At the funeral of André Choulans there are only two mourners: his long-suffering wife and son Émile, an artist who sketches the crematorium with an odd lack of emotion as they await the coffin. Narrator Émile then proceeds gradually to account for this tragic situation, going back to his childhood, the France of De Gaulle and the stirrings of rebellion in Algeria in 1961. As an impressionable youngster, Émile craved his father’s approval, believing his web of lies and fantasies, but fearing the violence which he might at any moment unleash on his child and wife. Émile suffers the embarrassment each year of being asked to write his father’s profession on a school form. How can he say that he is a secret agent? This is the latest in a string of professions he is too young to question: pastor, pilot, parachutist, judo expert and singer to name a few.
It soon becomes apparent that the bullying, manipulative André is paranoid but somehow manages to avoid exposure and medical treatment by keeping his little family unit in an isolated bubble. By turns amusing, heartrending, farcical, this is an intriguing psychological study. Émile’s mother is not simply a wife battered into submission, the victim of “coercive control”, but also seems to connive in the situation to avoid trouble. “You know what your father’s like” is her mantra, and years later she asks Émile: “Was your childhood really so awful?” So she occupies herself in making vegetable stews, abdicating responsibility for protecting her son if not herself.
Similarly, as he grows older, accustomed to André’s continual broken promises, to what extent does Émile really believe that his father is serious in involving him in a plot to assassinate De Gaulle, allegedly the former colleague who has ignored his advice and broken his promise to the French colonists in Algeria? Is the idea that another of his father’s friends is a high-ranking CIA agent called Ted, who is his god father too appealing an idea to debunk – even when Ted feels he should be punished for his poor grades?
Another intriguing aspect is the way Émile’s behaviour begins to mirror that of his father. Just as André wants his son to be an admiring acolyte to be subjected to rigorous military drills, a willing stooge prepared to risk daft escapades like delivering death threats, Émile seeks out a friend to share these exploits with, one who can be controlled and dominated as he is. Unfortunately, he chooses a “Pied Noir” boy who really does have a grievance against De Gaulle. To avoid crazed beatings and confinement to “the correction unit” of his parent’s wardrobe, Émile shows a convoluted ingenuity equal to his father’s when it comes to fabricating excuses.
It was hard at times to understand why Émile does not simply hate his father. Instead there seems at times to be, if not exactly love, that mysterious family bond, consisting in part of shared experience, conditioning and duty.
This novel is in fact quite autobiographical, in that Sorj Chalandon’s father was also a violent fantasist. The author has spoken of the “poison” in his system arising from the abuse he suffered, and the catharsis obtained from sharing his experiences by writing about them. He also suggests that the fantasy world was often exciting and enjoyable at the time, but for the violence.
I thought the novel lost dramatic momentum when it reached the stage of Émile’s adult life. However the tale would be incomplete without an account of how Émile eventually establishes his own life as an artist with the talent his parents failed to recognise and nourish. The contrast between his distorted childhood and the love he gives his own son is moving.
Chalandon is a brilliant novelist who deserves to be better known abroad.