Metin Arditi ‘Le Turquetto’


Stood up, his right hand grasping his cane, the master was unable to tear his eyes away from the canvas. He had before him the most beautiful portrait that had ever been painted. The lines were of an absolute precision. And the colours…. How had he managed to obtain such nuances in the darker colours? There was the young man’s look, the beauty of his age, a charm, but a force as well, a kindness…. He moved forward towards the painting looking for the signature. He couldn’t find it. His eyesight weakened…. He tried again three times and finally found it, in the lower right hand corner, a capital T, painted in dark grey.img_3098
He stepped back from the painting and once more took it in slowly. What he needed to do to save it was shameful. and even obscene. But there was no other solution but this, and he did his duty.***


Welcome to Metin Arditi’s art world, in this work of fiction Arditi begins with a chromographic examination report leaving some doubt as to whether the work, “Man With A Glove” from the Louvre was actually by Titien, leading him to create the character the Turquetto, who had actually painted this work, and why there is no other trace of Turquetto’s work, taking us right up to the terrible decision by Titien himself to add his signature to the painting as illustrated in the opening quote.

The book written in three parts takes us from sixteenth century Constantinople, with its varied population of Turks, Jews, Greeks and Armenians, each with their own religions and very different rights but all having one thing in common, reproducing any of God’s creation is forbidden. Elie a young jewish child who had been brought up in a greek family and who moves easily amongst the Turkish merchants eventually escapes to venice and on the journey takes a Greek name, becoming a christian overnight.

In the second part of the book in Venice, due to heis natural skill but also due to his mixed cultural experience he becomes a painter of great renown, but as he matures, he finds he no longer wants to hide who he really and eventually falls foul of the inquisition, finally escaping and returning to Constantinople where things are becoming more difficult for the Greeks and the Jews.

This is a fascinating story as Arditi draws us a picture of the sixteenth century world and the inability of the different people to live with each other, any resemblance with what is happening around us today is purely coincidental!

First Published in French as “Le Turquetto” in 2011 by Actes Sud
*** my translation

The quotes as read in French before translation

Debout, la main droite agrippée à sa canne, le maitre n’arrivait pas à détacher ses yeux de la toile. il avait devant lui le plus beau portrait qui ait jamais été peint. Un trait d’une précision absolue. Et des couleurs… Comment avait-il réussi à obtenir de telles nuances dans les sombres? Il y avait dans le regard du jeune homme la beauté de son âge, un charme, mais aussi une force, une bonté….
Il s’approcha du tableau et chercha la signature. Il ne la trouva pas. Ses yeux déclinaient…. Il s’y reprit à trois fois et fini par la répérer, au coin inférieur droit, un T majuscule, peint en gris foncé.
Il s’éloigna de la toile et une fois encore la regarda longuement. Ce qu’il devait faire pour la sauver était indigne. Et même obscène. Mais il n’y avait d’autre solution que celle-là, et il fit son devoir.

Antoine Bello ‘The Falsifiers’


“What was the plan? asked Magawati dryly.
“The plan was to, one hour exactly before the Sputnik 2 launch, send a press release from TASS to around fifty media outlets announcing that the satellite had onboard a two year old dog called Laïka.”
“Even though the satellite was empty?” asked Youssef, in disbelief.
“Even though the satellite was empty,” repeated Vargas, “What happened?”
***


After a hectic month of November, reading for the Roman de Rochefort and for the Booker Prize, I was having trouble getting back in the saddle so, off to the library and after twenty minutes with Véronique, “I need something easy to read with a certain intrigue”. Away I came with the first of this trilogy by Antoine Bello and, shame on me, I’d never heard of him. He may well be an American author who writes in French, but his main protagonist here is Icelandic, Sliv Dartunghuvet. Sliv, fresh from university is easily recruited by an environmental research company, one of many fronts for a tentacular organisation, the CFR (Consortium de Falsification du Réel). Sliv asks some questions but faced with an absence of answers from his recruiting agent, Gunnar, he turns out to be a trusting fellow:


And what can be said about the motives of CFR? Gunnar talked away normally, without ever revealing anything of importance. Three conversations later, and I had no more idea than the first day. Why did the CFR falsify reality? With what money and on behalf of who?***


Sliv soon learns of some of the older cases the CFR has worked on such as Laïca from the opening quote who never actually existed. Sliv is pulled into the ludic side of the job, working on scenarios that, after examination and correction, the organisation may decide to put into action.

Sliv turns out to be an exceptional creator of scenarios and begins to take more and more risks until he puts the organisations existance at risk and has the unfortunate experience of meeting the Special Ops.

This was a really good book to get back to reading, this first book of the series was written back in 2007 and treats the pre-internet falsification of reality as Dartunghuvet climbs the lower levels of the CFR, waiting to see how the later books take on the whole fake news thing.

First Published in french as “Les falsificateurs” in 2007, by Gallimard *** my translation

The quotes as read in French before translation

—Quel était le plan? demanda Magawati d’une voix sèche.
—Le plan consistait, une heure exactement après le lancement de Spoutnik 2, à envoyer un communiqué de l’agence Tass à une cinquantaine de rédactions annonçant que le satelite emportait à son bord une chienne de deux ans du nom de Laïka.
—Alors que le satellite était vide? demanda Youssef, incredule.
—Alors que le satellite était vide, répéta Vargas. Que se passa-t-il?

Et que dire des mobiles du CFR? Gunnar discourait habituelement, sans jamais rien révéler d’important. Trois conversations plus tard, j’en savais à peine plus qu’au premier jour. Pourquoi le CFR falsifiait-il le réel? Avec quel argent et pour le copte de qui?

Anuk Arudpragasam ‘A Passage North’

“Booker Prize 2021: 6 Books Shortlisted for this prize.
“A Passage North”: In order of reading book number 3.


Waking up each morning we follow by circuitous routes the thread of habit, out of our homes, into the world, and back to our beds at night, move unseeingly through familiar paths, one day giving way to another and one week to the next, so that when in the midst of this daydream something happens and the thread is finally cut, when, in a moment of strong desire or unexpected loss, the rhythms of life are interrupted, we look around and are quietly surprised to see that the world is vaster than we thought, as if we’d been tricked or cheated out of all that time, time that in retrospect appears to have contained nothing of substance, no change and no duration, time that has come and gone but left us somehow untouched.


A passage North is a carefully written introspective book, the opening quote gives an idea of this degree of thought, a great deal of emotion is present but mostly kept at a distance as Krishan is forced to reflect on his life both just before and during his passage north. We learn something of the magnitude of the war between the Tamil Tigers and government forces in the poverty stricken north of Sri Lanka where the Tiger’s were not just beaten but their very trace erased from the land leaving the people in a great state of trauma. Krishan was away from Sri Lanka in India during the war, somehow explaining away to himself what was happening there:


Even now he felt ashamed thinking about his initial reluctance to acknowledge the magnitude of what had happened at the end of the war, as though he’d been hesitant to believe the evidence on his computer screen because his own poor, violated, stateless people were the ones alleging it, as though he’d been unable to take the suffering of his own people seriously till it was validated by the authority of a panel of foreign experts, legitimized by a documentary narrated by a clean-shaven white man standing in front of a camera in suit and tie.


Whilst in India krishan had fallen in love with Anjum, an activist and their story had lasted on and off for several years.

After moving back to his home in Colombo, in the south of Sri Lanka, Krishan is given the opportunity to help his ailing grandmother by employing Rani, a woman from the north that had lost her husband and her son during the war, having Rani away from her home region seemed to be helping her. After news of her death Krishan learnt more about Rani’s life, about her electric scock treatment for trauma, and undertakes the long journey north by train where he is able to reflect on his own life.

This is a very different piece of writing to the other shortlisted books, caught between ancient and modern, violence and gentleness, the events are not yet first hand.

First Published in English as “A Passage North” in 2021 by Random House

Maggie Shipshead ‘Great Circle’

“Booker Prize 2021: 6 Books Shortlisted for this prize.
“Great Circle”: In order of reading book number 4.


In my blip of higher education, I had time to take Intro to Philosophy and learn about the panopticon, the hypothetical prison Jeremy Bentham came up with, where there would be one itty-bitty guardhouse at the center of a giant ring of cells. One guard was all you needed because he might be watching at any time, and the idea of being watched matters way more than actually being watched. Then Foucault turned the whole thing into a metaphor about how all you need to discipline and dominate a person or a population is to make them think it’s possible they’re being watched. You could tell the professor wanted us all to think the panopticon was scary and awful, but later, after Archangel made me way too famous, I wanted to take Katie McGee’s preposterous time machine back to that lecture hall and ask him to consider the opposite. Like instead of one guard in the middle, you’re in the middle, and thousands, maybe millions, of guards are watching you—or might be—all the time, no matter where you go.


This is a story about two timelines and two women with a number of things in common, of Marion Graves, the aviator, who dissapeared in 1950 during a round the world attempt passing by both poles and of the actrice chosen to play her role for a film of Marian’s life, Hadley Baxter. Hadley’s parents died in an aircrash when she was young and she was brought up by a Holywood uncle who between drinks and drugs had her taken to a number of castings from which she eventually becomes the young woman epitomised in the opening quote.
Hadley had read the lost logbook of marian in the library:


The lost log book of Marian Graves… It made a big impression on me when I was a kid orphan solidarity you know, team raised by uncles, i thought it would be full of hidden messages like tarot cards….
It’s the perfect sort of book for that isn’t it mostly cryptic bits and pieces what did it tell you? nothing…..really I’m most intrigued by the question of whether or not she intended it to be read at all. I think the fact that she left it behind at least meant that she couldn’t bear to destroy it.


Marian’s life is however the centre point of the book, from surviving a mysterious ship sinking on the atlantic with her twin brother Jamie during the first world war to being brought up, or left to bring herself up by a gambling and drinking uncle who was also a semi renowned painter in Missoula an out of the way town in Missouri where she made and kept, throughout her entire life, her childhood friend Caleb. How did she become an aviator? Well she passed by many steps, marrying a jealous bootlegger and then flying for him before changing her name and going into hiding to escape him:


He’s my friend, Marian said he’s always been my friend am I not allowed to have friends? Her voice rose, do you want me to be completely alone except for you? He sat down heavily the anger going out of him yes he said if I’m being honest
You want to know what we did we talked she gathered herself said as though making an accusation i told Caleb I loved you he looked up, you did when did you start having me followed say it again tell me what you told him he was radiating thrilled pleasure, she felt only hopelessness not now tell me you love me Louder she said When did you start having me followed when you flew to Vancouver only because I was so afraid of losing you…it was for your protection.


Marian becomes an aircraft ferry pilot during the second world war in England before the events around that ship sinking as she was an infant catches up with her. The question Hadley then asks herself and eventually solves is whether Marian really resembles the Marian in the film.

If the prize were to go to a traditional “story” then this book would be an excellent candidate.

First Published in english as “Great Circle” in 2021, by Doubleday

Kazuo Ishiguro ‘KLARA and THE SUN’

“Booker Prize 2021: 6 Books Sure to be shortlisted for this prize.
“Klara and The Sun”: In order of reading book number 4.


‘He’s a B2,’ Manager said. ‘Third series. For the right child, Rex will make a perfect companion. In particular, I feel he’ll encourage a conscientious and studious attitude in a young person.’
‘Well this young lady here could certainly do with that.’
‘Oh, Mother, he’s perfect.’ Then the mother said: ‘B2, third series. The ones with the solar absorption problems, right?’
She said it just like that, in front of Rex, her smile still on her face. Rex kept smiling too, but the child looked baffled and glanced from Rex to her mother.
‘It’s true,’ Manager said, ‘that the third series had a few minor issues at the start. But those reports were greatly exaggerated. In environments with normal levels of light, there’s no problem whatsoever.’
‘I’ve heard solar malabsorption can lead to further problems,’ the mother said. ‘Even behavioral ones.’


Ishiguro’s Klara is set some time in the not too distant future and lets us compare two feats of engineering, Klara, an AF, an Artificial Friend, developed to be a friend for teenagers and the teenager in question, Josie. Josie who is “lifted”, that is to say as we learn near the middle of the book, genetically engineered, a choice her richer parents were able to make because if you’re not “lifted” you have no real chance of an education.

The story is told by Klara, from the beginning in the shop waiting to be bought, where we learn through Klara of her observations and deductions, Klara is a B2 as illustrated in the opening quote and of course has a very particular relationship with the sun which gives her all of her “nourishment”. Whilst in the shop window, Klara made two observations which were to form her vision of the world, firstly a machine working in the street outside which giving of large amounts of smoke temporarily hides the sun and secondly a drunk passed out on the street who comes around when the sun shines strongly on him.

Soon after being bought by Josie, Klara learns that Josie is very ill and may die (genetic engineering seems to be a risky business, Josie had had a sister that had died at her age and as we learn, if they manage to live through this age then they’ll be ok). So she tries to reason how to save Josie and thinks back to her earlier experience:


I thought too about the time the sun had given his special nourishment to beggar man and his dog and considered the important differences between his circumstances and Josie’s. For one thing many passers by had known beggar man and when he’d become weak he had done so on a busy street visible to taxi drivers and runners, any of these people might have drawn the sun’s attention to his condition and that of his dog. Even more significantly I remembered what had been happening not long before the sun had given his special nourishment to beggar man, the Cootings Machine had been making its awful pollution.


We learn that people think of AFs as having superstitions but we see through Klara that a partial understanding of the world around you can lead to this. Can the sun help Josie? Through Klara’s observations we learn of the toll of human suffering the technology brings, of people losing their jobs, of communities fighting back. More directly, firstly we see in the shop the differences between the AFs, each with their own personality and then hear Josie’s father wonder about the ironing out of differences between the lifted children:


Mr Paul is an expert engineer I said turning to face him, I was hoping he’d be able to think of something, but the father kept gazing through the windshield at the yard I couldn’t explain it to mosey earlier in the diner, I couldn’t explain why I hate Kapaldi so much, why I can’t bring myself to be civil towards him but I’d like to try and explain it to you Klara if you don’t mind, his switch of subject was highly unwelcome but anxious not to lose his goodwill I said nothing and waited I think I hate Kapaldi because deep down I suspect he may be right that what he claims is true that science has now proved beyond doubt that there is nothing so unique about my daughter, nothing there our modern tools can’t excavate, copy, transfer, that people have been living with one another for all this time, centuries loving and hating each other and all on a mistaken premise, a kind of superstition we kept going while we didn’t know better, that’s how Kapaldi sees it and there’s a part of me that fears he’s right.


Josie’s mother would like Klara to learn to be Josie, to replace her for a while if she were to die, to ease the pain. It of course never gets to this and as the book comes to an end, and Klara to the end of her useful life, her observations as to what makes a human individual and why she would not have been able to replace Josie ring true. Finally a whole AF life, for an exceptional AF to really understand humans.

Another most enjoyable book well worth reading.

First Published in English as “KLARA and THE SUN” in 2021 by Faber & Faber.

James Wolff ‘Beside The Syrian Sea’


Our head-doctors are having a field day with you. They’re used to dealing with American problems – the jock with anger-management issues, the overachiever who under-eats – butnow they’ve got all this Downton Abbey shit to get their heads round: English uptightness, too much education, a religious childhood. I’ve never seen them happier.


Move over Edward Snowden, Jonas, the central character in this spy thriller, is coming. Jonas a happy enough analyst in British intelligence learns one day that his father a protestant minister has been kidnapped in Syria by IS. The british government cannot or will not negotiate so Jonas takes it into his mind to negotiate his fathers freedom himself. yes I said analyst, no field experience but lucid, realises he needs help and persuades an alcoholic priest to go back to Syria to try to open talks with IS for him. Jonas takes a large number of government secrets as barter and whilst the government don’t know where or which these secrets are, they don’t intervene too heavily. When the Americans find out they are not too impressed, see the opening quote.

In classic spy who came in from the cold fashion, divide and rule, Jonas plays off different miltant factions against each other. On the way he meets the reason behind the priests alcoholism, who incidentally is furious with him for sending her father back to Syria. The showdown in the desert where the IS fighters sent are British and not particularly competent adds a little “old style spy” atmosphere.

If you like spy fiction about intrigue and not so much about action then this is reasonable fare.

First Published in English as “Beside the Syrian Sea” in 2018 by Bitter Lemon Press

Juli Zeh ‘New Year’


From his youngest age, Henning had become used to considering everything he did, said or even thought as an attack on his mother’s happiness. He often regretted being alive.***


As the book starts, Henning is on holiday with his family in Lanzerote. We’ve all been on these holidays, on one side of the divide or another where you just have to get away from the people you came with, to get some fresh air, to calm down or whatever. Henning without thinking too much about it gets on his bike and starts peddling outside of their rental, he doesn’t take anything with him, such as water or whatever and heads uphill. This is Lanzerote hot even in the winter, and when you set off uphill, well it just keeps going up. Henning is young still and needs to use up energy. Young children can be so frustrating, his wife isn’t happy having Hennings sister staying at theirs whilst they are away, keep peddling!

As he eventually runs out of steam and just makes it to the top he feels foolish not having any water and stops to knock on an isolated door to ask for some. Then something strange happens to him, he slowly recognises this house and deep seated memories come back to him, he is a child and slowly an event no body has ever spoken to him about comes back to him:


The next morning mum and dad are no longer there. When Henning gets up, Luna is still asleep. He crosses the corridors which, in the light of day have found their normal size, and the main room bathed in sun. As often at this time of day, the wooden door is open to let in the cool breeze. Henning continues through to the kitchen – in the morning there is a sweet smell with a bitter trace of coffee, and mum is usually washing plates in the sink or laying out the crockery on a tray for breakfast. But there is nobody in the kitchen, he can smell nothing. When this happens his parents or on the patio. Henning walks back across the main room his naked feet going flip flop on the cold tiles. He walks outside through the wooden door it’s very hot and the light is blinding. He walks around the edge of the patio, one edge of which is protected from the wind by a wall and from the sun by a wooden roof where there is a large table with stone benches, that’s where they usually have breakfast. The table is empty. No sign of mum or dad.***


He and his baby sister were found abandoned after several days alone in the house, a harrowing experience that has and still unbeknown to him effects his life today, his feelings for his mother well up in him, epitomised by the opening quote.

This experience brings him to speak to his mother, why had she never mentioned this? And to begin to understand the mess his sister’s life has become and that he must stop protecting her at last if she is to flourish.

As good as ever from Juli Zeh, why she is translated so little into english beats me.

First Published in german as “Neue Jahr” in 2018, by Random House
Translated into french by Rose Labourie and published as “Nouvel An” by Actes Sud in 2019
*** my translation

The quotes as read in French before translation

Dès son plus jeune âge, Henning avait pris l’habitude de considérer tout ce qu’il faisait, disait ou seulement pensait comme une atteinte au bonheur de sa mère. Il regrettait souvent d’être en vie.

Le lendemain matin, papa et maman ne sont plus là. Quand Henning se lève, Luna dort encore. Il traverse les couloirs qui, à la lumière du matin, ont retrouvé leur taille normale, et la grande salle baignée de soleil. Comme souvent à cette heure de la journée, la porte en bois est ouverte pour laisser entrer l’air frais. Henning continue jusqu’à la cuisine – le matin, il y a une odeur de sucré avec des traces amères de café, et maman est généralement en train de laver des assiettes dans l’évier ou de disposer la vaisselle du petit-déjeuner sur un plateau. Mais à la cuisine, il n’y a personne, ça ne sent rien. Dans ce cas, c’est que les parents sont sur la terrasse. Henning retraverse la grande salle, ses pieds nus font floc-floc sur les dalles froides. Il franchit la porte en bois et se retrouve dehors, il fait très chaud et la lumière est aveuglante. Il longe le parapet de la terrasse, dont une des extrémités est protégée du vent par un mur et du soleil par un toit en bois. Une grande table avec des bancs en pierre y est installée, c’est là qu’ils prennent d’habitude leur petit-déjeuner. La table est vide. Pas de trace de papa et maman.

Sandro Veronesi “The Hummingbird”


You’re the hummingbird because, like a hummingbird , you put all of your energy into remaining still. You manage to remain motionless in the world and in time, to stop the world and the time around you, and even sometimes to find the lost time. ***


I’ve been reading Sandro Veronesi’s books for a while now, since before my blog, but I have only  written on one previous book Terres Rares. So when his latest work arrived in tanslation in my lending library, well I could’t resist. What a well crafted book it turns out to be.

The narrator tells the story of the main protagonist, Marco, with each chapter representing a different moment in time as Marco’s life is slowly revealed to us and as we begin to understand why he is who he is. In a series of letters interspersed in the novel over several decades between Marco and Luisa, he living in Florence and she in Paris we slowly understand that their written relationship goes much further than their physical relationship, neither wanting to upend their lives and commit to each other, but why? Luisa at one point writes to Marco detailing why she thinks he is like a hummingbird , illustrated in the opening quote.

We are slowly taken through Marco’s traumatic life and incidentally, the point of combined trauma, his sister’s suicide, that explains the why of the beginnings of Marco and Luisa’s separation. But tragedies follow Marco and the relationship with the other members of his family from a young age through to the end of the book remain strained. Marco as a young adolescent is very small, his mother calls him the hummingbird because of this, and he undergoes a new and experimental hormone treatment in 1974, a cause of dispute between his parents, causing him to grow 16cm in 8 months, this in itself impacted his life and was a trauma. Then rapidly everyone except he leaves Florence, even leaves Italy. But where others would see despair, he sees hope, the only person remaining in Italy, his daughter dies in an accident leaving him as the only person to care for his grand-daughter, ‘The New Man’ who he lives for and brings up alone:


“There are those that fight all their lives, wanting to advance, to know, to conquer , to discover to progress only to realise that they were only looking for the vibration that brought them into the world: for these people the points of departure and arrival are the same. Then there are those who follow a long and adventurous trajectory  all the while remaining stationary because it is the world which slides beneath their feet and then they find themselves far from their point of departure: Marco Carrera was one of these.”.***


This is a marvelouslly poetic book, easily amongst the best of this year.

First Published in Italian as “Il Colibri” by La nave di Teseo in 2019
Translated into French by Dominique Vittoz and published as Le colibri in 2021 by Grasset & Fasquelle.
Translated into English by Elena Pala and published as The Hummingbird in 2021 by Weidenfeld & Nicolson.
*** my translation

The quotes as read in French before translation

Tu es un colibri parce que, comme le colibri, tu mets toute ton énergie à rester immobile. tu réussis à arrêter le monde et le temps autour de toi, et même parfois, à trouver le temps perdu.

Il y a des êtres qui se démènent toute leur vie, désireux d’avancer, connaître, conquérir, découvrir, progresser, pour s’apercevoir qu’en définitive ils n’ont jamais cherché que la vibration qui les a jetés dans le monde: pour ceux-là, les points de départ et d’arrivée coïncident. Puis il y en a d’autres qui parcourent une longue route aventureuse tout en restant immobiles, parce que c’est le monde qui glisse sous leurs pieds et qu’ils se retrouvent très loin de leur point de départ: Marco Carrera était de ceux-là.

Hervé Le Tellier ‘Toutes les familles heureuses’


It was at roughly the same age that, during a digression in an adult conversation that my mother had had an abortion a few years before in Switzerland..my mother…explained to me several times: she had done it “for me” . Guy would of course have grown attached to “his child” and neglected me, or even grown to dislike me. I found out, thanks to her, that I was responsible for the death of a little brother or sister and that I couldn’t trust dad.***


Hervé Le Tellier, The 2020 Prix Goncourt, tells us in this his 2017 book of his background, of his un-loving un-caring family that he knew he needed to flee, even from a young age to survive, unlike Sarah Chiche this is no psychoanalysis although his mother lies at the centre of the story and her relationship with firstly his always absent father who didn’t give him his name and his stepfather, who had never wanted him. An example of his mother’s lack of consequence is given in the opening quote.

Now that all of the protagonists of the book are dead, except for his mother, suffering from Altzheimer’s, He delivers this compact story on the unhappiness of his family, rendered possible by not facing the facts:


I understood quite quickly that you couldn’t believe anything my mother said. It’s not that she particularly liked lying, it’s just that admitting the truth was too much for her.***


A short, personal well written book which I enjoyed.

First Published in French as “Toutes le familles heureuses” by JC Lattès in 2017
*** my translation

The quotes as read in French before translation

C’est à peu près au même âge que j’appris, au détour d’un conversation d’adultes, que ma mère avait avorté quelques années plus tôt en Suisse….ma mère…me l’expliqua bien plusieurs fois: elle l’avait fait “pour moi”. Guy se serait évidemment attaché à “son enfant” et il m’aurait délaissé, voir pris en grippe. Je sus ainsi grâce à elle que j’étais responsable de la mort d’un petit frère ou d’une petite sœur et qu’il fallait aussi me méfier de papa.

Je compris pourtant vite qu’il était difficile d’accorder le moindre crédit à ce que ma mère racontait. Ce n’était pas qu’elle aimait particulièrement mentir, mais accepter la vérité exigeait trop d’elle.

Sarah Chiche ‘Saturne’




Paris, 19th June 1975

Madame, Miss,…

What can be expected,img_0167-1 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.

AC***


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

Madame, Mademoiselle,…!!!
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.

AC

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.