The Silent Sea

(or, my first true gesamterfahrung of the French language.)

Il fut précédé par un grand déploiement d’appareil militaire. D’abord deux troufions, tous deux très blonds, l’un dégingandé et maigre, l’autre carré, aux mains de carrier. Ils regardèrent la maison, sans entrer. Plus tard vint un sous-officier. Le troufion dégingandé l’accompa­gnait. Ils me parlèrent, dans ce qu’ils supposaient être du français. Je ne comprenais pas un mot. Pourtant je leur montrai les chambres libres. Ils parurent contents.

Vercors — Le Silence de la Mer

I did have some prior contact with French before, but not at the level of actually analyzing literary works. As a portuguese high-school student my experience of it had been a very formal and limited one, where many grammatical rules were taught, verb conjugations were reviewed with an iron resolve and vocabulary was an afterthought. It is little wonder that I consistently and predictably flunked the class, year after year after year.

It was more a source of concern for my parents than it was for me, seen that my grades were generally acceptable but for French, and I really couldn’t see the point of the whole thing.

All of that changed very quickly: from nowhere it was announced to us that we would be moving to Belgium. In seven days. As in, leave-everything-behind-that-you-cannot-carry-and-ship-to-a-country-that-you’ve-never-even-heard-of-seven-days which, at age thirteen, sounds adventurous rather than disquieting. We were ecstatic: among many others, language was certainly a concern, but we were moving there as a whole family and if you combine that with the fact that Portugal invented the very concept of desenrascanço, what could possibly go wrong?

Everything became markedly less amusing once we arrived in Brussels.

We, or at least I, seemed to have overseen a small but crucial detail: every single person was a stranger to me with little incentive to correct my very approximate command of the language. This was at times funny, but infuriating most of the time: I retributed by hating them all immediately and intensely.

School of course was a whole different matter: for one, with the exception of Dutch and English classes, all of the syllabus was in French. Mathematics, History, Geography, Physics, Chemistry all of them in French. French in French, obviously. Even Physical Education was in French. It was assumed that I was sufficiently adroit as to follow along, which I mostly did. Not that it made me hate them any less, mind you.

I will never forget the first lines of Le Silence de la Mer as long as I live. The memory of the anguish they produced in me when I first read them is etched so deep in my brain that I can remember the temperature of the room, the cover of the book, the colour of the teacher’s shirt and the sudden sweat in my forehead, as if it had all happened five minutes ago.

I couldn’t even begin to understand it. Grand, deux, maison and français vaguely rang a bell but that was about it. And yet Il fut précédé par un grand déploiement d’appareil militaire, incomprehensible as it was, danced on a 3/4 sway which was impossible to ignore, much like a valse musette (but I only found out about those much later.)

It took me months to get past that first paragraph, but I finally managed to not only get past it, but more importantly to enjoy it immensely. The way Vercors prepares a story in a single paragraph, transmitting at the same time a feeling of triviality and impending doom with so few and so well-wrought words is mesmerizing. What first astonished me was: Ils me parlèrent, dans ce qu’ils supposaient être du français. Je ne comprenais pas un mot or, They spoke to me in what they supposed to be French. I didn’t understand a word. It sounded as if he was describing me.

I can’t objectively claim that the whole novella is as brilliant as I think it is. It is to me, if not for the language (which is wonderful), at least for the simple fact that, for once in my life, I can place an exact date, location and feeling to what would become a life-changing event.

At some point, after many books and many teachers I finally dreamt in French; not by choice or determination, but because the music was irresistible. And I didn’t hate them at all anymore, how could I?

I was them now.

(Dédié à Nath, à qui j’aurais dû raconter cette histoire il y a bien longtemps☺)


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