“I’ve seldom read a more moving book,” The Guardian writes of Maylis de Kerangal’s newest novel, The Heart, which The Wall Street Journal has in turn lauded as a “faceted gem.” A major literary sensation in France, The Heart is de Kerangal’s second book to be translated into English. We are pleased to present its opening sections here.
The thing about Simon Limbres’s heart, this human heart, is that, since the moment of his birth, when its rhythm accelerated, as did the other hearts around it, in celebration of the event, the thing is, that this heart, which made him jump, vomit, grow, dance lightly like a feather or weigh heavy as a stone, which made him dizzy with exhilaration and made him melt with love, which filtered, recorded, archived—the black box of a twenty-year-old body—the thing is that nobody really knows it; only a moving image created by ultrasound could echo its sound and shape, could make visible the joy that dilates it and the sadness that tightens it; only the paper trace of an electrocardiogram, set in motion at the very beginning, could draw the shape, describe the exertion, the quickening emotion, the prodigious energy needed to contract almost a hundred thousand times a day, to pump nearly ten pints of blood every minute, yes, only that graph could tell a story, by outlining the life of ebbs and flows, of gates and valves, a life of beats—for, while Simon Limbres’s heart, this human heart, is too much even for the machines, no one could claim to really know it, and that night, that starless and bone-splittingly cold night on the estuary and in the Pays de Caux, as a lightless swell rolled all along the cliffs, as the continental shelf retreated, revealing its geological bands, there could be heard the regular rhythm of a resting organ, a muscle that was slowly recharging, a pulse of probably less than fifty beats per minute, and a cell-phone alarm went off at the foot of a narrow bed, the echo of a sonar signal translated into luminescent digits on the touchscreen—05:50—and suddenly everything raced out of control.
And so, that night, a van brakes in an empty parking lot, coming to a halt at a crooked angle, and as the front doors slam and a back door slides open, three figures emerge, three shadows outlined against the darkness and seized by the cold—icy February, runny noses, slept-in clothes—boys, it looks like, who zip their coats up to their chins, pull their hats down to their eyelashes, muffling the upper flesh of their ears with polar fleece, and—blowing into their cupped hands—turn toward the sea, which is at this hour nothing but noise and blackness.
* * *
Yes, they’re boys, you can see that now. They are standing in a line behind the low wall that separates the parking lot from the beach, stamping their feet and breathing deeply, their nostrils sore from piping the iodine and the cold, and they survey that dark expanse where the only rhythm is the roar of the crashing waves, that din made by the final collapse; they scan what is rumbling before them, that crazy clamor with nothing to see—nothing except perhaps the whitish, foamy edge, billions of atoms catapulted against each other in a phosphorescent halo—and, stunned by the winter cold outside the van, dazed by the marine night, the three boys now pull themselves together, see and hear clearly again, assess what awaits them—the swell—judging it by ear, estimating its breaker index, its depth coefficient, and remember that waves formed offshore always move more quickly than the fastest boats.
Looks good, one of the three boys muttered softly, should be a good one, and the two others smiled, then the three went back together, slowly, scraping the ground with their feet and pacing around like tigers. They lifted their eyes to penetrate the night beyond the town, the still-black night behind the cliffs, and the one who had spoken looked at his watch—another fifteen minutes, guys—and they climbed back into the van to wait for the nautical dawn.
* * *
Christophe Alba, Johan Rocher, and Simon Limbres. The alarms went off and they pushed back their sheets and got out of bed for a session agreed upon only just before midnight with an exchange of texts, a mid-tide session, the kind you get only two or three times a year: heavy sea, regular swell, low wind, and not a soul around. In jeans and jackets, they crept outside without breakfast—not even a glass of milk or a bite of cereal, not even a slice of bread—and waited in front of their apartment building (Simon) or the gates of their house (Johan) for the van that was right on time (Chris), these boys who normally never emerge from their beds before noon, no matter how much their mothers nag them, these boys who usually don’t have the energy to do more than crawl lethargically from the living room couch to their beds and back, here they are in the street at six in the morning, champing at the bit, laces undone, breath foul—beneath the streetlamp, Simon Limbres watched the cloud of air that rose from his mouth as it slowly expanded, dissolved, and vanished, remembering how as a child he had liked to pretend he was smoking, putting his index and middle finger to his lips, taking a breath so deep it hollowed his cheeks, and blowing out like a man—these boys, theThree Caballeros, aka theBig Wave Hunters, aka Chris, John, and Sky, aliases that were less nicknames than pseudonyms, created as part of their reinvention from French high school kids to planetary surfers, so that calling them by their real names instantly brings them back to a hostile set of circumstances: the freezing drizzle, the gently lapping waves, the vertical cliffs, and the streets deserted as evening approaches, the parents’ scolding, the demands of school, the complaints of the girlfriend left behind, abandoned once again in favor of the van and the waves, the girl who can never defeat the lure of the sea.
* * *
Inside the van: filth and damp, sand everywhere, harsh against the skin, brackish rubber, the stink of shellfish and kerosene, a pile of boards, a pile of wetsuits (different kinds for different seasons), gloves, socks, pots of wax, leashes. All three sat in front, shoulder to shoulder, rubbing their hands between their thighs while making monkey noises, shit man it’s freezing, and then took a few bites of energy bars—taking care not to eat too much, because it’s afterward that you wolf them down, afterward, when you’ve earned them—and passed around the bottle of Coke, the tube of Nestlé condensed milk, the soft sweet cookies—Pépito and Chamonix—before one of them grabbed the latest issue of Surf Session from under the seat and they opened it out on the dashboard, their three heads close together above the pages that glowed in the dark, the glossy paper like skin slick with sunscreen and pleasure, pages thumbed a thousand times that they stare at once again, wide-eyed and dry-mouthed: a tsunami at Mavericks and point breaks in Lombok, rollers in Hawaii, tube waves in Vanuatu, all the greatest shores on the planet unfolding before them with the splendors of surfing. They point at the pictures with feverish fingers—there, yeah, and there, we’ll get there one day, maybe even next summer, the three of them in the van setting off on a legendary surf trip, in search of the most beautiful wave in oceanic history, driving until they find that wild and secret place, which will belong to them the way America belonged to Christopher Columbus, and the three of them will be there, alone on the beach, when it finally appears on the horizon, the one they’ve been waiting for, the perfect wave, beauty incarnate, so huge and so fast that they will stand on their boards in an adrenaline rush, joy and terror electrifying every inch of their bodies from the soles of their feet to the tips of their eyelashes, and they will ride it, rallying the world of surfers, that nomadic tribe with their sun-bleached, salt-washed hair, skin bronzed and eyes faded in the eternal summer of youth, boys and girls wearing only shorts printed with Tahitian flowers or hibiscus petals, turquoise or blood-orange T-shirts, shod only in flip-flops, a people aglow with sunlight and freedom, and they will surf that wave all the way to the shore.
* * *
As the sky outside lightens, the pages of the magazine are gradually illuminated, revealing their full spectrum of cobalt blues so pure they dazzle the eyes and greens so deep they look as if they have been painted in acrylics; here and there you can see the wake of a surfboard, a tiny white stripe traced across the vast wall of water, and the boys blink and mutter Jesus look at that, wow it’s insane. Chris leans back to check his cell phone, and the screen light, shining from below, turns his face bluish, reveals the bone structure—the prominent arch of the eyebrows, lantern jaw, mauve lips—while he reads the news out loud: today in Les Petites Dalles, there’s an ideal southwest/northeast swell, waves between five and six feet, the best session of the year, each snippet of information punctuated with solemn cries of yes, man, we’re gonna rule out there, we’re gonna be kings!—their slangy French sprinkled with fragments of English, as if they’re living inside a pop song or an American TV show, as if they were heroes, foreigners, the English words lightening deep, dark thoughts like vie and amour to the airy, meaningless “life” and “love,” the English making them sound humbler—and John and Sky nodding in infinite agreement, yeah, man, big wave riders, we’ll be kings.
* * *
It’s time. The break of day, when the formless takes shape: the different elements coming into focus, sky separating from sea, the horizon growing visible. Methodically, the three boys get ready, following a precise order that is also a sort of ritual: they wax their boards, check the leashes are attached, put on their special polypropylene underwear before struggling into their wetsuits, their bodies contorted in the parking lot—the neoprene sticking to their skin, sometimes giving them friction burns—a choreography of rubberclad puppets asking each other for help, yanking and twisting. Rubber boots and hoods and gloves follow, then they lock up the van and walk down to the sea, boards light under their arms, striding across the shingle where the pebbles collapse noisily underfoot. When they reach the shore, everything growing clearer in front of them—the chaos, the celebration—they attach the leashes to their ankles, reach back to zip their hoods so there’s not an inch of bare skin on their necks—they have to make sure the suit is as watertight as possible to protect their young skin, often studded with acne on their shoulders and shoulder blades (where Simon Limbres has a Maori tattoo)—and then that movement of the arms, straight up in the air, meaning that the session is about to begin, let’s go!, and now perhaps their hearts start to pump a little harder, shaking themselves slowly like waking animals inside their rib cages, now perhaps their mass and volume increase, their beating intensifies, two distinct sequences in every pulse. Two beats, always the same: terror and desire.
They enter the water. They do not scream as they throw their bodies into it, protected by that tight-fitting flexible membrane that conserves the warmth of their flesh, the explosiveness of their momentum. They don’t loose a single cry, but pull faces as they cross the wall of rolling rocks, the seabed steepening rapidly until, five or six yards from the shore, they can no longer touch it with their feet and they plunge forward, lying facedown on their boards, their arms cutting forcefully into the waves, driving through the backwash, heading out into the open sea.
Two hundred yards from the shore, the sea is just a wavelike tension, hollowing and bulging, billowing like a bedsheet. Simon Limbres becomes his movement, paddling toward the lineup, that zone in the sea where the surfer waits for a wave to rise. He checks that Chris and John are there, to his left, bobbing like little black corks, hardly visible as yet. The water is dark, marbled, veiny, the color of tin. There is still no sparkle or shimmer, only those white particles that powder the surface like sugar, and the water is icy, less than fifty degrees. Simon can never take more than three or four waves when it’s like this, and he knows it: the cold wrings out the body. He has to choose carefully, seeking out the best-shaped wave, high-crested without being too sharp, with a curl that will open wide enough for him to take his place there, a wave that will last all the way to the shore, breaking and frothing only when it hits the shingle.
He turns back to the coast, as he always likes to before moving farther out: there is the land, stretched out like a black crust on the bluish glimmers where he floats, another world, a world to which he no longer belongs. The cliffs with their layers of different-colored rock mark the passing of time, but where he is, time no longer exists—there is no history here, only the randomness of the waves that buoy and whirl him. His gaze lingers on the vehicle made up to look like a California surfer van, parked on the lot by the beach—he recognizes the bodywork covered with stickers, all those names he knows by heart, Rip Curl, Oxbow, Quiksilver, O’Neill, Billabong, the psychedelic fresco mixing a hallucinatory vision of surf champions and rock stars, sprinkled with a nice heavy dose of siren-like, long-haired girls arching their backs in teenie-weenie bikinis, that van which they have created together, the antechamber to the wave—and then his gaze shifts to the taillights of a car climbing up to the plateau and disappearing inland, and he thinks of Juliette asleep, curled up in the fetal position beneath her kid’s comforter. She looks so stubborn, even in sleep, and suddenly he turns the other way, leaving the continent behind, tears himself away from it with a burst of energy, another sixty-five feet or so, and then he stops paddling.
Simon floats, arms resting but legs kicking, hands gripping the edge of the board, chest lifted slightly above the water, chin high. He waits. Everything around him is in flux: whole sections of sea and sky appear and disappear with each eddy of the slow, heavy, wood-like surface, like cool lava. The harsh dawn burns his face and his skin tightens, his eyelashes hardening into vinyl, the lenses behind his pupils icing over as if they’d been forgotten at the back of a freezer. His heart is beginning to slow down, in response to the cold, when suddenly he sees it, coming toward him, solid and homogenous, the wave, the promise, and instinctively he positions himself to find a way in, to slip inside like a thief entering a safe to steal its treasure—same balaclava, same precision of movement, down to the last millimeter—to slip in through the back, into that twist of matter where the inside turns out to be even huger and deeper than the outside. There it is, thirty yards away, coming toward him at a steady speed. Abruptly, concentrating his strength in his forearms, Simon sets off, paddling at full speed, and he is traveling quickly when he takes the wave, so he can be caught in its slope, and now it’s time for takeoff, that ultrafast phase when the whole world concentrates, speeds up, a temporal flash when you take a deep breath, hold it, and gather your body in a single action, giving it the vertical impetus to stand up straight on the board, feet nicely spread, the left in front, settled, knees bent and back flat, almost parallel to the board, arms open wide for balance. This is Simon’s favorite second, the moment when he is able to seize the explosion of his existence, to win over the elements, to become part of the life around him, and, once he is standing on the board—guessing, in that moment, that the height of the wave from base to crest is about five feet—to stretch out the space, prolong the time, use up the energy of every atom of the sea until it breaks on the shore. To become the wave.
He lets out a yell as he takes this first ride, and for a moment of time he is in a state of grace—a horizontal vertigo: he is level with the world and feels as if he is coming out of it, part of its flux—the space closing in on him, crushing as it liberates, saturating his muscle fibers, his bronchial tubes, oxygenating his blood. The wave unfolds in a vague temporality—slow or fast, impossible to tell—suspending each second until the surfer ends up pulverized, a senseless heap of flesh. And it’s incredible but, no sooner has Simon Limbres crashed into bruising rocks in the gush of the climax than he is turning around and heading back out, without even a glance at the land or the fleeting figures glimpsed in the foam when the sea hits the earth, surface against surface; he paddles back out to the open sea, his arms windmilling fast, plowing a way to that threshold where it all begins, where it all gets going. He has rejoined his two friends, who will soon yell out just like he did as they descend the sequence of waves that march toward them from the horizon, exhausting their bodies, giving them no respite.
* * *
No other surfer came to that spot. No one else approached the parapet to watch them surf. No one saw them leave the water an hour later, worn out, spent shells, legs like jelly, staggering as they crossed the beach back to the parking lot, and back to the van. No one saw their hands and feet, blue with cold and purple with bruises, nor the dry patches that cut their faces, the cracks in the skin at the corners of their lips as their teeth chattered, their jaws trembling continually, like their bodies, all three of them helpless to stop it. No one saw anything, and when they were dressed again—wool underwear beneath pants, layers of sweaters, leather gloves—no one saw them rubbing each other’s backs, unable to say anything but oh God, shit man that was awesome, when they would so have liked to talk about it, describe the rides, immortalize the legend of the session. Shivering, they got in the van and closed the doors. The engine started, and they drove away.
Maylis de Kerangal is the author of several novels in French, including Je marche sous un ciel de traîne (2000), La vie voyageuse (2003), Corniche Kennedy (2008), and Naissance d’un pont (published in English as Birth of a Bridge, winner of the Prix Franz Hessel and Prix Médicis 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 Prix Landerneau). 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 (The Heart), was published to wide acclaim, and won the Grand Prix RTL-Lire and the Student Choice Novel of the Year from France culture and Télérama. She lives in Paris, France.