Coming to terms with the past

This is my review of Bouche cousue by Mazarine Pingeot.

Aged nineteen, Mazarine Pingeot was "outed" by Paris Match as the illegitimate daughter of French president François Mitterrand and his long-term mistress. Now a journalist and writer, Pingeot has milked this drama in "Bouche Cousue" or "Lips Sealed", a memoir of her childhood inspired by her first pregnancy, and, more recently, in "Bon Petit Soldat".

There are moving descriptions of the strain of living a lie, being unable to tell school-friends who her father really was, thereby crushing her own identity. Although loved by her parents, she describes her childhood repeatedly as living in a bubble, protected yet also cut off from the "real" world. When she saw her father making speeches on the television, he seemed like a double of the person she knew. She recalls the loneliness of the dark state apartment when her parents were out at work. There was companionship with the ever present body guards but, once a teenager, escaping them became one of the few acts of rebellion open to her without giving herself away thereby damaging her father's reputation.

Some of the most poignant passages cover his death which came soon after the exposure of the truth. She began to read biographies, finding it difficult to come to terms with the existence of a man very different in early life from how she knew him, by then old enough to be her grandfather. With great frankness she explores complex emotions: was she hidden from the world out of shame or a desire to conceal something precious; should she hate him for this concealment and the fact that she was thrown into the world of media attention, often critical, just when she was still too immature and unsure of herself to cope?

The omission of such important factors as how her parents formed their relationship when Mitterrand was still married to the formidable Danielle, the lack of speculation about his "other family", may be a deliberate attempt to present details from a child's perspective. In addition to the dating of chapters with days of the month but not years for context, what really annoys me is the style. Disjointed and artificial, it often feels like a series of exercises in writing, such as the continual addressing of her thoughts to her unborn child.

She seems blind to certain factors. For instance, she refers several times to her unmaterialistic and principled upbringing, but never comments on how Mitterrand housed and protected mistress and daughter at the public's expense and was judged after his death of being guilty of misusing anti-terrorist laws to tap the telephones of those who might expose his daughter's identity.

Mazarine seems perhaps understandably damaged by the secrecy of her upbringing. She comes across as obsessed with it, bitter, self-absorbed, neurotic. She claims to be unable to remember certain things, but one senses that she is, perhaps unconsciously, glossing over inconvenient details which destroy the image of an idyllic if constrained "bulle" in which she enjoyed a special bond with her father, her mother often portrayed as playing second fiddle.

⭐⭐⭐ 3 Stars

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