Home > 1980, 20th Century, French Literature, Gary, Romain, Highly Recommended, Novel, Translations, WWII > The Kites (Les cerfs-volants) by Romain Gary

The Kites (Les cerfs-volants) by Romain Gary

The Kites by Romain Gary (1980) Original French title: Les cerfs-volants.

The Kites is a novel by Romain Gary translated by Miranda Richmond-Mouillot. Although it was published in French in 1980, its English version was only released end of 2017. I am crazy enough about this writer to have ordered the English translation of a book I’m perfectly able to read in the original. I wanted to see how the translation was, how the translator managed to give back Gary’s peculiar style. All the English translations in this billet are by Ms Richmond-Mouillot.

Lisa from ANZ LitLovers and I decided to read The Kites along. With time difference between Australia and France, her review is already available and as I write these lines, I haven’t read it.

The Kites starts in 1930 and ends just after WWII. Ludovic Fleury lives in Cléry, a small village in Normandy. He’s an orphan who lives with his uncle Ambrose. Ambrose is a bachelor, a postman with a passion for kites. He makes wonderful kites that sing the beauty of life and feature the great names of French history, be it literary or political. He’s famous for them and he became quite an attraction in the neighborhood. Ambrose’s friend Marcellin Duprat runs a gourmet restaurant, Le Clos Joli. Tourists go to Cléry to have a wonderful meal at the Clos Joli and see Ambrose’s artistic kites.

Ambrose is a full-on Republican, someone who values the heroes of the French Republic. He celebrates them through his kites and he passes this vision on to Ludo. The young boy is the product of the Third Republic, educated in the public school-system. From a very young age, Ludo is attached to historical figures and suffers from too much memory. He remembers too much and he’s able to do complex calculation in his head or to remember lists of numbers, something that will prove helpful for clandestine activities.

In 1930, Ludovic is 10 when he meets Lila Bronicka for the first time. She’s the daughter of a Polish aristocrat who owns an estate near Cléry. Ludovic is bewitched by Lila.  Victim of his infallible memory, he will wait for her return during four years. He’s totally and irrevocably in love with her.

Lila returns to Cléry with her family, her German cousin Hans von Schwede and their protégé Bruno. Ludo befriends Lila and her brother Tad. Things are more complicated with Hans and Bruno who are also in love with her. Ludo is invited to their estate and gets to know her and her family. In the 1930s, Lila spends all her summers in Cléry and their love relationship grows. Meanwhile, Ludo works as Count Bronicki’s secretary. In 1939, Ludo goes to Poland to spend the summer at Lila’s and he’s still there when WWII starts.

How will Ludo and Lila survive this war? You’ll have to read the book to discover it.

The Kites is a typical love story by Romain Gary. Absolute. Irrevocable. Made of mutual imagination and unbreakable bonds. As Lila explains to Ludo:

Je comprends qu’on meure d’amour, parce que parfois, c’est tellement fort, que la vie n’arrive pas à tenir le coup, elle craque. Tu verras, je te donnerai des livres où ça arrive. I understand dying of love, because sometimes it’s so strong that life can’t withstand it, it snaps. You’ll see, I’ll give you books where that happens. (chapter 6 p37/38)

When Lila and Ludo are adolescent, they try to imagine their future. And Lila’s words reflect Gary’s vision of youth.

Je peux encore tout rater, disait Lila, je suis assez jeune pour ça. Quand on vieillit, on a de moins en moins de chances de tout rater parce qu’on n’a plus le temps, et on peut vivre tranquillement avec ce qu’on a raté déjà. C’est ce qu’on entend par « paix de l’esprit ». Mais quand on n’a que seize an et qu’on peut encore tout tenter et ne rien réussir, c’est ce qu’on appelle en général « avoir de l’avenir »… “I can still fail at everything,” Lila was saying. “I’m young enough. When you get old you have less and less opportunity to mess everything up because you run out of time, so you can live an untroubled life and be happy with what you’ve already made a mess of. That’s what they mean by ‘peace of mind’. But when you’re only sixteen you can still try everything and fail at it all, that’s what they usually call ‘having your future ahead of you.’” (chapter 8 – p55/56)

Youth is when everything’s still possible and risky. In his eyes, old age is not a time to take advantage of your past experiences but more a time to mourn the loss of possibilities. Time is running out and nothing daring can come out of it.

The Kites is more than Ludo and Lila’s challenging relationship. It’s an homage to the Resistance. Romain Gary joined the Resistance early in 1940 and his novel is an opportunity to mention names and places, a way to give them immortality through literature. As Lisa pointed out, historical details don’t fit. It doesn’t matter because it is not a historical novel. It’s a way to mention heroes from the time and especially the village of Chambon-sur-Lignon where the pastor André Trocmé and other villagers helped to save Jewish children.

The war time in The Kites is also a time to ask ourselves “What is it to be human?” After the horrors of WWII, how do we reconcile the concept of human with all this inhumanity? Inhumanity was so widespread that it must mean that it’s hidden away in each of us. How do we know if we’ll be able to chain this wild beast if dire times happened? Inhumanity is part of humanity and this war made us learn this lesson.

I cannot write about Gary without mentioning his witty style. It brings a lightness to the story, a little spring in his sentences. Despite its serious themes, it’s told with a unique sense of humor and a lot of cultural and popular references. He uses the French language in his own way, mixing expressions, thinking out of the box, putting codes upside down.

Il ne s’agissait pas de ce que j’allais faire de ma vie mais de ce qu’une femme allait faire de la mienne. It was not a question of what I would do with in life, but what a woman was going to do with mine. (chapter 17, p102)

Miranda Richmond-Mouillot did an excellent translation of Gary’s voice. Here’s the perfect example of her excellent interpretation of Gary’s mind:

En réalité, avec le genre d’esprit que tu as, mon cher frère, tu devrais être garçon de bains : tu aimes tellement donner des douches froides ! Really, dear brother, with a sense of humor like, you should take up meteorology – you just love to rain on people’s parades! (chapter 8, p52)

She managed to translate the French play-on-words with an equally good pun in English. In American, I should say. We had a little exchange about that with Lisa who was complaining that the version published in Australia was not with Australian spelling. I objected that the translation was American, with American spelling and keeping ‘mustache’ instead of ‘moustache’ kept a certain consistency in the text. Gary’s French is full of colloquialisms with some swear words. I’m not an English-speaking native but from where I stand, the differences between English and American are a lot more visible in colloquial language. And I’m not sure that an English translator would have translated putain de merde by goddammit. What do English speaking readers think about this?

Another thing about the translation. It’s not the first time that I noticed it but a level of informal language seems to be missing in English compared to French. There’s no English equivalent for words like ‘bouquin’ (book), ‘godasses’ (shoes) or ‘bagnole’ (car). It’s not vulgar, it’s warmly informal. These words convey affection of the things they refer to. It’s too bad because it brings warmth to someone’s tone. Miranda Richmond-Mouillot can’t do anything about this and her translation of Gary is still remarkable compared to the original.

The Kites has another dimension, a more personal one for Gary. I think that Ludo’s love for Lila is a representation for Gary’s love for France, his adoptive country, that Lila is a personification of France and that The Kites, Gary’s last book mirrors Education européenne, Gary’s first book. This is a trail I can’t explore without spoilers. I will write about it in another billet, you’ll be free to read it or not. I know that at least Lisa will read it.

A last word about the book covers I included in my billet. I think the American one is the best. It’s an excellent representation of the book with the kites, the French flag, the Lorraine cross representing the Resistance and Lila’s face on a kite. It’s perfect. The French one with the postman is my old edition and it represents uncle Ambrose and his kites. It gives a good idea of the humorous thread of the book and of its “Douanier-Rousseau” vibe but leaves out Ludo and Lila, the main protagonists. The other French one is terrible: it’s only Lila as a femme fatale and The Kites is a tale, told by a story-teller and the naïve tone of the narration is totally missing, just as the kites and their symbolic value is left behind.

I hope this billet will prompt you to read The Kites, a lovely book by my favorite writer.

  1. April 29, 2018 at 3:31 pm

    That was fascinating, reading Lisa’s review and yours one after the other. I’m not sure what to think now though I tend to agree with Lisa about Americanised translations. I’m glad Gary was writing about the war from his own experience – I think that gives him freedom to to take liberties with the history that I personally would not forgive in a writer of historical fiction.


    • April 29, 2018 at 4:01 pm

      See my comment on Lisa’s review about the translation. It’s not “Americanised”. It’s American.

      Gary was in the Resistance from the start and he admired de Gaulle all his life. He was decorated. He used to pilot planes from London and a lot of his comrades died in action.

      Liked by 1 person

      • April 29, 2018 at 4:14 pm

        I read it (I love debate) and I take your point. Though! We hear all the time that the French hate the introduction of americanisms into their language – well so do we.


        • April 29, 2018 at 4:27 pm

          I think that the term “Americanism” is derogatory. That’s my main point.
          This translation is not written in a sublanguage, it’s written in American by an American translator for the American public.
          Why should American readers read “Britishised” versions of books?

          We don’t like to have too many English (American or British, whatever) words instead of French words. It’s not the same.


  2. May 1, 2018 at 8:37 am

    English has that informal level. It varies a lot by region and dialect. “Bagnole” could be “ride” (used as a noun) – that one is common. I don’t know an informal substitute for “book,” sadly, but I’ll bet if you asked a real Cockney he would have one for you. I guess “read” (as a noun) is similar to “ride” (as a noun).


    • May 1, 2018 at 8:40 am

      Thanks Tom.
      I’d love to have your comment on Lisa’s billet. And you femme’s opinion would be precious too.

      PS: I think we need to invent English words to say bouquin, bouquiner and bouquiniste. They are lovely words.


  3. May 1, 2018 at 2:59 pm

    I don’t think I understand the argument in Lisa’s post, or under it. Al Capone was, and is, internationally famous. Why wouldn’t a French person compare Napoleon to Al Capone? Why would anyone think that colloquialisms are “discouraged to authors in general”? Is the word “rutabaga” not on the internet somewhere?

    I guess it never occurs to me to be irritated that a book is in British or Indian or Australian English. Should I be? I am having trouble with the premise of the argument, along with the details.


    • May 1, 2018 at 4:25 pm

      That’s comforting. I’m more attuned to American English than British English, plus I’m not a native speaker. I thought I couldn’t see her point.
      I think that underneath it all, consciously or not, and even if Lisa seemed irritated by my response, there’s the idea that British English is the real English and American is a sub-version of it.

      PS: The word “rutabaga” is French to me and it’s a vegetable (a root) that’s typical of WWII food in France.


  4. May 1, 2018 at 7:35 pm

    In British English, a rutabaga is a “swede,” because of a historical connection to Sweden. I learned this just a few years ago, when I was researching Egyptian cat mummies. I thought “What is a ‘swede’?” so I looked it up on the internet.

    Is the idea that the translator should not make me look up words? I disagree with that.

    Maybe the premise I really disagree with is that the translator should be invisible. Sometimes, I guess, but not always. Sometimes I want to see clearly what the translator is doing. The English version of Perec’s La Disparition is a good example. The translator shows off all of his best tricks.


    • May 8, 2018 at 8:51 am

      Sorry for the very slow answer.

      I wonder what path brought you from Egyptian mummies to rutabagas…

      I think that the main idea is that the translator should speak “neutral” English that doesn’t sound either British or American. I can understand the argument but I’m not sure it’s possible for the translator to be invisible when translating Romain Gary.

      I think that the translator did an outstanding job to transform Gary’s French indiosyncrasies into something the reader could connect to. But she is and sounds American.

      For Lisa, the characters sounded American and not French.

      I’m not sure that the translator should be invisible either. The original language must be there and not there at the same time. Sometimes in French translations of English books, I can hear the English under the French. I see it in the turn of the phrases, in the expressions that are French but not quite.

      I agree with you, the translator need to be more than a “convert” device from one language to the other and some texts require more creativity on their side than others. La Disparition is a good example. I think Gary’s style probably needs the translator to step up and maybe one translation for the American & British/Australian market is not enough. One for each market would be better.

      I’d love to hear the thoughts of a British reader about this translation.

      I guess there’s no easy answer to this.


  5. May 8, 2018 at 2:50 pm

    No, no easy answers. Many possible answers, all requiring some real skill.

    It is possible that a shipment of mummified cats was sold to be ground up for fertilizer. Fertilizer for what, I asked myself? Rutabagas, was the probable answer.

    I really researched those cat mummy posts for some reason.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. June 6, 2018 at 5:12 pm

    There’s no such thing as neutral English.

    I prefer translations in British English as a rule because I’m British, though with say Mexican fiction I think US translations can potentially work better.

    I sometimes find US translations jarring, either because words have slightly different meanings or because they just sound oddly to me. The difference between mom and mum to a British reader is I think quite striking (save in Birmingham and nearby, where they use mom).

    All that said, I imagine most Americans prefer translations in American English for exactly the same reasons I prefer them in British English – why should they have to google what a Swede is?

    Also, a translator ideally translates into their own language. If an American translator tried to translate into British English I suspect they’d just get it wrong. Far better to translate into their own dialect and let the reader choose whether or not to follow them there. Similarly I wouldn’t expect a British translator to translate into American English, and if they tried I imagine the results would satisfy nobody.

    Anyway, all that aside, the book sounds good and I now know what rutabagas are!


    • June 8, 2018 at 10:00 pm

      I totally agree with you. This translator was addressing her own public and I don’t know why she should have written in anything other than American English.

      Rutabagas are really linked to WWII in the French psyche. People ate it at nauseam because it was available in times of need, when food was not abundant enough.


  7. June 6, 2018 at 5:29 pm

    I had a look at Lisa’s point and I can see what she was getting at I think. She says at one point:

    “the intrusive Americanisations in the text ruined the book for me. I could never settle into the French setting with French characters because I was constantly being jerked out of it.”

    I think the point there is one of immersion. It doesn’t bother me to read a US translation of a Mexican novel because they’re culturally close countries and I’m not thrown out of the Mexican context by US language (hopefully anyway). On the other hand, I might find a US translation of a 19th Century Spanish novel a bit jarring, particularly if there were a lot of colloquialisms.

    I think that’s because colloquialisms of our own culture can sink into the background a bit. Other peoples’ colloquialisms tend to stand out. In my American translation of Berlin Alexanderplatz for example at one point a character tells another to “cheese it”, which is fine and probably pretty accurate but feels a bit odd for a British reader as an evocation of 1920s Berlin. Of course, an American reader might have found it a bit odd if instead it had said “put a sock in it”.

    So at risk of misinterpreting Lisa’s complaint, I think it was that the colloquialisms for her were so markedly culturally American that she couldn’t maintain the illusion while reading of being in France and in French, which makes sense to me.

    None of that for me goes to whether it’s a good translator. If the original is colloquialism heavy then the translation should be too or it changes the tone, in which case the translator in my view is best going for colloquialisms natural to their culture and accepting that those may prove a barrier for readers from some other cultures.


    • June 8, 2018 at 10:13 pm

      I understand Lisa’s point, really. I can get why it’s annoying to her but I don’t agree about her assessment of the translation.
      Gary is incredibly difficult to translate and there’s no way you can use flat (“neutral”) language when translating him without betraying the original. He loved expressions, sayings and all kind of savouring French phrases. To give that back meant to find adequate expressions in English and these are rooted in a territory.
      I read The Kites either in English or in French and switching from one to the other was not strange. Gary’s voice was there in both versions.

      I think it’s the publisher’s responsibility to decide whether an American translation is appropriate for the British and Australian public.
      The Australian publisher assumed it was and so did Penguin for Britain. Here’s the Guardian’s review https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/jun/03/kites-romain-gary-review

      Let’s say I understand not liking the translation but I refute the idea that it’s a bad translation.


      • June 12, 2018 at 1:20 pm

        That makes sense. My thought was why some readers might bounce off some translations, but that doesn’t go to whether it’s a good translation or not which you’re obviously much better placed to judge. Where does this stand for you out of interest in the Gary canon in terms of quality?


        • June 16, 2018 at 8:00 am

          I think it’s a good Gary. It’s his last book and for an advanced Gary reader like me, it’s like a bouquet final. He put a sort of summary of his work and his being there.

          WWII was a life changing experience for him, he had a certain idea of what France is and what it should be. His vision of humanity is there too, how you can find strength, beauty and honour in people who are social misfits. (the whore character) His sense of comedy is here too: The Kites is a tale, definitely not a historical novel. His aim is not accuracy, it’s closer to a Candide mated with The Nose than to a historical novel.

          I still think that Promise at Dawn is the one to start with. It’s best to know where he comes from, to get acquainted with his sense of humour before reading the rest.


  1. May 1, 2018 at 8:00 am

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