In 2002, Thierry Hentsch published Raconter et mourir : aux sources narratives de l’imaginaire occidental (translated as Truth or Death), a reading of Western literature’s greatest stories such as the Odyssey, the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Torah, the Bible, Don Quixote, etc.
Currently shortlisted for a Governor General’s Literary Award in translation, Empire of Desire has been deftly rendered into English by Montreal translator (and friend of the author) Fred A. Reed. Reed’s own love of literature permeates the work.
Through these readings, Hentsch explored the need for men (for all of these great storytellers seem to be men) to perpetuate themselves and their knowledge by telling their stories. Empire of Desire: The Abolition of Time continues the exploration.
Although Hentsch claims that “both books can be read at random,” they can’t. I tried. After reading the foreword and the first few chapters of Empire of Desire, I barely understood Hentsch’s intention. He was offering readings of Western classics, I understood that, but what particular lens was he using? Only after reading the translator’s introduction, an article in Le Devoir and the introduction to Truth or Death did I start to perceive the “red thread” that links his readings.
While the first book spans from antiquity to the Age of Enlightenment, Empire of Desire covers the period from the Age of Enlightenment all the way to Joyce and Proust. The break between the two books occurs when men abandon religion and embrace reason, thereby shifting the way in which they perceive themselves and their roles. While Truth or Death contemplated stories of classical heroes who believed in gods, good and civilization, Empire of Desire explores modern heroes who, detached from religion and salvation through death, have a new drive: desire. Desire to live their lives, to define themselves, to make sure that life is worth living—before dying.
This survey of Western literature requires some prerequisites. You need to know Kantian, Platonic, and Cartesian theories, to name a few (he explains the last two in chapters 6 and 16 of Truth or Death). Furthermore (and perhaps obviously), the oeuvres mentioned have to have been read. Though a summary of the tale always precedes Hentsch’s thoughts, these summaries are sometimes more confusing than enlightening. But when you have read the texts, when you do understand that each of these heroes represents the desire of Everyman, then Hentsch’s readings open up, revealing our true human nature. Under the empire of desire, we are the same, even though we tell our tales because we feel unique.
Empire of Desire encourages the rereading of these classics. The task may seem time-consuming to busy 21st century readers, but this busyness is part of what Hentsch laments at the end of Truth or Death. So busy are we with blogging and so satisfied are we with mere entertainment that we don’t take the time to read these stories, let alone write any. Is that why, he wonders, there hasn’t been a great story since Proust?
The winners of the 2009 Governor General’s Literary Awards will be announced on November 17.
Mélanie Grondin is a South Shore writer and translator. Her book blog BuzzingBlue reviews any book she can get her hands on.