A young editor suggested to Annie Ernaux, a major French writer whose work is mostly autobiographical, to write a letter along the lines of the letter to Kafka’s father with an idea of transgression. From this suggestion was born the yet to be translated L’autre fille, a letter to Ernaux’s dead sister.
We learn quickly that Ernaux’s sister died before Ernaux was born and that she was a subject never addressed between Annie Ernaux and her parents. As the story advances, mixing present day and Ernaux’s memories of, in particular, the immediate post war period, the letter tells us of how her sister died of diphtheria at the age of six, less than a year before vaccination became obligatory, and above all of how Ernaux learnt of her sister and the devastating effect that it must have had on her as a young girl with repercussions on her whole life.
‘And naturally you must have been roaming around me, surrounding me by your absence in the dampened sounds of my early years, in the conversations with other women in the shop, on park benches…….but this left no trace in my consciousness…..I only remember that discussion that I wasn’t supposed to hear, that wasn’t meant for me.’
Her mother in talking to a young woman in earshot of Ernaux says that they had had another daughter and how she had died, she then added:
‘she then repeats the words you said before you died “I’m going to see the holy virgin and Jesus”….finally she says of you that “she was nicer than that one there”, that one there was me!’
Throughout her childhood and later life Ernaux asks herself questions about this moment and about her life in relationship to this sister she had never known but whose place she had taken: For instance when she learns that her parents had neither the time nor the energy to look after two children and had her sister not died they would not have had her.
Amongst my favourite anecdotes is when Ernaux has Tetanos and she is given a massive dose of medicine but that her mother also gives her holy water from Lourdes, that after her recovery her mother then makes a pilgrimage to Lourdes in thanks. But Ernaux as a child then questions that if it is the water from Lourdes that worked then she supposed that they must have tried it on her sister and asks herself then why hadn’t it worked for her?
Towards the end of the letter, she says to her sister when talking about her parents:
‘I don’t blame them for anything, parents of a dead child don’t realise what their pain does to the one that is alive’
I have personally not been in Ernaux’s situation, but have watched others that have. This is a remarkable self examination through this letter form.
First published in French as L’autre fille by Nil in 2011
*** My translation