If you build it, they will come for their cut: Birth of a Bridge, by Maylis de Kerangal

Review: This French novel about a very American megaproject is both astonishingly lyrical and bracingly topical, writes Eileen Battersby

Birth of a Bridge
Birth of a Bridge
Author: Maylis de Kerangal
ISBN-13: 978-0857053787
Publisher: MacLehose Press
Guideline Price: £14.99

It seems so simple, the building of a bridge. Part work of art, part sublime feat of engineering, it is practical and yet it is also symbolic.

John Johnson, the Boa, is the new mayor of a modest town in California. He wants to consolidate his legacy, but he is not exactly a visionary; more an opportunist. Needing financial backing to build his bridge, the Boa heads off to Dubai and flatters a sheikh.

Dubai is about more than money. For him it is also a concept: “When he wakes, the Boa is convinced he’s found the inspiration that was missing for his mandate. A mastered space is what offers itself up to his gaze – a space, he thinks, where mastery combines with audacity – and that is the mark of power.”

The project is a six-lane suspension bridge, 200m high and in a desert, spanning a river, flanked by the forest home of the last tribe of California’s Native Americans. But the Boa does not care about the Indians, and he is not too bothered about the birds, although the environmentalists are. It sounds like a bold, uncompromising plan.


So is Maylis de Kerangal’s audacious narrative, which is about capitalism, change, the many faces of human ambition and, most pressingly, about the United States itself. For all the satiric symbolism and the many cultural references and sideshows, this pragmatic, defiant story is, almost surprisingly, also about building a bridge.

Absorbing artificiality

The Dubai sequence sets the scene for much of what follows in

Birth of a Bridge

, and the Boa is just one of several unpleasant, semi-caricatured characters. He rushes about, absorbing the artificiality.

"His cardiac rhythm speeds up with pleasure and exhilaration. The city appears as a consumerist phantasmagoria, a gigantic ghetto for nomadic billionaires, and the model of a virtual universe where you can lose your mind: strange combination of hotels with ostentatious pomp, shopping malls with unmatched opulence – the largest duty-free mall in the world, with miles of shop windows . . . extravagant theme parks – an indoor ski hill with a snowy summit, mechanised lifts and a polar bear."

The Boa is, understandably, overcome. All of this, explains his guide, was created in only 20 years. Before that there was just “a little patch of desert, a sandy bit of Earth’s crust, and not even any oil – and now what? Paradise.”

The Boa is busy dreaming. “He wants something large and functional . . . a freeway over the river.” Pretty soon he realises that, regardless of the scale of his fantasy, he can not draw it himself. One of his councillors “cleverly” suggests the idea of a contest.

The use of “cleverly’ is important, because de Kerangal, who is French, never fails to embellish her maverick yarn. She revels in the many snide edges. It is sharp, original, funny and shocking, merciless in its multiple ironies. JG Ballard would have applauded it; Don DeLillo would smile wryly. Her prose is snappy, emphatic and muscular, and her use of language, as with names, is free- wheeling. Jessica Moore, the book’s translator, provides a three-page note on the linguistic challenges and unusual word choices.

Princely patron

Historical contexts are evoked, and not just of California through the ages. The Boa also “sees himself as a Medici, a princely patron in a velvet cape . . . He accepts that a foreign glory could come to build upon his land, thereby raising his own glory higher.” The new bridge will come to represent many things. It juxtaposes modernity and traditional human ego. For lesser mortals it’s employment.

The Boa may think big, but he needs an architect. Enter Ralph Waldo, “who is both famous and a mystery”. Aside from his name, which is lacking only the Emerson, Waldo also thinks grandly and knows how to pitch his winning design in a contest described as an audition.

To illustrate “the adventure of migration, the ocean, the estuary, the river, and the forest, the veined walkway above gorges and the span that plays above the void, [Waldo] has chosen a highly technological hammock; to demonstrate suppleness and strength, flexibility and resistance to seismic shifts, he has chosen a nautical web of cables and massive concrete anchorings; to symbolise the ambitious city, he has chosen two steel towers planted in the riverbed, skyscrapers power emitters energy catchers; to evoke the myth, he has chosen red. That is a suspension bridge of steel and concrete.”

Beyond the rhetoric and quasi-lyric imagery is the reality, a giant construction that Waldo sums up as an “optical singularity”. An engineer is required. The task is entrusted to a grumpy Breton veteran, Georges Diderot, whom de Kerangal presents as a weary if still virile aging general. Diderot is not particularly likeable, but then very few of the characters are even remotely believable, never mind sympathetic.

Somehow it does not matter. The story, or rather the project, is the bridge; it is the centre. The humans are minor players. There is no disputing the polemical intent, although de Kerangal may also be inspired by Hart Crane's The Bridge (1930), a long poem, more a verse sequence, about Brooklyn Bridge.

Smoking earth

Although this novel is blunt and plainspeaking, there are moments of beauty, such as when the concrete expert, a woman, walks over to the building site in the early morning heat and “the earth smokes in her wake”. Elsewhere are entire passages of astonishing writing, and, however intrusive the gigantic bridge is, it is also beautiful.

De Kerangal has selected an enduring image in a bridge – always an object of wonder. The human characters clutter the book, leaving the most entrancing sequences to focus on the bridge and the landscape on which it has been imposed.

Yet long before the bridge there was the place, a strange, unforgiving location, of which the unnamed, occasional narrator ponders, “it’s still hard to understand how people could have dreamed of setting themselves up in such a dented cleft of red limestone plateau, at the flat bottom of a valley with asymmetrical sides where coyotes and lynx descend at dawn, incisors still gleaming with blood.”

Best of all, though, are the intrepid birds. “They show up en masse in mid November. Suddenly the sky seems immensely vast and inhabited . . . One morning you lift the blinds and the birds are there, at rest, floating on the river or scattered downstream from the city . . . their sense of direction more rigorous, more mathematical than a GPS . . . It’s moving to think that even the most solitary, most asocial among them has migrated in a group, as though survival depended on finding a collective solution.”

Birth of a Bridge is a barbed performance of showdowns, most aptly set in what had once been the Old West. A brawl over principle and the defence of the sacred breaks out, but no one intervenes; "can it possibly be true that, polarised in front of computer screens where forecasts of bad weather appear . . . they've gone deaf?"

Early in the 20th century John Dos Passos chronicled the multiplicity of American life in his USA trilogy. De Kerangal appears to have updated that thesis with an original, laconic, astute and relentlessly topical morality tale that scores several direct hits.

Eileen Battersby is Literary Correspondent

Eileen Battersby

Eileen Battersby

The late Eileen Battersby was the former literary correspondent of The Irish Times