarded adolescent. There’s also the eldest son’s girlfriend, a Paris Hilton take-off who seemingly uses textisms such as LOL and LMAO in spoken conversation; and Moroccan twins. But no one seems to have much to say that goes beyond caricature, and since the work distinguishes its voices by register, the translator has to work fairly hard.
Sarah Ardizzone did an interesting job of finding Brixton street slang to replace the verlan of Guène’s first two books, a nice trick she repeats here. But she makes the baffling decision to translate Guène’s punning names into English rather than glossing them in the text: so the name of the village, admittedly a fairly bald play on words in French, is translated into English as Making-Ends-Meet, while a man whose surname is Legendre is introduced to English readers as Soninlaw.
This tic has an infantilising effect on the narrative, and other expressions that zap along in French are rendered cumbersome in English.
The main pleasure – even the main point – of this book in French seems to be the difference between the strait-laced language of classic literature and the chatty, rude banter that Guène’s characters trade. When those are rendered into less striking English equivalents, attention rebounds on the plot and characters, and they are neither very original nor very profound. Only an indiscriminate desire to keep up with translated fiction for its own sake could justify tracking down this fizzle of a novel.