Paris, 19th June 1975
What can be expected, you’re beyond redemption. You’ve a dark heart, vicious like a snake disguised as a deer. In despite of whatever my old father may think, that you’ve tricked with your charm as you’ve tricked so many others, me, I can find no excuse for you. No. You’re no more than a mistress in the hands of a boy who’ll never be a man. I’m Harry’s brother. And in the name of my family, of the state in which you’ve left my brother, I swear to you: you will never be a part of our family. We will never welcome you again: not tomorrow, nor thereafter.
Sarah Chiche’s “The Obscure” was a book that spoke of her maternal family and the strains linked to the Shoah, Sarah is a Psychoanalyst and this book treats the point of encounter between her father’s family, partially imagined as she was not born for most of it and her own life, which she analyses here.
Sarah Chiche’s father’s family had built up a prosperous clinic in Algeria before the war of independence and were forced to flee with nothing, nothing is of course relative and her grandfather was able to build up a very lucrative clinic business in France. During these early years, the two sons, Harry, Sarah’s father and his older brother, Armand her uncle, were sent away to boarding school together. Already at this young age their characters are there to be seen. Armand full of drive, a success in company and Harry a dreamer.
The family was turned in on itself following their uprooting, the sons would inherit the father’s clinics and all would be well, but then Harry met Eve, herself trying to survive a complicated family situation, with little or no money and making men pay for her situation. Harry is totally in love with her but when his brother finds out Eve is not particularly faithful to his brother he takes things into his own hands and sends her the letter of the opening quote.
Soon after, Eve and Harry marry in private and when Eve is just 15 months old, in 1974, the year of the launch of Voyager, her father dies of leukemia. And so begins the second part of the book, how, are these events re-woken twenty six years later causing her breakdown. Sarah has cut of her ties with her paternal family (soured by her mother’s stories of them) and with her mother when her grandmother dies, causing her to question events:
Later, I was told that he went without suffering. I was told that he wanted to go. I was told that he was happy. When I found the strength to press for details, I was finally told that it happened like this: he fought to breathe. He was choking. He choked. It was an awful noise. ***
Sarah, fragile, is discovered living alone in a frightening state, unable to come to terms with the grief of her father’s death from all that time ago. And to be saved by the very people she no longer wanted to see:
The whiteness of the clinics where the mother, terrorised by what had happened to her own mother, begged them not to lock up her child. The negotiations for home care. The torture of guilt looking around at the habitual horror of the furniture. The shame of becoming dependent on this mother, this step-father from which she had tried to escape and who now are the only ones she can count on. ***
An introspective book, which has had a certain success, I wouldn’t go out of my way to read it.
First Published in French as “Saturne” by Sarah Chiche and published by Le Seuil in 2020
*** my translation
The quote as read in French before translation
Paris, le 19 juin 1975
Que voulez-vous, vous êtes irrécupérable. Vous avez l’âme noire, vicieuse, d’un serpent peinturluré en biche. Quoi que puisse en penser mon vieux père, que vous avez berner par vos charmes, comme vous en berner tanr d’autres, moi, je ne vous trouve aucune excuse. non. Vous n’êtes qu’une concubine entre les mains d’un garçon qui ne sera jamais un homme. Je suis le frère de Harry. Et au nom des miens, au nom de l’état dans lequel vous avez mis mon frère, fe vous le jure: vous ne ferez jamais partie de notre famille. Nous ne vous recevrons plus: ni demain, ni les autres jours.
plus tard, on m’a dit qu’il était parti sans souffrir. On m’a dit qu’il le voulait. on m’a dit qu’il était heureux. Quand j’ai trouvé la force de demander des précisions, on a fini par me dire que cela s’était passé à peu près ainsi: il luttait pour respirer. Il s’étouffa. Il étouffait. c’était un bruit abominable.
La blancheur des cliniques où la mère, terrorisée par ce qui est arrivé à sa propre mère, supplie qu’on n’enferme pas son enfant. La negotiation pour les soins à domicile. La torture de la culpabilité quand on contemple autour de soi l’horreur familière des meubles. La honte d’être redevenue dépendante de cette mère et de ce beau-père qu’on avait voulu fuir et qui sont désormais les seuls sur qui compter.