Sarah Chiche ‘The Obscure’


I know you, he said in perfect french with a hint of an accent which let me know he was a German speaker. You’re the woman who, yesterday afternoon in the Volksgarten, threw herself on the man who had just slapped a child.***


Sarah is married to Paul, an intellectual and writer whose theme of study is the approaching apocalypse, wars, global warming, growing population and strain on resources, and she is a clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst and they live in Paris. As the book, read for the Roman de Rochefort begins, she has come to Vienna to write about the conditions with which migrants are treated in the refugee camps and it is quickly clear that she is emotionally emerged in and drained by her visit. As she visits a gallery, a tall distinguished looking man talks to her about having seen her the previous day as illustrated in the opening quote.

Although happily married to Paul, she quickly begins an all consuming relationship with Richard K, a renowned musician and German speaker, a language banned from her home life as she was a child, and quickly the relationship brings out the dark side, boiling beneath the surface, of Sarah. Who are we, how are we affected by our younger life and the lives of our parents and grandparents. How much empathy can a woman have for a mother that systematically beat her, as her mother says to her:


I want to thank you…
Thank me? But why?
Because you lived through things that a child of your age should not normally have to live through. You heard things a child shouldn’t have to hear. You saw things that scared you. You were, of all of us, the most courageous because your heart is pure.***


Sarah’s father died as she was young, Sarah’s grand father had been interned in Buchenwald where he had survived and seen and lived things that altered his perspective on life, which then later included incest amongst other things. We learn that Sarah’s great grandmother and her grand mother were interned in Saint Anne’s a notorious mental health clinic, as was her mother, the very hospital in which Sarah now works. As Sarah keeps her continued relationship with Richard K a secret from her family and as she battles with her past and her worries that she too could follow in their footsteps she also tells us of the fight within the hospital with the Freudians, essentially over compassion:


For years I’d explained, in articles and in reading notes, why the scientific, intellectual, clinical and therapeutic prestige of psychoanalysis had irredeemably waned…. we were taught, in a fascinating mixture of complacency and ignorance but also highly cultured, that autism was a psychosis resulting from a bad relationship with the mother and therefore, if a certain child was autistic it was in all probability because his mother was very cold towards him…., in spite of all of the learned studies, which already at that time, had very clearly identified the mutations on the genes responsible for the communication between nerve cells and shown that difficulties in the autistic spectrum had a genetic component and that hormones such as melatonin and ocytocin played a non negligeable role.***


This is the second book in my reviews that refers to the Winterreise, the first being Eins I’m Andern By Monica Schwitter, the verse referenced here is a beautiful verse, about carrying on with life and not lamenting come what may:


Fliegt der Schnee mir ins Gesicht,
schüttl’ ich ihn herunter.
Wenn mein Herz im Busen spricht,
sing’ ich hell und munter.
Höre nicht, was es mir sagt,
habe keine Ohren;
fühle nicht, was es mir klagt,
Klagen ist für Toren.
Lustig in die Welt hinein
gegen Wind und Wetter!
Will kein Gott auf Erden sein,
sind wir selber Götter!


This was not an easy book to follow, as I read it over three weeks I lost the thread repeatedly, between her mother Ève, her grandmother (Ève?)Lynne, and Her great grandmother Cecile, and the story being told by several of the women.

First Published in French as “Les Enténébrés” in 2019 by Les Éditions Du Seuil.
*** my translation

The poem translated into both French and English taken from the internet follows

Que m’aveugle la neige,
Je la secoue d’un geste,
Que s’épanche mon cœur
Et je chante à tue-tête.
Jamais je ne l’écoute,
Je fais la sourde oreille,
Et j’ignore ses plaintes,
Seuls se plaignent les sots.
Courons gaiement le monde
Contre vents et marées,
S’il n’est de dieux sur terre,
Nous serons dieu nous-mêmes.

The snow flies in my face,
I shake it off.
When my heart cries out in my breast,
I sing brightly and cheerfully.
I do not hear what it says,
I have no ears,
I do not feel what it laments,
Lamenting is for fools.
Merrily stride into the world
Against all wind and weather!
If there is no God on earth,
We are gods ourselves!

The quotes as read in French before translation

Je vous reconnais, dit-il dans un français parfait avec une pointe d’accent qui me fait comprendre qu’il est germanophone. Vous êtes la femme qui, hier après-midi, dans le Volksgarten, s’est jetée sur un homme qui venait de gifler un enfant.

Je voudrais te remercier, lui dis-je.
Me remercier? Mais pourquoi?
Parce que tu as traversé des choses qu’un enfant de ton âge ne doit normalement pas traverser. Tu as entendu des choses qu’un enfant ne devrait pas entendre.Tu as vu des choses qui t’ont fait peur. Tu as été de nous tous là plus courageuse,parce que ton cœur est pur.

pendant des années j’avais expliqué, dans des articles, dans des notes de lecture, pourquoi le prestige scientifique, intellectuel, clinique et thérapeutique de la psychanalyse s’était irrémédiablement étiolé….on nous enseignait, dans un fascinant mélange de suffisance et d’ignorance mais aussi de haute culture, que l’autisme était bien une psychose résultant d’une mauvaise relation avec la mère et donc, si tel enfant était autiste, c’était parce que très probablement sa mère était trop froide…..,au mépris de toutes les études savantes, qui a l’époque déjà, avaient très clairement identifié des mutations sur des gènes impliqués dans les communications entre cellules nerveuses et montré que les troubles du spectre autistique avaient une composante génétique et que les hormones comme la mélatonine et l’ocytocine y jouaient un rôle non négligeable.

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