'Mend the Living' Is the Story of One Man's Heart—From Fatal Crash to Life-saving Operation

Maylis de Kerangal

The edited extract below is taken from Mend the Living by Maylis de Kerangal translated by Jessica Moore (MacLehose Press,) shortlisted for the Wellcome Book Prize 2017.

It’s Chris who drives—it’s always him, the van belongs to his father and neither Johan nor Simon has their licence. From Petites-Dalles it’s about an hour to Le Havre if you take the old road from Étretat that goes down the estuary through Octeville-sur-Mer, the Ignauval Valley and Sainte-Adresse.

The boys have stopped shivering, the heat in the van is on full blast, the music too, and probably the sudden warmth inside is another thermal shock for them, probably fatigue catches up now, they probably yawn, heads nodding, trying to nestle against the back of the seats, swaddled and soothed inside the vehicle’s vibrations, noses tucked snug into their scarves, and probably they also grow numb, eyelids closing intermittently, and maybe, when they passed Étretat, Chris accelerated without even realizing it, shoulders slumped, hands heavy on the wheel, the road straight ahead now, yes, maybe he said to himself it’s okay, the road’s clear, and the desire to make the return journey go faster so they could get home and stretch out, re-enter reality after the session, its violence, maybe this desire ended up weighing on the gas pedal, so that he let himself go, carving through the plateau and the black fields, soil turned over, the fields somnolent too, and maybe the perspective of the highway—an arrowhead thrusting forward before the windshield as on a video game screen—ended up hypnotizing him like a mirage, so that he lashed himself to it, let go his vigilance, and everyone remembers there was a frost that night, winter dusting the landscape like parchment paper, everyone knows about the patches of black ice on the pavement, invisible beneath the dull sky but inking out the roadsides, and everyone imagines the patches of fog that float at irregular intervals, compact, water evaporating from the mud at the rate of the rising day, dangerous pockets that filter the outside and erase every landmark, yes, okay, and what else, what more? An animal in the road? A lost cow, a dog that crawled under a fence, a fox with a fiery tail or even a sudden human shape, ghostly at the edge of the embankment, that had to be avoided at the last second with a jerk of the wheel? Or a song?

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Yes, maybe the girls in bikinis who adorned the body of the van suddenly came to life and crawled up over the hood, overtaking the windshield, lascivious, their green hair tumbling down, and unloosing their inhuman (or too human) voices, and maybe Chris lost his head, sucked into their trap, hearing this singing that was not of this world, the song of the sirens, the song that kills? Or maybe Chris just made a wrong move, yes, that’s it, like the tennis player misses an easy shot, like the skier catches an edge, one dumb mistake, maybe he didn’t turn the wheel when the road was turning, or, finally, because this hypothesis also has to be made, maybe Chris fell asleep at the wheel, leaving the stark countryside to enter the tube of a wave, the marvellous and suddenly intelligible spiral that stretched out before his surfboard, siphoning the world with it, the world and all of its blue.

Mend the Living


Emergency medical services arrived at the scene around 9.20 a.m.—ambulances, police—and signs were set out to detour traffic on to smaller collateral roads and protect the accident scene. The most important thing had been to get the three boys’ bodies out, imprisoned inside the vehicle, tangled with those of the mermaid girls who smiled on the hood, or winced, deformed, crushed one against the other, shreds of thighs, buttocks, breasts.

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They could easily determine that the little van was going fast, they estimated its speed at 92 kilometers an hour, which was 22 kilometers an hour over the speed limit for this section of road, and they also determined that, for unknown reasons, it had drifted over to the left without ever coming back into its lane, hadn’t braked—no tyre marks on the asphalt—and that it had crashed into this pole at full force; they noted the absence of airbags, the van model was too old, and they could see that of the three passengers seated in the front, only two were wearing seat belts—one on each side, the driver’s and the passenger’s; finally, they determined that the third individual, sitting in the middle, had been propelled forward by the violence of the impact, head hitting the windshield; it had taken twenty minutes to pull him from the metal, unconscious when the ambulances arrived, heart still beating, and, having found his cafeteria card in the pocket of his jacket, they determined that his name was Simon Limbeau.

Mend the Living is the story of Simon Limbeau’s heart—and the story of all the lives it will impact in the 24 hours between the accident that cuts short his life and the moment when his heart will begin to beat again in the body of someone else.

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