Daniel Levin Becker
graduated from Yale University in 2006. Winner of a handful of prizes for short fiction and for non-fiction, he contributes regularly to Dusted Magazine and Resonance and collects two-word phrases. He lives in Paris, where he monitors the Oulipo at a safe distance.
Hervé Le Tellier
has been a member of the Oulipo since 1992. He is a journalist, a mathematician, a food critic and a teacher. He is also one of the “Papous dans la tête,” the cult literary quiz of “France-Culture,” the French cultural radio station. He has published, among other books, Sonates de bar, Le voleur de nostalgie, Les amnésiques n’ont rien vécu d’inoubliable, and Joconde jusqu’à cent. His latest publications include a collection of poetry, Zindien, dedicated to his son, a collection of imaginary cities, Cités de mémoire (Sighted Cities) and a book that may be called erotic, La Chapelle Sextine (The Sextine Chapel). His most recent publication is Esthétique de l’Oulipo (The Aesthetics of Oulipo), a very personal take on literature under constraint, considered from a linguistic perspective.
Calling “Quelques mousquetaires” a story about contagion makes it sound much less fun than it is, but explains a lot about how it works. The central peculiarity is simple enough: one day the narrator discovers that numbers have begun to increase or decrease by one, for no discernible reason. He first notices it while putting his library in order, but soon finds it spreading to the video cabinet and the newspaper pile, clothing tags in the closet and expiration dates in the fridge—that is, the curious affliction makes no distinction between the printed word and real life. The narrator finds The Postman Always Rings Thrice on his shelf; the next day the flesh-and-blood postman rings only once. What starts innocuously (at least to the degree that a library is ever innocuous to an Oulipian) ultimately contaminates the narrator’s ability to communicate, and so the very world of the story. All of which raises the question: to translate a story about contagion, do you treat the patient or the disease?
What makes the story, after all, is not that a man goes crazy, but how he does so. By the final act, when the psychiatrist shows up and the conversation degenerates into a litany of arcane plays on words, the medium trumps the message for precisely that reason. The narrator’s insistence on misquoted number idioms—a symptom he has begun to share with his books—is more important than the information he is giving. That he should say his father is seven feet under instead of six is the point; that his father is dead is, frankly, incidental.
Shifting such a particular series of rhetorical tics from French to English, languages with similarly huge but often incompatible supplies of idioms, thus requires a growing divergence between the letter and the spirit of the text. Many of the narrator’s turns of phrase have no cogent equivalent in English: une fois n’est pas coutume (“once doesn’t make a habit”) hardly registers, sensible though it sounds; others have English analogues with no number, like il ne casserait pas trois pattes à un canard (literally “he couldn’t break three legs off a duck”), which translates most easily as “he’s not the sharpest tool in the shed” (or crayon in the box, knife in the drawer, whichever variant you prefer). Perhaps it is oddly unprofessional for the psychiatrist to conclude a session with “Gimme five”—or six, as the case may be—but what else to do with on s’en sert cinq?
In the epilogue, by which time the narrator is punning in erudite homophones, the two languages part ways for good:
Je vais mieux, il paraît. À l’hôpital, tout le monde est très gentil avec moi. Je suis sous surveillance constante. On enregistre le moindre de mes propos. Je crois que mon cas est quatorze intéressant. Enfin, c’est qu’ils onze tous. Je me suis remis à lire. L’Illiade et l’Ohonzée.
J’en suis au moment où les Achedeux font le siège de Quatre. Du cent-un, toujours du cent-un. Pourquoi tant de haine plus un ?
There is no attractive and faithful way to render quatorze intéressant. The literal options are “very interesting” (which misses the humor in the statement) or “fourteen interesting” (which simply doesn’t work—the narrator is afflicted, not idiotic). But then why translate it literally? “Interesting” is the flattest of descriptors, and offers no depth or movement by itself. The operative units of meaning here are phonetic, not lexical, so why not go crazy along with the narrator? Why not fivemidable? twoderful? Why not three die five?
So it goes for l’Ohonzée—that is, l’Odyssée plus one—and on from there, to the point where the English ending discusses different books and takes on an entirely new self-reflexive musing. This is unorthodox and abstruse, but then so is the original text. Fighting contagion on its own terms is the only way to stay afloat as the narrator sinks ever deeper into his numberplay, and the only way to retain the spirit of learned absurdity that makes the story infectious, so to speak, in the first place.