Friday, February 16, 2007


It's weird! I live in France, I wrestle with the language daily, and I think I've made some progress over the last few years.

I've been in the States for about four weeks, and whatever confidence I have in my French seems to have evaporated. A flurry of e-mails and iChats first thing this morning brought that realisation home with a bang.

I got two e-mails from my French publisher: one about my rail tickets to the Paris book fair in March, the other concerning my nomination for a literary prize awarded by prisoners.

It was the latter that made me question my understanding. The award is called the Prix Intramuros, and it is made as part of a festival of crime writing held in Cognac in October. I had already been shortlisted for the Prix International which is also awarded at that festival, so was surprised to find that I had been nominated for a second one.

But as I read on, I seriously began to question my comprehension of the French language. What the e-mail seemed to be saying was that six writers had been shortlisted for the "Intramuros", and if they agreed to be put forward for it, they would have to arrive at the festival a day early. Then first thing the next morning, they would be taken in twos to a nearby prison, where two juries of prisoners would quiz them on their work during a nearly twelve-hour day.

That night, at a dinner in the banquetting hall of a local chateau, the winner would be announced and the prize awarded.

In a panic, I e-mailed my French translator, Ariane, in Paris asking if I was understanding this right. We then had a lengthy iChat in French, via instant messaging, during which I struggled with both comprehension and expression, before finally arriving at the realisation that my first impressions had been correct.

This really is an award made by prisoners. The prize was first given in 2005, and is an attempt to bridge the gap between those on the inside and those on the outside through the medium of reading. I'm not sure if I'm the first foreigner to be nominated, but I know that last year's six writers were all French. I read their accounts of their prison visit and interrogation by the juries of prisoners, and it certainly seemed to have left an impression on them.

By coincidence (or maybe not), the book which has won me the nomination is "Snakehead" - "Cadavres Chinois a Houston" in French. And during the research for that book, which is set in the United States, I visited several prisons in Texas - including the so-called "Death House" in Huntsville, where prisoners are executed by lethal injection.

So we should have a lot to talk about, those French prisoners and I. But I'm going to have to brush up on my French prison vocabulary first!

When finally I broke the surface of this sea of French, I looked out of the window to reacquaint myself with my present reality - i.e. southern California - and was delighted to see that the sun was blazing out of a flawlessly blue sky. I was reminded, briefly, of a jet which had worked its gymnastic (and at the same time laborious) way across those blue acres the previous evening. Clever manipulation of an on/off smoke trail spelled the words WILL U MARRY ME above the setting sun. It was, after all, Valentine's Day. Awwww.

Of course, in a few years it will probably be GIMME A DIVORCE!

But with the morning sun now rising, and the temperature soaring into the mid-twenties centigrade, it was time to get on the bike and blow some of that French syntax out of my hair. So La Patronne and I cycled and ferried and cycled our way to a restaurant called the Crab Cooker near the ocean. We gorged ourselves on scallop and prawns before making our way to the beach, paddling in the Pacific, then dangling our legs from a lifeguard station as we let our feet dry in the breeze.

I looked up from the book I was reading, which was in English naturally, and got sudden butterflies at the thought of prisons and prizes in October. That, of course, is my reality. Not this. Not California. This is unreal. Sea and sunshine in February! I expect to wake up any minute to feel the cold French winter blowing around my ankles, and French words tumbling naturally from my lips.

With the distantly echoing words rattling around my head, 'And it was all a dream.'

1 comment:

Carol and Chris said...

Well, I guess that makes sense - criminals reading crime novels.

Do you think the books they like best are the ones where the bad guy doesn't get caught?

C x