Short Story Review – André-Marcel Adamek – The Ark (trans. Edward Gauvin)

It goes without saying that God, if He were to require another Ark, would probably not choose Belgium as the location for its construction. Belgium is the de-facto capital of the European Union, which is a fancy way of saying it is the home of bureaucrats. The creation of an Ark, with its cubits and endless thousands of species of flora and fauna, would certainly cause a headache of paperwork. So – it would never happen. God would choose somewhere else.

In André-Marcel Adamek’s The Ark, Belgium is precisely the location chosen by God. The narrator, an unnamed, rather peevish gentleman, seems vexed to be chosen, not honoured, complaining that:

Surely you know, O Lord, that in this fine country sentenced soon to vanish, no one can change so much as the color of one’s handkerchief without seeking authorization from a legion of bureaucrats and censors.

But he nonetheless takes to the task with aplomb. The Ark is written as a series of notes to God outlining the narrator’s trials and successes in creating the Ark. Generally, progress occurs, though not well (he notes that most of the animals he locates are old, mangy and diseased). Oddly, the narrator rarely suffers from a crisis of conscience – he believes that his mission is Heaven-sent and he doubts not God but himself as the date for the second Flood draws nearer and his task remains incomplete:

Questions without answer haunt my rare moments of rest: where is the starred pipistrelle to be found? Must I save the pyramidal bellflower?

The narrator’s most pleasant task comes in choosing his counterpart, the woman who will help found a new population after the catastrophe. He decides on the lockkeeper’s daughter, Lode, by virtue of her hips and her breasts and not much else (he doesn’t know her name at the outset). She agrees suspiciously quickly, which the narrator puts down to God’s gentle prodding.

The language of The Ark remains at a high, grandiose level throughout. I can’t speak for theFrench, but Edward Gauvin’s translation is formal, often pompous, and certainly inflated beyond the station of the lowly Ark builder. It fits the narrative quite well, and helps to put into relief the generally small nature of the narrator, and the magnitude of his impossible task. Witness the full quoted paragraph below:

I remained standing on the bridge, my face turned east. The spicy smell of forage rose from the hold and blended with the night air. Lightning lit the valley; for a moment, its clawlike veins trembled over the roofs. Why did a sudden fear rivet me to the spot like one crucified, I who’d escaped punishment, I who’d be the last and the first? A heavy rain began to splatter on the earth. The hiss and crackle it tore from the foliage was the first complaint—still timid—of the disowned realm. Soon, others rose from all parts, but it was hard to tell if they were the cries of birds flushed from their nests, or surprised walkers. In the distance, lights came on and trembled in the darkness. I made out windows shut in haste, objects moved to safety. The pathetic unrest reminded me, not without bitterness, of ants boiling over doorsills, a step from their demise, frantically carrying a wisp of straw.

The above quoted should aid in understanding our narrator. He is a man who refers to himself, without irony, as “the last and the first”. And though, yes, he is on a mission from God where he will be the last of the old and the first of the new, isn’t there something middling, something bourgeoisie, about referring to yourself like that while wondering about the nature of your fear? “I am important and profound, I should not be afraid!” is hardly the measure of a great man. Similarly, referring to other men and woman as “ants” and “pathetic” fails to inspire the same level of confidence of a man such as Noah, who says not a single world to God but instead listens, and does what he is bidden, and builds an Ark with all haste, and then has the good sense to die a few paragraphs later (though it was three hundred and fifty years later…!).

The Ark ends with an unexpected twist. Yes, the Flood occurs. Yes, the vast majority of necessary animals and plants are saved. Yes, Lode arrives at the Ark and seems willing to propagate the human race with the narrator. Everything goes according to plan – until it doesn’t. The narrator unexpectedly pulls the plug on everything, consigning himself, and the entirety of humanity, to Hell. Why? We aren’t provided a reason, but the narrator’s sabotage is consistent with his personality. Throughout the story Adamek hammers home the idea that this man was not, in fact, the best choice to create an Ark: again and again he is shown as merciless, small, petty, weak, timid and, worse still, unproductive, yet he is a man who, for all his failures, experiences a connection to the world that is melancholy, strongly felt, and true. God has chosen the wrong man to build his Ark – Noah was at heart a fatalist and a destroyer. Why, then, in The Ark did God choose this sad Belgian soul? Adamek leaves that as an exercise for the reader, and so shall I.

 

The Ark is a short story by Belgian writer André-Marcel Adamek, and was translated by Edward Gauvin.  You can read the story online at Words Without Borders.

Author André-Marcel Adamek
Title The Ark
Translator Edward Gauvin
Nationality Belgian
Publisher Words Without Borders

Please visit the Short Story Reviews page to see all of the available reviews.

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