During the past few weeks, I attempted, with minimal success, to read two books in French. One was Olivier Bourdeaut’s playful novel Waiting for Bojangles, a recent international bestseller. The other was Samuel Beckett’s haunting play Endgame, which premiered in 1957 and is a literary classic.
And so I was surprised, and a little weirded out, to learn that my pairing of these two works is more apropos than I had realized. According to this World Literature Today article, the title Waiting for Bojangles (in French, En attendant Bojangles) is an allusion to another famous and classic play by Beckett. Here’s what the article says about Waiting for Bojangles:
“With its irreverent reference to Samuel Beckett’s En attendant Godot (1952), the novel’s title is a call to be mindful of the futility of endlessly waiting for fun, love, or fulfillment.”
Waiting for Godot is not a play I have read. However, rumor has it that Godot never arrives. If Waiting for Godot is anything like Endgame, it’s a bleak and beautiful masterpiece that is likely to shuttle one into an existential depression, if one isn’t careful.
In contrast, Mr. Bojangles does arrive in Waiting for Bojangles—in sound and spirit, if not in the actual flesh. And while the story has its sad moments, it never falls into melancholy. And it definitely never descends into grim philosophical musings about the meaningless of existence.*
In the novel, the boy’s parents love to dance to the song “Mr. Bojangles” as sung by Nina Simone. But when the song’s not on, it’s not like the characters are moping around waiting for it to play again. No, they’re finding other ways to live it up. They’re dancing to other music, making up stories, throwing parties, and doing various outlandish things, all in the name of whimsical pleasure.
In this household, there’s no waiting around for joy to magically show up. No matter how horrible their circumstances get, the characters insist on enjoying life. And they insist on altering their circumstances to make life maximally enjoyable. They even insist on enjoying life to the very detriment of living. If they were in the play Waiting for Godot, I’m pretty sure they would be calling up Godot and harassing him with jokes and enticements and crazy stories until he gave up and made an appearance. He might arrive delighted, or he might arrive enraged—but you can bet that he would arrive.
Is the title Waiting for Bojangles, then, misleading? Since the characters aren’t exactly sitting around looking at their watches, waiting for something fun to happen, is the title more paradoxical than descriptive?
Not so fast. The French phrase en attendant can be translated as “waiting for”; but that is not the only translation. Other translations include “while waiting for,” “pending the arrival of,” and “in anticipation of.”
The alternate titles While Waiting for Bojangles, Pending the Arrival of Bojangles, and In Anticipation of Bojangles strike me as more precisely true to the story. The boy’s mom and dad are always looking forward to dancing to the song. This is their best bliss. But in the meantime (which is another translation of en attendant), they are living it up in grandly wonderful ways.
Of course, the title as given is the best choice. It’s the most concise and lovely. And it refers back to Beckett’s play. But I find it fascinating that it has connotations in French that do not translate into English.
Are you sitting around looking at your watch, as you wait for Godot or Mr. Bojangles or whomever or whatever to show up? Waiting is a reality of life. The important question is, what are you doing in the meantime?
*This is merely to state a fact. I have no bias against bleak works of literature that question the meaning of existence. Actually, I like them. A lot.