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A Certain M. Piekielny by François-Henri Désérable

February 4, 2018 8 comments

Un certain M. Piekielny by François-Henri Désérable. (2017) Not available in English.

Romain Gary is my favorite writer and this is no breaking news for regular readers of this blog. I won’t write about his biography and literary career as I would repeat myself. For newcomers, there’s my Reading Romain Gary page and Wikipedia and there’s this extraordinary article from The New Yorker.

In France, Romain Gary is a beloved writer. One we sometimes study in class. One whose books are made into plays or into graphic novels or into special illustrated editions. One whose books make full display tables in bookshops.

François-Henri Désérable is a young writer born in 1987, seven years after Gary’s death. He used to play professional hockey, which makes him stand out here in France. The hockey league is not as prestigious as the NHL. Here, hockey is an unusual sport for children to play. I’m not even sure you can watch games on TV when it’s not the Olympic games time.

So François-Henri Désérable loves hockey and unsurprisingly, one of his friends wanted to have his stag party in Minsk, Belorussia during a hockey tournament. Four of them were going but there were only three plane tickets left for a direct flight to Minsk. Désérable decided to take a flight to Vilnius, Lithuania and to catch a train to Minsk from there. The Gary fan is already swooning: what? A trip to Vilnius, formerly called Wilno, where Gary spent his childhood? Lucky him.

Désérable got robbed in Vilnius and didn’t have any money or proper identity papers to continue his travels. He stayed in Vilnius, explored Gary’s old neighborhood and thought about a passage in Promise at Dawn. Gary mentions that his mother kept telling their neighbors that he’d be famous one day. None took her seriously but M. Piekielny. Gary explains in his autobiographical-fictional novel that this man once took him apart and asked him to tell these great people he would meet that at number 16 of Grande-Pohulanka, in Wilno used to live M. Piekielny. Gary reports that he kept his promise. Désérable decides to investigate this M. Piekielny and takes us with him as he tries to find out if that man really existed and what happened to him.

This simple idea turned into a triple trip.

It became a historical research because Gary was Jewish and used to live in the Jewish neighborhood of Wilno. And the ghetto was destroyed by the Nazis during the Summer 1941. Désérable compares Wilno’s Jewish neighborhood to Pompeii.

Je commençais à comprendre qu’il n’y avait pas seulement le temps, mais aussi l’espace qui jouait contre moi. La Jérusalem de Lituanie avait été à sa façon ensevelie sous les cendres, mais elle avait eu la guerre pour Vésuve, et comme nuée ardente l’Allemagne nazie puis l’Union soviétique. Et si l’on voulait connaitre son apparence – ou tout du moins s’en faire une idée – avant l’éruption de l’été 1941, on était réduit à la reconstituer mentalement, comme ces temples romains dans Pompéi dont on ne peut qu’imaginer la splendeur, recomposant en esprit architraves, frises et corniches à partir des vestiges de quelques colonnes amputées des deux tiers. I was starting to understand that not only time was against me but so was space. The Jerusalem of Lithuania had been buried in ashes in its own way. Its Vesuvius had been the war and its glowing clouds had been Nazi Germany followed by the Soviet Union. If one wanted to know its appearance before the eruption of the Summer 1941 – or more exactly to make up a picture of it– one was doomed to piece it together in his head, like these temples in Pompeii whose splendor can only be imagined by reconstructing in your mind all their architraves, friezes and moldings from the vestiges of a few columns amputated by two thirds.  

The inhabitants were killed and their lives, their neighborhood disappeared. Wilno was erased and the contemporary Vilnius has only a few traces of its once vivid Jewish heritage. This part of the book is poignant as Désérable digs into archives and reminds us how the entire part of a country’s culture was annihilated.

from Wikipedia

The historical journey is coupled with a literary one. It turns out that Vilnius has a statue of Gary as a child in the street he used to live in. They even have a Romain Gary club who helped Désérable in his quest. His investigation leads him into digging into Gary’s biography. Promise at Dawn is not entirely reliable, so nothing says that the information about M. Piekielny is true. Did he really exist? Gary was a great inventor, an illusionist. Everything has the appearance of the truth, but he twisted it way he saw it fit. Désérable knows it but decides to play around it. Looking for M. Piekielny is an opportunity to immerse himself in Gary’s life, to reread his books and bios about him.

And all along, it’s also a personal journey for Désérable as a writer and as a man. He loves Romain Gary. He admires his writing, but he also feels a personal connection to him. Like Gary, François-Henri Désérable doesn’t have the background of the average Frenchman of his age. He spent a year playing hockey in Minnesota as a teenager before coming back to finish his high school years in Amiens. Spending a year in the USA and playing such an exotic sport make him already stand out.

He also mentions some parallels about their mothers. Like Mina, Gary’s mother, Désérable’s mother also had great things in mind for her son. He had to study law and contrary to his father, she was not so fond of the hockey career. She says that he has a name that sounds like a writer’s name, even to my ears. It’s elegant, the François-Henri sounding old erudite France, like the François-René in Chateaubriand’s name. Désérable is a vowel from désirable. Like Mina, his mother expects him to be successful to live vicariously through him and feel successful in raising him.

That’s what he says. But who knows if this autobiographical part of the novel is totally true. He may be playing with details like his mentor.

Un certain M. Piekielny is an amazing novel right in the continuity of Gary’s work. It’s witty, well-written and it has the flavor of Promise at Dawn. It brings back Gary’s past to life and the horror of the extermination of Jews, not through the horrors of the camps but through the horrors of making a whole civilization and way-of-life disappear. It shows WWII in another angle, something Gary did in his work. How does Humanity survive to such a level of hatred and self-destruction? What did it mean at human level, to be part of that time?

It’s also a wonderful trip through Gary’s multiple lives and literary career. And last but not least, it was a sort of coming-of-age novel for Désérable himself. It’s written in a tone that Gary would have approved of but the substance is a lot like Nothing Holds Back the Night by Delphine de Vigan.

Un certain M. Piekielny was nominated for the Prix Goncourt in 2017. I wish it had won, for François-Henri Désérable himself and his knack at writing a funny, multi-layered book but also for Romain Gary who would have vicariously won a third Goncourt. I imagine him grinning mischievously from beyond the grave, happy to get even with the literary intelligentsia.

Letters from England by Karel Čapek

December 1, 2017 2 comments

Letters from England by Karel Čapek (1924) French translation: Lettres d’Angleterre. Translated by Gustave Aucouturier.

En Angleterre, je voudrais être vache ou enfant. Mais, comme je suis un homme adulte et formé, j’ai regardé les gens de ce pays. In England, I’d like to be a cow or a child. But since I’m an educated grownup, I observed the people of this country.

I received Letters from England as an advanced review copy from the publisher LaBaconnière and they obviously know the readers they send books to, because this one was exactly for me.

Letters from England are the illustrated travels of the Czech writer Karel Čapek in England, Scotland and Wales. Ireland was on his radar too but he couldn’t make it in these troubled times.

The first chapters are for London where Čapek is a giddy tourist, disappointed not to feel the spirit of Sherlock Holmes in Baker Street and overwhelmed with being there, in a place he’s read so much about. He walks around, strolls in parks, visits museums. (His moments at Madame Tussauds are hilarious). He also went to the British Empire Exhibition in Wembley. He’s introduced to club culture and pub culture. He’s confronted to poverty in the East End. He’s candid and he’s in awe but not enough to anesthetize his critical mind.

He tends to compare what he sees with home and with what he’s seen in other countries. Čapek very observant and has a marvellous sense of humour. You can sample it here:

La nuit, les chats font ici l’amour aussi sauvagement que sur les toits de Palerme, en dépit de tout ce qu’on raconte sur le puritanisme anglais. Here at night, cats make love as savagely as on the roofs of Palermo, despite what everyone says about English puritanism.

After London and surroundings, he takes the train to Scotland. Frankly, all tourist agencies in Scotland should quote Čapek. He’s in love with the landscapes, the people, the atmosphere in the cities. You read him, you want to hop on a plane to Scotland. It seems so beautiful. Again, despite his obvious admiration, his sense of humour never fails him.

Dans toute l’Ecosse le dimanche, les trains cessent de marcher, les gares sont fermées et on ne fait rigoureusement rien : c’est merveille que les pendules ne s’arrêtent pas aussi. On Sundays in Scotland, trains stop working, railway stations are closed and people do absolutely nothing: it’s amazing that clocks don’t stop ticking as well.

He went from Scotland to Wales, discovered that he couldn’t fin any tourist guide about Ireland in Great Britain, and went back to England. In all the places he visits, he stops to describe and draw cows and sheep. He has a fondness for these animals and cannot help comparing the different sheep races he encounters. It’s such an entertaining Ariadne thread along the book.

Čapek is more than a lovestruck tourist. He’s a keen observer of his time, curious about other cultures, critical about colonisation, wary about wild industrialisation and its consequences on the working class’s living conditions. His acute intelligence transpires through his funny and spot on commentaries. He compares what he sees of the English way of life to his Czech life and to his experience in other countries. Life in Paris seems more familiar to him than life in London. He sounds less puzzled by his other travels than by this one, as if countries on the continent had more common chromosomes in their DNA.

His descriptions of landscapes border on poetry and we follow an enchanted traveller. His illustrations of his travels supplement the text in a dashing manner. They capture a person, a scene, a part of a monument. They’re so personal and subjective that this reader felt closer to the writer’s experience.

Highly recommended. There will be a billet in French too, slightly different from this one.

Sorrow of the Earth by Eric Vuillard

April 25, 2017 14 comments

Sorrow of the Earth by Eric Vuillard (2014) Original French title: Tristesse de la terre.

I read Sorrow of the Earth by Eric Vuillard in January and I’m trying to catch up with billets that are long overdue. I’m going to be bit lazy here and quote the Goodreads summary of this non-fiction book about Buffalo Bill and the end of the Indian wars in the US.

Buffalo Bill was the prince of show business. His spectacular Wild West shows were performed to packed houses across the world, holding audiences spellbound with their grand re-enactments of tales from the American frontier. For Bill gave the crowds something they’d never seen before: real-life Indians.

This astonishing work of historical re-imagining tells the little-known story of the Native Americans swallowed up by Buffalo Bill’s great entertainment machine. Of chief Sitting Bull, paraded in theatres to boos and catcalls for fifty dollars a week. Of a baby Lakota girl, found under her mother’s frozen body, adopted and displayed on the stage. Of the last few survivors of Wounded Knee, hired to act out the horrific massacre of their tribe as entertainment. And of Buffalo Bill Cody himself, hamming it to the last, even as it consumed him.

Told with beauty, compassion and anger, Sorrow of the Earth shows us tragedy turned into a circus act, history into sham, truth into a spectacle more powerful than reality itself. Could any of us turn away?

Well, I really have mixed feelings about this book. On the one hand, I liked its line of thoughts. Vuillard explains how Buffalo Bill exploited the vanquished Indians in his Wild West shows and how his rise was concomitant to the last massacres of Native Americans. He depicts how these shows became history and how this entertainment became the grounds of our collective memory of the American West. It created the imagery that would prepare the grounds for westerns. Vuillard tells how Buffalo Bill’s vision of history supplanted historical accuracy and became our reference.

This is a line of thought I find valuable and it’s a question worth exploring, especially this year. Entertainment penetrates so far in brains that there is no more room for accuracy or science.

On the other hand, I have a problem Vuillard’s book due to its tone and its style. He gives a passionate retelling of Buffalo Bill’s life and broadens his topic with a more general analysis of the consequences of Buffalo Bill’s shows. He doesn’t demonstrate his point of view or remains analytical. His style is not objective and it bothered me. I wondered whether everything was accurate or not, where his sources came from. He puts in perspective the birth of the entertainment industry but also questions the forces that make humans from all social classes enjoy this kind of entertainment. It’s an intriguing topic and I thought he didn’t go far enough in his analysis.

As the blurb mentions it, it’s told with compassion and anger. Are these feelings compatible with analytical thinking that is, in my opinion, required in historical non-fiction books? I don’t think so. What’s your opinion? Vuillard’s book was published in English by Pushkin Press in August 2016. Did you read it? If yes, what did you think about it? Did you read other books like this one that have historical content but are not exactly essays?

In the end, I found this book interesting but I wondered (and still wonder) if it was reliable.

The Last Frontier by Howard Fast

August 12, 2015 23 comments

The Last Frontier by Howard Fast 1941. French title: La denière frontière. (Translated by Catherine de Palaminy.)

book_club_2This month our Book Club has selected The Last Frontier by Howard Fast. I’m on holiday, so I have time to read and I’m early to post about it but that’s the kind of book you want to share immediately. So the billet comes now. I have The Last Frontier in French, the translation dates back to 2014 and this title belongs to the Totem collection of publisher Gallmeister. I’ve mentioned them before, they have a gift to bring fantastic American writers to the French public.

The Last Frontier is what we call in French a récit. Howard Fast relates the Northern Cheyenne Exodus and the Fort Robinson Massacre. After the battle of Little Big Horn, the Cheyenne chiefs Dull Knife and Little Wolf surrendered at Fort Robinson in 1877. They expected to settle in the same reservation as the Sioux, according to the stipulation the Fort Laramie Treaty that they had both signed in 1868. Instead of that, they were sent at the reservation at Fort Reno, Oklahoma, about 1600 km south.

FastIn this Southern Cheyenne reservation that was part of the Indian Territory, they suffered from malaria and hunger. The climate and the environment were so different from their native land that they decided to leave the reservation to go back to the Black Hills and the Powder River county in Montana, where they came from and where they belonged.

They left the Indian Territory in September 1878 and their expedition ended in April 1879. The Cheyenne were led by Dull Knife and Little Wolf. They had no right to leave the reservation and the US army were after them as soon as they started.

Howard Fast recounts their voyage. They managed to escape the army for a rather long time. They then split in two groups, one led by Dull Knife and the other led by Little Wolf. The group led by Dull Knife was killed at Fort Robinson after being imprisoned in inhuman conditions. The group led by Little Worlf reached Montana safely. Meanwhile, after the Fort Robinson massacre, Carl Schurz, Secretary of Interior had decided to let the second group stay in Montana. The Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation will be created few years later.

When Fast’s book is released, we’re in 1941, one of the toughest years of WWII in Europe and it was before Pearl Harbor. The Cheyenne fought for their freedom and this resonated in him and in the public. His book was a success. In the afterword of the book, he explains how he investigated the events. He had read a paragraph about these events in 1939 and wanted to know more. He and his wife went to the Cheyenne reservation and met with old Cheyennes who had taken part to the flight. He also had help from academics in Oklahoma. We are lucky that Howard Fast and his wife started investigating this and collecting the story from the witnesses. In his introduction of the American edition of the book, Howard Fast explains how overwhelmed he and his wife were when they realized what had happened. What they learned there went against all they had been taught about the Plain Indian Wars.

Fast_FrontierAll along the book, Fast talks about the Cheyenne with respect. He pictures that they only wanted to go home. He shows the decisions of the US Army to catch them. At some point, 12000 soldiers were chasing 300 Cheyennes. The picture isn’t pretty.

What strikes me is the deeply rooted belief of the Whites that they are superior because they are white and Christians. The Bureau of Indian Affairs in Oklahoma lacked supplies and couldn’t give the Indians enough food. They had to split the food and, as Quakers, favored the Indians who had become Christians. Our 300 Cheyennes weren’t ready to give up their faith, their culture, their roots. The Bureau of Indian Affairs wanted to change hunters into farmers in Oklahoma. This place isn’t the easiest to farm. How do you convince another people to abandon their culture when it’s so unappealing?

The reasoning of the Whites, the civilians and the military is based on the certitude that the Cheyennes are savages. They are barely humans. We’re in 1878 and it seemed to me we were at the same place as the Spanish during the Valladolid debate in 1550-1551. Three centuries later. “They are so different from us, are they even human?” That’s the question. The interests of the colonizing State is to deny their humanity. Then you can spoliate them, kill them, imprison them. It doesn’t matter, they’re not really human, are they? Of course, not everybody agrees with this line of thinking. You have people who are interested in this other civilization and see them as equals. But they are a minority and it’s not where the government is going.

Treaties signed with the Indians had not been enforced. I knew that. I didn’t know what legal reasoning justified it. I learned some of it here. The Fort Laramie treaty? It had been signed between two sovereign Nations and since the Cheyennes don’t have land anymore, they are no longer a sovereign Nation. So the treaty is conveniently void. Isn’t that easy? You push the Indians out of their land, they’re no longer a sovereign Nation and you can forget what you signed.

I liked that Howard Fast tried to be fair. The soldiers aren’t cruel per se; they are led by narrow minded and stubborn officers. They didn’t like to fight against civilians and several times, officers delayed attacks because they were uncomfortable with the idea of slaughtering people. This was not a regular war and they knew it. They postponed interventions and this delay helped the Cheyennes move further. Drastic decisions are easy to make in Washington DC or in forts when you’re not the one doing the dirty work. Field officers were reluctant to do the dirty job.

The complexity of the Cheyenne language certainly handicapped this tribe. It seems to be a beautiful and musical language but difficult to learn. Fast tried and failed and said that young Cheyennes educated in the English school system couldn’t speak Cheyenne to the elder. The army had trouble communicating with the Cheyennes; translators were scarce and not reliable. Subtle discussions were out of the question.

When you read Fast’s tale of the events, you realize that the Cheyennes only wanted to go north. They didn’t want to start a war; they wanted their freedom back. They were ready to die for it. It was better to die fighting than die of hunger and illness in the oven of the Oklahoma summer. They fought the soldiers to stay alive, not to start an uprising. When you read the Wikipedia articles about the same events, the underlying tone leads you into thinking that the Indians were more aggressive than what Fast describes. I tend to believe Howard Fast because his book is based upon research and because his tone is journalistic. 

I wonder how the wars against Indians and the conquest of the western territories are taught in American schools. How much time is spent on their history? How is it described? 

I bet that Africans and Asians have similar dreadful stories to tell about their French or English colonizers. In France, we learn nothing in school about the colonization of African or Asian territories. Suddenly we have all these colonies, they provide good soldiers during WWI and then in the 1960s, they become independent. We hear a bit more about Algeria and nothing else. It’s a big fat deafening silence. I don’t remember any famous French book showing the colonized side of the events or aiming at fairness.

At least, Howard Fast opened a trail to view these events with different eyes. It’s enlightening and also worth reading for the description of the land and rough life in the Plains.

I have one little complain. I wish Gallmeister had included a map in the book. It would have helped understanding the moves of the Indians and the troops.

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