Photo © George Murphy

VERA is being translated by James Thomas and will be published into English by Francis Boutle Publishers, London, in 2018.

For other foreign rights, please contact Geneviève Lebrun-Taugourdeau:

+33 (0) 155 426 195

genevieve.lebrun-taugourdeau@mercure.fr

Jean-Pierre Orban

J.-P. Orban was born in Belgium of a Belgian father and an Italian mother.

He spent his childhood in Africa. He now lives in Paris after having lived in Brussels and London.

He has written in French for the theatre, for children and young adults, and has published many short stories in literary magazines and collective works.

His novel Vera, published in 2014 by Le Mercure de France (Gallimard Group) won several prizes:

Prix du meilleur premier roman français 2014

Prix Saga du meilleur roman francophone belge 2015

Prix de l’Académie des lettres françaises de Belgique

Prix du Livre européen 2015 (the “Europe Book Prize 2015”) awarded at the European Parliament by Martin Schultz and a jury headed by the Italian writer Erri de Luca.

The novel is now being adapted for TV and/or cinema.

His latest work is Nous nous ressemblons tant (“We are so alike”) a poetical narrative (December 2014).

He has just accomplished a long literary biography of the Belgian writer Pierre Mertens (born in 1939), which will be published beginning of 2017.

 

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Jean-Pierre Orban’s next novel, Toutes les îles et l’océan, will be released in March 2018 by the Mercure de France.

J.-P. Orban is a translator (Mark Twain, Hanif Kureishi), Director of a book series and an Associate-researcher in literature at the ITEM (Institute of modern texts and manuscripts) in Paris.

 

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Vera

novel, Mercure de France 2014

vera

 

1930. Vera is the daughter of Italian immigrants Ada and Augusto and is but a mere child in pre-war London. Brought up in Little Italy, Clerkenwell, she attends the Italian after school classes organised by Mussolini. And is dazzled by the mirage of fascism. But her dreams are shattered when war breaks out. Churchill turns on the Italian community and decides to « collar the lot ». In 1939, Augusto is imprisoned and shipped out to sea on the Arandora Star.

Vera then begins her search for identity, for place, for belonging. Ada, her mother, who speaks very little English, retreats into a world of silence and then into the attic. Vera throws herself into work, initially in a pseudo French restaurant in Soho. A child is born of her numerous wartime encounters, a boy Ben that she decides has a French father. So she learns French, and entrusts Ben to the French lycée in London. And from where he has to be removed, a total misfit. Lost between English, Italian and French, he retreats into mutism like his grandmother. And accompanies her on her wanderings through the city and its cemeteries…

 

VERA, which spans five decades of the narrator’s life, is a quest for truth, for identity. A tale of immigration, of the delusions of history, of the search for one’s roots. A reflection on language, on languages, on speech.

 

VERA’s narrative has strong resonances with current events and the question of integration of migrants. And the fascination of some of these youths in ideologies which bring them some roots, an (illusive) ideal and an identity they believe they cannot find where their elders have decided to settle.

 

VERA also provides a surprisingly vivid and realistic depiction of life in London, in Clerkenwell and Soho in particular, from the 30’s to the 60’s.

 

It is a moving and profound tale which has seduced numerous readers in French speaking countries and (soon) in Italy where it is to be released in May 2016. An adaptation for the cinema or for TV, made possible thanks to an international co-production, is on the cards: the scenario is in the making.

 

Sample Translations of Vera

 

1.

Did Churchill speak Italian? Did he know a single word of the language? And would he have issued his order if he had done it in Augusto’s native tongue? When you make the effort to translate your thoughts into someone else’s words, would you dare to condemn him to exile? And send him to his death. To the bottom of the sea, like the clown-emperor Augusto.

 

2.

A lady, perhaps the ambassador’s wife, Mamma Italiana as we were asked to call her, but perhaps also the befana, now landed and alighted from her broom – a tall woman, all dressed in black – moved towards the table. Her steps echoed along the floor. She walked slowly, hips swaying from side to side. You might say she processed through the room like a swan, a black swan on the edge of a lake, ready to glide across the water. Her long gloved forearm stretched out towards the table. Why is it that I only remember my name, as if it were the only one she called out? […] Suddenly, I existed within the community where, after all, we swarmed around like tadpoles. And beyond. Outside the embassy walls. In the town where we occupied a road and a neighbourhood: the pond where we paddled.

 

3.

They were brought to the quayside of the port. More than a thousand of them. Germans, Austrians, Italians and soldiers. The crew was waiting for them up on deck. There was a long gangway to get there. But what struck Augusto was the vast bulk of the hull hanging over him. He had no memory of ever having seen such a high one before. Not in Trieste, twenty years earlier, because at the time the ships were not so tall. Nor at the Isle of Dogs, because the boats there had to be able to sail up river. The men on the quay were like ants. A thousand ants waiting to board. He looked up towards the bows. There was something written on the end of the hull. The name of the ship. But he couldn’t read it. Now I am reading it on the bows of the liner. Arandora Star.

 

4.

Scylla and Charybdis. By misremembering my mythology lessons at St Peter’s School – unless it was in Copenhagen Street – I for long believed that these names referred to harmless outcrops of rock at the entrance to the Straits of Messina in Sicily. Two columns forming the southern gateway to Italy in the Mare Nostrum celebrated by il Duce. And I told myself that if there had been pillars like these in London, one would be Clerkenwell, the Little Italy where we were mouldering away, and the other Soho, the second Italian district of the capital, at once more scandalous and more sparkling.

 

5.

« When are you going to join us, Vera? History is done. It’s time for stories! » […] It was when one of these swaps was taking place that Seymour called to me. He was just coming out of a night club, but went back in again with me. He spoke to me against the clink of glasses and the shouts of revellers. I only heard half of what he said. It was probably the same for him. He had been drinking, gave me his whisky, ordered me another, flirted a bit with me, waved his arms around, sketching a future which was opening out. « No more blood, toil, tears and sweat », Churchill’s words at the beginning of the war, and I said to myself that maybe it was true and that a page really was turning, the page with Winston whom we had left in his war room, fingers in a V sign and a cigar in his mouth.

(Translation James Thomas and N.M.)