“I’m the one he attempts to create as his favourite character, his straightforward guilty one. The one who feeds on hatred, who pours it out in public.”

The narrator of Down With the Poor begins by telling us that she has assaulted a man by hitting his head with a bottle and is now in police custody, waiting to be interrogated yet again. We gather along the course of the book that her interrogator, Monsieur K, treats her as some sort of a typical case of “having had too much of the terrible system”, and attempts to reduce her to a label that couldn’t possibly contain all that she felt. The book, in fact, plays both roles for its reader – it tells them what she felt, but perhaps not without also ultimately reducing her to a label, leaving her rightfully indignant and frustrated.

A modern dystopia

Translated from Shumona Sinha’s French by Teresa Lavender Fagan, Down With the Poor does break labels on every page. The narrator’s job is to translate the stories of the refugees for the bureaucratic system which decides their fate, as they wait in hope to cross the border into an unnamed European city. “Migrants survive despite everything just as rebel blades of grass grow in sterile ground.” She treads on delicate ground. Nevertheless, they all survive – the narrator, the European lawyers, petitioners, the interpreters, and of course, the migrants themselves.

Sinha, who is of Indian origin, certainly knows how to paint a picture. “His eyes were round, and he seemed permanently stunned.” The narrator “knew that in his head there was a thin wire of a tale upon which he was balancing, advancing with trembling legs.” All while the woman on the other side, listening to him, looked “excited and tense like a cat watching a really stupid mouse.” In a short 129 pages, the reader of Down With the Poor silently watches several such people walk several wires, as the narrator hears and interprets their tales, and as they all crumble down under the sheer helplessness that they fumble through with little recourse.

I read Down with the Poor sitting by myself in the cold, and the book didn’t distract me from the chill – in fact, it only intensified it, seeping in through my toes, and freezing my fingers as I turned page after page. I wanted to stop reading it. It was overwhelming. Sinha’s words came in long sentences, touched with poetic flair and crippling emotion. Not a page went by without an attempt to knock me off my feet. And while I did want to be knocked off my feet, I wasn’t expecting to be in the way that Sinha forced me to – the sheer force of the pain and emotional anguish that each character constantly unleashed or repressed in one way or another was a lot to bear.

“He talked, and I was transported to an evening in Cox’s Bazar. The round, bulging lanterns, smoky, waving in the summer wind. An impending storm. The river’s embrace becomes increasingly strong and the sea tortoises return to land.”

I wonder if I would’ve felt the same way the book in bits and pieces, giving me a chance to recover before leading me into the modern dystopia that it illustrates. Frankly, if I had been able to keep the book down, I might not have returned to it – the spotlight in this book isn’t in particular on its narrative or any individual character, but almost purely on its poetic narration. I flipped through it once again when I was done. I couldn’t bring myself to read entire stretches of it, but I did find it nearly impossible to not sit with a few lines and savour them before being able to move on.

This brings me back: I perhaps wish I hadn’t read Down With the Poor in one quick go. It is a short book. But maybe it’d be a better read if read slowly, and with a little bit of quiet concentration. The different migrants the narrator illustrates blur into one another, and by the end of it the reader scarcely remembers any. This is a job well done, because this truly is the interpreter’s experience – person after person, and story after story. I have no idea if I’d recall them if I had stayed with the book more than I did, but in any case, that might not serve it well. The narrator’s inability to place the man she assaulted out of her latent rage says much about what the book wants to do, and certainly achieves.

Down With the Poor, Shumona Sinha, translated from the French by Teresa Lavender Fagan, Deep Vellum Publishing.