Sometimes books only work in the language in which they were first written. Delphine de Vigan’s ‘No and Me’ however, travels freely across the barrier. First published in France in 2007, it won the Prix des Libraires in 2009 and was made into the French film adaptation: No et Moi. It has already been translated into twenty languages.
So why is ‘No and Me’ a book worthy of our attention? Why this book, rather than the thousands of others we could place on our mental bookshelves? Because of the qualities of central protagonist, Lou.
The book is written from Lou’s perspective and has a youthful air and a plot which tumbles from its pages in achingly simple, but endlessly poignant, prose. But within its clean cut lines lies a rich emotional tapestry, one which the narrator weaves and unpicks adeptly at every turn. The book is set in the French capital: a city of romance, a city of light, a city whose very name conjures up fairy-tale images of stretching sunlit boulevards, a romantic River Seine and a certain iconic tower which needs no introduction. But forget everything you thought you knew about Paris. This short but accomplished novel imparts the invisible Paris, with an unseen population that sits on every corner, hides in every nook of the city. No is a member of this population. She is homeless.
It is in Paris’ Austerlitz station that the worlds of schoolgirl Lou and street-girl No collide. Railway stations are usually a place of bustle, of commuters, of arrivals and reunions, of departures and farewells. The only departure No is waiting for is an involuntary one: the moment when she will be ejected from the station by the guards. Train stations are the ultimate symbol of transience, but passengers always have a destination, somewhere to go. Here, the train station is the temporary shelter of people who have nowhere to go. No has to go in search of homeless hostels to sleep in, but always has to sleep with one eye open. Crime is rife in the hostels and No must keep her identity card in her underwear to stop it from being stolen.
In Lou’s words, we must open our eyes to this unseen world. After reading this book, you probably won’t see Paris in quite the same way again. Nevertheless, despite this darker Paris, even in the midst of despair there is hope. Lou’s tutor calls her a utopian, but it is her endless hope and humour that turn her tragedy into a gritty drama with just the right dose of dry wit. This is an endlessly surprising, endearing book with a crisp, fresh tone that belies the wisdom lurking in its pages.
This book is easy to read, but not always so easy to digest. If you’re looking for a Hollywood Parisian romance, stop reading now. But if you’re looking for a book to make you think, a book that turns Paris on its head, you’ve found it. Some books do get lost in translation, but this one certainly doesn’t. It might have been written in French and set in Paris, but it has universal echoes. It encourages us all to speak the language of humanity, a language which doesn’t require words, only actions.