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Dreaming cities

The changing city, the stuff of fiction?

With Birth of a Bridge in 2010, Maylis de Kerangal penned a modern epic, its narrative power intimately linked to the construction of a gigantic bridge. The author gave us an interview, during which she looks back on major construction projects as a literary subject and on the way she looks at extraordinary works, on the movement they trace.

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How can major construction work become a driver for fiction ?

With Birth of a Bridge, I wanted to write a book with a narrative pulse, a story that moves forward. I was interested in the contemporary epic dimension, in the sense that the action pulls the narrative, it is the fuel of the book. There was this idea of the beginning, the end and, in between, this crossing. It was extremely stimulating to the imagination.

And then, I thought that a bridge would be a good motif, because its construction promised an active book and could also be an avenue for thinking about the question of reconciliation. Because there is dialectic, in a bridge, since there are immediately two banks to join together.

There is also a human element at the centre of this extraordinary construction work…

Yes, and what quickly appeared to me was that I was going to be able to tell the story of the construction of this bridge by mobilising a lot of characters, because a bridge immediately evokes the idea of “a lot”: a lot of people, a lot of material, a lot of effort, a lot of movement. Around this bridge, which is the real main character, there are major figures –

Diderot, Summer, Jacob, Sanche. By synchronising the writing of the novel with the construction of the bridge, I was able to dig niches for the characters, develop them, create flashbacks.
These work sites also interest me because they play on very human issues. Options, philosophies collide. The technical dimensions are also interesting, because they carry with them what one gives of oneself, of knowledge, of gestures, to create such structures.

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With this novel, you tackled the issues of complexity and consensus, because you have to come to an agreement to build such a structure…

Yes, and that is the question the book poses: what does the construction of a bridge achieve by connecting two spaces, separated by a river: a fast-growing city and a forest that is somewhat lost in time? Especially given that a bridge is an extremely positive motif symbolically.

A large bridge is a fine gesture, a sign of outreach, it is also the image of an open city, which connects spaces. It forms the link between landscapes, between buildings, between people. And I also wanted to explore this idea of the changing world. In fact, what changes when we change? This always fascinates me.

How do you imagine life after major construction projects? What remains of this energy? What is created that is new?

There is a new landscape, which will inevitably invite destabilisation. Because the landscape is not a surface, it is a feeling, connected to memory, and also to the imagination, to projection. These are very intense turning points for the inhabitants of these places that are changing. There is something that is no longer there and something else that has arisen, and that we are going to inhabit.
Of course, that changes your life! For example, when you intensify the connections, it produces energy, curiosity, more freedom. I think back to a job I had in Stains, where I realised that the young people never went to Paris.

There really was that suburb-city isolation, this ring road as a barrier that is impossible to cross. So, the way in which an area can be opened up, in which certain barriers can be broken down, is structuring. We are living in a period when rail transport will take on enormous importance with the Grand Paris. Obviously, this will change people’s lives! I nevertheless wonder about the ways and means of these journeys. How do they take place? What do we see in these interstices? How can we turn this moment into a rich time? It sometimes seems stronger to me than wanting to abolish distances.

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What is your view on major construction sites today?

I still look on them as an inspiration, but perhaps with more concern than I did ten years ago, because ecological issues and the question of land take have become more intense: we are entering a period in which we must be careful. These technical feats can touch me with their beauty and the knowledge they involve, in their in-depth research that can change life.

But I remain quite cautious. For example, these cities that appear on the water, like these artificial islands that we have seen off the coast of Dubai, have something totally futile about them. Perhaps currently we should rather be thinking about reconditioning: about renovation, restoration. I think that large construction projects are becoming rare and that they must respond to more vital, more necessary issues.

Do they express the pulse of the city?

If we consider that cities are living matter, in perpetual motion, we can indeed say that carrying out major construction work expresses these pulses of life. Because it is obvious, the city is a living body that regenerates itself. There are parts that fall down, limbs that age, we replace them with others, we perform transplants, we get back on track.

And all this, these pulses of the city, those of the construction sites, creates promises of meetings, openings, connections. But the city also has a whisper, it is not only the symphony of bass drums, its heart also beats in more modest and perhaps lighter ways, and in this it seems to me that city planners have a huge role to play.

MINI-BIO

Maylis de Kerangal, born in 1967 in Toulon, has published numerous novels – Je marche sous un ciel de traîne, Corniche Kennedy, Tangente vers l’est, Réparer les vivants – several of which have received awards and made into films.

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