An Excerpt of Birth of a Bridge by Maylis de Kerangal, translated by Jessica Moore

SITE MEETING – SOMETIME AFTER SEVEN o’clock in the morning and Diderot is talking, standing mountainous at the end of the oval table. Bare room, thin partitions, thin carpet hastily placed, smell of glue, smell of new, freeze-dried coffee, classroom chairs dragged in. These accommodate some fifty individuals, among them Sanche Cameron, the crane operator, and Summer Diamantis, the girl in charge of concrete – Diderot watches these two surreptitiously, the boy with the dazzled face, the girl who takes notes without lifting her head. He directed the comment at them when he said, fingers joined in a bouquet over his chest, hey, rookies, call me Diderot.

HE CLEARS his throat and begins in a loud voice. Okay, let’s get started. Plan of action: one, dig the ground – he lifts his thumb; two, dredge and clear the river – he lifts his index; three, get started on the concrete – he lifts his middle finger. Turns to pull down a wall-mounted screen, starts up a laptop, turns back, slowly surveys the audience, and then slams down the first words.
So, dig the ground. He turns to the geotechnical map projected on the screen, takes a zapper from his back pocket: two types of soil coexist here. One – a red point of light lands on the map, perfectly synchronous: Coca side. The limestone plateau of the high plain. Arid on the surface, fractured farther down – hard, with a tender heart, it’s the trick of the cream filling, we know it well, we’re not crazy about it, but it’s better than the opposite, right? The room agrees, laughter erupts, soft and complicit. The problem – Diderot whips around without a smile to look at the audience – we’ve got limestone rocks sitting on marly clay that could cause landslides. Be very careful. Two – same choreography: Edgefront side. Damp and inhabited ground, roots to tear out, we’ll have to pierce the glebe and go deeper to get to the mineral in order to have a strong foothold for the foundation. So, two types of ground, which is where we get two types of material, but one single strategy: the Neolithic gesture! In other words, cleave the ground – and as ever he joins the action to the word, the blade of his hand slices the space in front of him, he brings the scene to life, he likes theatre. Finally, he recapitulates in a loud voice pointing two red spots one after the other on the map: we’ll start by making two holes in order to anchor the bridge. Got it? Good. Moving on. Dredge the river – Diderot continues while the map changes on the screen: we’ll proceed as usual, we’ll send in the dredger, clean it out, remove the sludge, stow the biodegradable materials in clearings here, and here – two consecutive shots of the zapper in the forested area – and put the contaminated materials on a barge that will travel all the way back downriver and shove this shit four thousand feet down into the ocean. There you have it. We signed agreements with the municipality, it has to be done. And back there it’s not over, we clear out the river, dig the channel again, enlarge it all the way up to the future port, and then we consolidate, we raise the embankments where the steel cables will be anchored, and we dig, we dig the river bottom to embed the towers.
Notes being taken in notebooks and spidery scrawl of the men in light short-sleeved shirts, it’s hot, they open the portholes to let in some air, the room swells with the clamour of the outside – zooming on the freeways, hubbub of the stock market, panic of wild ducks, putt putt putt of motors on dinghies out on the river, barking of dogs, gunshots – and Diderot’s voice coils with all this without drowning it out. Funny soundtrack, thinks Sanche Cameron who had closed his eyes for a moment, since he didn’t close them at all last night, seized as he was beneath the sheets by the restlessness that had overtaken him, so happy that the site was starting up, that the grand life waiting for him there was finally beginning. He slants a glance sideways at Summer as she tries desperately to write everything down, tells himself it’s just like a girl to be meticulous like that. Diderot has started speaking again.
And now, the concrete. Your domain, Diamantis! – he turns towards Summer, their eyes meet, the girl immediately sits up straight in her chair, Diderot spreads his arms and makes circles in the air, he adds flatly: you’re responsible for feeding the site, Diamantis, you’re in charge of perpetual motion. Then he retracts the screen with a sharp movement the way you’d pull on a blind, turns off his computer, and circulates copies of a handout detailing phase one of construction. Since no one has spoken any questions aloud, everyone leans over their documents, comments to one another about the technical data, and then the surveyor confirms the plan measurements, the steward presents the menus for the first two weeks, they ask about beer at lunchtime – one 473 ml can per worker – and Diderot cuts them off, forget it, white with rage. Get out, all of you. Meeting’s over.


About the Author: Maylis de Kerangal is the author of several novels in French: Je marche sous un ciel de traîne (2000), La vie voyageuse (2003), Corniche Kennedy (2008), and Naissance d’un pont (translated here as Birth of a Bridge, winner of the Franz Hessel Prize and the Médicis Prize in 2010). She has also published a collection of short stories, Ni fleurs ni couronnes (2006), and a novella, Tangente vers l’est (winner of the 2012 Landerneau Prize). In addition, she has published a fiction tribute to Kate Bush and Blondie titled Dans les rapides (2007). In 2014, her fifth novel, Réparer les vivants, was published to wide acclaim, winning the Grand Prix RTL-Lire and the Student Choice Novel of the Year from France Culture and Télérama. She lives in Paris, France.

About the Translator: Jessica Moore is an author and a translator. She is a former Lannan writer-in-residence and winner of a PEN America Translation Award for her translation of Turkana Boy, the poetic novel by Jean-François Beauchemin. Jessica’s first collection of poems, Everything, now, was published with Brick Books in 2012. She is a member of the Literary Translators’ Association of Canada and worked as the secretary in their Montreal office while completing her Master’s in Translation Studies. She is also a songwriter – her debut album, “Beautiful in Red,” was released in 2013. She embarks on frequent adventures and uses her hometown of Toronto as an anchor.