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King of a Hundred Horsemen
by Marie Étienne
translated from the French by Marilyn Hacker
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $25 (cloth)
Originally published in French in 2002, Marie Étienne’s King of a Hundred Horsemen, translated by Marilyn Hacker, occupies an odd position somewhere between poetry and prose, observation and memory, dramatic enunciation and factual report. Although the opening sequence evokes the Parisian poet’s upbringing in French Indochina, the book is constructed around a deliberate lack of any anchoring subjectivity; its voices (which include, among others, two characters enigmatically named “Ang” and “Lam,” two painters, a child, and citations from Eliot, Dostoyevsky, Paul Claudel, Marina Tsvetaeva, et al.) fragment, disappear, and recur, unsettling each other and the pronouns that might or might not name them. But like the character of the child, who in the poem’s final section can assume the position of the poet herself and simply “take” “the words, the birds, the winds,” King of a Hundred Horsemen maintains a steady tone of quiet witness, advancing its own fabulous construction—the book is a series of one hundred sections (section titles themselves included in the count), each section a fourteen-line sonnet in prose—calmly and gracefully, even as this construction shifts and scatters. Hacker’s translation, selected for the first Robert Fagles Translation Prize in 2007, does nothing to shore up the work in its new language. Often but not always faithful to the letter of Étienne’s writing, Hacker maintains a certain flatness, or several flatnesses, which suit themselves equally to a history of murder or the mating habits of birds, while also allowing the ambiguities of translation to persist and multiply. The experience of the book finally becomes that of one of Étienne’s voices: “All the same, Ang marveled, the house belongs to me, it expands when I explore it, constantly pushing the wall.” King of a Hundred Horsemen itself expands constantly and exponentially, its senses and resonances moving outward and upward not only in translation, but again with the pressure of each reading.
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