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The Dry by Jane Harper

July 31, 2018 13 comments

The Dry by Jane Harper (2016) French title: Canicule.

After reading the second volume of Jane Harper’s Aaron Falk series (see my billet), I decided to read the first one as well. Good for me because The Dry was even better than Force of Nature.

The main character is Aaron Falk, a federal police officer working in the financial division. He’s usually after white collar criminals. When the book opens, Aaron Falk is in Melbourne and he’s about to go back to his hometown Kiewarra to attend the funeral of his childhood friend Luke Hadler, his wife Karen and their son Billy.

Kiewarra is a rural town, Luke was a farmer and all farmers are struggling to survive because of a terrible drought. The town is dying, the lack of income from the farmers affect the local shops and this drought seems endless. Luke was apparently at the end of his rope and killed himself and his family. Only baby Charlotte escaped the slaughter.

Falk hasn’t been home for twenty years and he goes back reluctantly. When he’s at the funeral, a picture of Luke, him, Gretchen and Ellie appears in a slide show. It brings back the year when he was 16, the year Ellie was found dead in the river, the year he was wrongly accused of the murder, the year his father and he had to leave town and settle in Melbourne.

After the funeral, Luke’s parents, Barb and Gerry come and talk to Falk. They want him to investigate Luke’s death, they don’t believe that their son committed suicide. Barb wants Falk to investigate Luke’s finances, to see whether he was so close to bankruptcy that he’d kill his family. Gerry wants to know whether it has anything to do with the unsolved mystery of Ellie’s death. Indeed, when she died, a piece of paper with FALK written in her handwriting was found in her pocket. Why? Aaron didn’t have a witness to confirm his alibi and Luke and he decided to lie about where we were and be each other’s alibi. They said they were together. Gerry knows they were lying and now he wonders if his son killed Ellie back in the day.

Aaron agrees to investigate and takes a few days off. He’d love to go back home, to his orderly life in Melbourne. But he stays because of all the good times he spent at the Hadlers’ when he was a kid, for all the warmth and affection Barb gave him freely, something he needed, having lost his mother at birth.

Luckily, Raco, the newly appointed police chief of Kiewarra thinks that the Clyde police force in charge of the case was all too happy to file it as a suicide. For Raco, details don’t add up. The way Karen was found sprawled in the hallway of their house, the way Billy was killed after what looks like a chase in his bedroom, the way Luke’s body was lying in his truck. And why spare baby Charlotte? And why use different cartridges than the usual?

Raco and Aaron join their forces to start an unofficial investigation. Did Luke killed his wife and son before turning his shotgun against himself? If he didn’t, why were they murdered and has the killing anything to do with Ellie’s death?

Aaron’s presence in Kiewarra is not welcome and his coming back stirs hatred and brings back old secrets. What happened to Luke and his family? What happened to Ellie? Will this new drama allow Falk to have some closure about the terrible events that changed his life?

I loved The Dry. Jane Harper created an atmospheric novel. It shows a small town with secrets and festering hatred, a town where news travel fast, where strangers remain strangers for years, where things remain under wraps because they all need each other at a time or another, so why stir trouble and risk being an outcast and out of the town’s support system? The drought exacerbates everything because this rural community suffers from the lack of water and farmers risk to lose their farm. Things could blow up any time.

Highly recommended.

Please find Bill’s very informative review about The Dry here.

PS: Follow up of my Australian English chronicles. On Goodreads, a question about The Dry was “What is a ute and what is a huntsman” I’m happy to report I know what they are and that I have passed a new stage with pokie, arvo, aggro and ammo. 😊 Unfortunately, I don’t understand why the book is entitled The Dry and not The Drought. Any help with that?

This also qualifies for the AWW Challenge. See here.

Romain Gary Goes to War by Laurent Seksik

July 22, 2018 4 comments

Romain Gary Goes to War by Laurent Seksik (2017) Original French title: Romain Gary s’en va-t-en guerre.

In 2017, two novelists published a novel about Romain Gary and his childhood in Wilno, Poland (now Vilnius, Lithuania). The first one was Romain Gary Goes to War by Laurent Seksik and the second one was A Certain Mr Piekielny by François-Henri Désérable. I have read both and already wrote a billet about the Désérable.

And now it’s time to discuss Romain Gary Goes to War, a biographical novel where Laurent Seksik imagines twenty-four hours in the life of young Romain Gary in his last year in Wilno. There is no accurate information about these events, nothing precise enough to lead a journalistic enquiry. The only things we know came from Gary and he was an unreliable narrator of his own past.

Seksik imagines these moments and we need to keep this in mind while we read his novel.

During the first part of the book, we’re on January 26th, 1925. Romain Gary was still named Roman Kacew. He’s almost eleven and living in the Jewish ghetto of Wilno. His father Arieh Kacew is a furrier by trade. He has just left his wife Mina and his son Roman to go and live with his pregnant mistress. Mina is thinking about emigrating to France. She’s barely scraping by and she wants more for her son.

January 26th is when Arieh plucks up the courage to tell his son that he’s going to be a father. This destroys any hope that young Roman could have had to see his parents reunited. It also means less money for Mina and him. Seksik makes up a believable Arieh, someone who wanted a serene domestic life and couldn’t live with Mina anymore. He wanted a gentle journey through life and she was a roller-coaster. Under Seksik’s pen, Mina comes to life, a character with a strong personality, someone difficult to live with, someone larger than life and consistent with the way Gary portrays her in Promise at Dawn.

Seksik gives life to the ghetto in Wilno, conjures up Roman’s extended family on his father’s side. They were religious, contrary to Mina. He shows us an intelligent young boy who wants to be close to his father, who lives with a formidable and trying mother whose moods are unpredictable. He pictures a young boy who’s clever, shy, in love with a classmate and tries to navigate in his current stormy waters.

On January 27th, 1925 Mina’s hat chop closes down. She’s bankrupt and she now has nothing to lose. She needs to start over. Her decision is made, emigration it will be and her son will be a great man.

The epilogue of the book is set in Wilno in 1943. The Jerusalem of the East that counted 60 000 Jews in 1941 has only a few thousands now. The Nazis have destroyed the ghetto and assassinated its inhabitants. Roman Kacew has lost his family.

Seksik recreates two days that will be decisive in young Roman’s future. He’s losing his father, his mother loses her business and he’s going to lose his quotidian.

From a literary point of view, I don’t think that Romain Gary s’en va-t-en guerre brings much. The style is fine but not brilliant and even if lots of details sound accurate, the inner thoughts of the characters are pure imagination. It is a good book to get a feeling of where Gary came from and also to deconstruct the myth he built around his father’s identity. All his life, he wanted the world to believe that he was a hidden son of the Russian actor Ivan Mosjoukine. His biographs demonstrated that it was not possible. He had repudiated Arieh Kacew, either because he wasn’t flamboyant enough or to avoid thinking and talking about his assassination by the Nazis.

Seksik takes time to describe Wilno, its ghetto and the Ashkenazi Jewish community’s everyday life. It’s like a reportage with virtual reality showing you a reconstruction of the pyramids or Pompei. And this part was interesting because it takes the reader into Gary’s world and it helps to understand his work. I thought about this book when I reread The Kites a few months later.

It’s remarkable to see that a few months after Romain Gary s’en va-t-en guerre went out, François-Henri Désérable published Un certain Monsieur Piekielny. Both books are about Gary’s childhood in Wilno. Both books are a way to remember what happened in Wilno, how a whole community was exterminated, how the Nazis changed this city forever. It was ethnic cleansing, pure and simple.

Out of the two books, the Désérable is the definitely the best. It’s more elegant, deeper with a delicate lightness. It’s more moving in the sense that the connection between the reader and the book is more emotional. The parts between his actual search for M. Piekielny and the ones where his imagination wanders are more clearly cut. Seksik’s books gives us to see Wilno and young Roman but it doesn’t say anything about his relationship with Gary’s literature. Désérable writes a mix between an enquiry, a personal quest and an ode to a man who is part of our literary Pantheon.

Australian reads: Down Under by Bill Bryson and about A Long Way From Home by Peter Carey

July 21, 2018 36 comments

Down Under by Bill Bryson (2000) / A Long Way From Home by Peter Carey (2017)

I’m flying to Australia in a few days and I have SEVEN unwritten billets about books I’ve read. I’m going to write short posts about them mostly because I don’t want to go on holiday and leave a backlog of billets behind. Work has been in the way of my writing and updating my blog.

The first book I’d like to talk about is Down Under. Travels in a Sunburnt Country by Bill Bryson. I have read it in French and since “Down Under” is a bit tricky to translate, it’s become “Nos voisins du dessous”. Bill Bryson tells us all about a road trip he made in Australia in 2000. I enjoyed the tone of his book and its content. It’s a good mix of personal experience and everyday life during his roadtrip, fun facts about Australia but also serious historical information and informative descriptions of nature, and especially the fauna.

It’s told with a healthy sense of humour, by someone who comes from Iowa, has lived in Great Britain and loves Australia. When he makes fun of Australians, it’s always with affection.

Here’s a sample of his easy-going prose, a story-telling tone that catches the reader’s attention.

Australia is the world’s sixth largest country and its largest island. It is the only island that is also a continent, and the only continent that is also a country. It was the first continent conquered by sea, and the last. It is the only nation that began as a prison.

It is the home of the largest living thing on earth, the Great Barrier Reef, and of the most famous and striking monolith, Ayers Rock (or Uluru to use its now official, more respectful Aboriginal name) It has more things that will kill you than anywhere else. Of the world’s ten most poisonous snakes, all are Australian. Five of its creatures – the funnel-web spider, box jellyfish, blue-ringed octopus, paralysis tick and stonesfish – are the most lethal of their type in the world. This is a country where even the fluffiest of caterpillars can lay you out with a toxic nip, where seashells will not just sting you by actually sometimes go for you. Pick up an innocuous coneshell from a Queensland beach, as innocent tourists are all too wont to do, and you will discover that the little fellow inside is not just astoundingly swift and testy, but exceedingly venomous. If you are not stung or pronged to death in some unexpected manner, you may be fatally chomped by sharks or crocodiles, or carried helplessly out to sea by irresistible currents, or left to stagger to an unhappy death in the baking outback. It’s a tough place.”

Well, our plane tickets are nonrefundable, so I guess we’ll just have to be prudent, eh?

I read his book partly at home and partly during a work trip while waiting at the airport. My constant giggling forced me to read passages to my colleagues or they would have thought I was nuts.

His trip includes a stay in Sydney, a visit to Camberra, Melbourne, some time in Queensland and some time in the Northern Territory. It was a pleasure to follow him, learn about the places he was visiting, discover mundane everyday life details and learn about the history of Australia.

Bill Bryson points out how little we hear about Australia in our respective countries. What is true for him in America is also true for me in France.

And this came back as a boomerang when I tried to read A Long Way From Home by Peter Carey. I had read an enthusiastic review by Lisa (see here) and since I love to read books about road trips, I thought it could be a good place to start with Carey.

I began reading it full of expectations and was soon stuck with it. I knew the words I was reading but didn’t understand what I was reading. I was totally missing the subtext. I was seriously rethinking my English abilities (and Australian English can be challenging) when I read Kim’s review. (see here)

She says “I love Carey’s prose, his long, descriptive sentences and quirky turns of phrase, the Australianness (is that a word?) of it all and his ability to capture period detail so extraordinarily well.”

And it was like a lightbulb! The Australianness that had enhanced the experience for Lisa and Kim totally lost me. See here:

The sonny was named Titch although he was sometimes Zac which was what they called a sixpence and a zac was therefore half a shilling or half a bob, which was, of course, his father’s name.

I don’t think you can expect a French reader to understand that kind of sentence. I also had to google Holden because I didn’t know what it was and there were lots of random details like this that left me dumbfounded.

It was indeed a long way from my home and I gave up. Maybe I’ll try it again after spending time in Australia… That’ll be a test: did I catch enough Australianness to understand Peter Carey?

Book Club 2018-2019 : The List

July 21, 2018 18 comments

It’s that time of the year again.

Our Book Club has picked up 12 books for the next twelvemonth. We changed our ways this year and we picked countries and then tried to find one book per country. I’m happy with this new list as it will allow us to travel a bit around the world. We’re missing a book from Africa, though. Next year we’ll have to rectify that.

Here’s the list:

 

Month English title French title Writer # pages Country Year of publication
August The Secret River Sarah Thornhill Kate Grenville 310 Australia 2007
September Not found in English Son Royaume Han Han 250 China 2015
October The Ice Princess La princesse des glaces Camilla Läckberg 381 Sweden 2004
November Not found in English Canicule Jean Vautrin 331 France 1982
December Deal Souls Les âmes mortes Gogol 477 Russia 1842
January Not found in English Le poids des secrets Aki Shimazaki 500 Japan 2010
February Pavane for  a Dead Princess Pavane pour une infante défunte Min-kyu Park 325 Korea 2014
March Excellent Women Des femmes remarquables Barbara Pym 252 Great Britain 1952
April Geek Love Un amour de monstres Katherine Dunn 442 USA 1989
May The Tapestries Le brodeur de Huê Kien Nguyen 383 Vietnam 2001
June House of Splendid Isolation La maison du splendide isolement Edna O’Brien 284 Irlande 1994
July A World for Julius Un monde pour Julius Alfredo Bryce Echenique 497 Peru 1970

The book that opens the new season is The Secret River by Kate Grenville.

I find the Gogol a bit daunting, so if you’ve read it, please tell me how it was. I need a bit of reassurance. I’m looking forward to reading my first Barbara Pym. I’ve heard a lot of good things about her from other bloggers. Edna O’Brien has been on my mental TBR for a while, it’s an opportunity to finally read something by her. I’ve already read Tarzan’s Tonsillitis by Alfredo Bryce-Echenique and I’m glad to read another book by him.

We have two crime fiction books, one by Camilla Läckberg and one by Jean Vautrin. Let’s hope that the Läckberg is better than the Indridason I’ve read. I’m a bit wary of too-famous-for-their-own-good Nordic crime fiction writers. I couldn’t find an English translation of the Vautrin, let me know if there’s one.

And the books for Vietnam, Korea, China and the USA are new-to-me writers. I don’t know what to expect.

As usual, if anyone wants to join us and read one of these books along with us, feel free to do so. There’s no rule, just post your review the right month and let me know about it. And if you’ve read any of those books, what did you think about them?

Force of Nature by Jane Harper

July 16, 2018 13 comments

Force of Nature by Jane Harper (2017) French title: Sauvage

Force of Nature is the second volume of the Aaron Falk crime fiction series by Jane Harper. Five men and five women from the company BaileyTennants are sent on a company retreat in the Giralang Ranges. The two groups have to hike during several days, looking for banners, going from one campsite to the other until they make it to the arrival.

The problem is…only four women come back and Alice Russel has disappeared. Aaron Falk and his partner Carmen are worried about this because Alice was the whistleblower in the case they’re working on. Daniel and Jill Bailey, the managers and owners of this family business are involved in money laundering for wider criminal networks. Falk and Carmen are only cogs in a giant investigation and they were about getting crucial documents from Alice about the Baileys’ business.

Does her disappearance have anything to do with their case?

Jane Harper weaves a masterful net of relationships between the women. They are mismatched. The group leader is Jill Bailey, as a member of senior management. Alice Russel, the one who disappeared is here with her assistant Bree McKenzie. Lauren Shaw went to a special boarding school with Alice Russell and they’ve known each other for thirty years. The last participant is Beth McKenzie, Bree’s twin sister.

All have a specific relationship with Alice. Alice is known as an ice queen bitch, so the others might have her reasons to wish for her disappearance. Jill muses:

Being around Alice was like owning an aggressive breed of dog. Loyal when it suited, but you had to stay on your toes.

There’s some resentment between her and Lauren, she tends to bully Beth. Jill’s side business in the firm is threatened by Alice’s interactions with the police. The book is constructed in such a way that the reader alternates between following the police investigation and the rangers’ researches to find Alice in the bush and following the women’s hike and discover how things went wrong. At the beginning, the device bothered me a bit but it proved excellent because it broke the monotony of the investigation and broke the palpable tension I felt when I was following the women’s hike. The bushland setting contributes to the tension of the story as it is rife with dangers. In a way, it talks to our deepest fear, the ones we heard of in fairy tales when we were little, the fear to get lost in the forest.

It was strange, Jill thought, how much the bushland started to look alike. Twice she’d spotted something – once a stump, the other time a fallen tree – which she was sure she remembered from earlier. It was like walking in a semi-constant sense of déjà vu.

The bushland is another character, it’s not human but it sure helps move the plot forward and add on the feeling of urgency and of threat.

It’s a clever crime fiction novel, one I’d recommend as a summer read. Harper’s style is efficient, to the point but not very literary. There are better crime fiction books than this one, as far as literature is concerned. However, it’s an excellent reading time.

On last note, I bought a copy in the original and it gave me another opportunity to work on my spoken Australian English, after Anita Heiss and Marie Munkara. And I am puzzled by the Australian habit to shorter words like bikie or barbie. I’m getting used to the short words with an “ie” as a suffix though. However, I had to google spag bol because I couldn’t figure out what they were eating. (It doesn’t help that visually, bol is bowl in French)

Force of Nature is another contribution to the Australian Women Writer Challenge.

Of Ashes and Rivers that Runs to the Sea by Marie Munkara – Indigenous Literature Week

July 14, 2018 23 comments

Of Ashes and Rivers that Run to the Sea by Marie Munkara. (2016) Not available in French

Lisa has organized an Indigenous Literature Week from July 8 to July 15th and I picked one of her suggested read, Marie Munkara’s memoirs, Of Ashes and Rivers that Run to the Sea. Marie Munkara is an Aborigine of Rembarranga and Tiwi descent. She was born on the banks of the River Mainoru in 1960 and lived her first three years with her family on Melville Island, an island part of the Tiwi Islands. For non-Australians like me, let’s look at maps to see where all these places are located. First a map of Australia showing where the Northern Territory is and where the Tiwi Islands are in said Northern Territory:

Now that we all have our geography in mind, let’s go back to Marie Munkara. Marie Munkara was 28 when she found her birth card at her adoptive parents’ place in Melbourne. She knew they weren’t her birth parents but she was shocked to discover her Aborigine background. When she was three and a half years old and like many Aborigines of her generation, she was taken from her birth parents to be raised by white parents. She belongs to the Stolen Generations. She was sent to a white family in Melbourne.

They chose me from a photograph, so she said. One of the many that had been shown to them in the welfare office as they sipped their cups of tea. Each of those photographs represented a kid who had been removed from their family while strangers organised their fate and then sent them on to other strangers. They call it child-trafficking nowadays but back then it was the government’s attempt at turning Australia into another Britain. By assimilating the black minority into the white population they hoped that the pesky problem of the blacks would eventually take care of itself by them either dying out or doing as they were told and relinquishing their culture and ways forever.

On top of the horror of being taken away from her parents, she was also given to a couple with an abusive mother and a pedophile father. Three layers of abuse were piled upon her little being. Munkara describe her difficult life with her white parents. She had to learn how to speak English and live in a world that didn’t really want her. She survived and tried to make the best of her circumstances.

After the joys of playgroup came school, which was even better. Here I learnt how words were put together, and the crazy rules of the English language, and after that reading just happened. I opened up a book one day and realised that I could read, and after that the world became a bigger and better place.

Her ability to survive abuse from both white parents is admirable. When she learns about her origins, she decides to fly to Darwin and visit her birth mother. A good part of her memoirs relates her living in Tiwi Islands with her birth mother, her siblings and her extended family. She has trouble adjusting to the Aborigines’ way of life which I found was between their traditional world and the Western ways.  Everything is a challenge for her. She was raised by prude Catholic white people in a town that’s probably one of the most British in all Australia. Shock of culture barely covers what she was confronted to.

She engaged in all her family’s activities, embracing their everyday life with gumption, totally out of her comfort zone. She has to learn everything about hunting, fishing, choosing a proper dress code, cooking. It’s not easy but she doesn’t give up. Her family welcomes her in their homes and in their lives as if she was expected. And yet, it must have been difficult for them too. Her personal journey to reconcile her two identities is long and heartbreaking at times. I wondered what she would end up doing since she didn’t fully belong to any of her two worlds.

I think this family wants to take the something out of my heart and make me black, just like the other family wanted to tame me and make me white. I know that nobody is interested in the parts of me that don’t concern them. The white parents aren’t interested in the pre-assimilation black bits because they wanted a white girl with black skin. And my real family don’t want to know about the post-assimilation white bits because they think I’m a black girl with a white heart. I know that I’ve disappointed them all. The anger from the white parents. The pitiful looks from the black. The fretful and all-consuming silences from them both. I wish I could open the doors to my mind and let them in, so they could see the world from my eyes and forgive me for not being able to fit their expectations. But I can’t because this journey is all mine. I don’t want the days when they brush me aside because I can’t get it right. I want there always to be beautiful days when the space between us is full of light and love.

Most of her journey consists in reacquainting herself with Aborigine’s vision of life, rituals, traditions and customs. She never sugarcoats what she lives and she also uncovers a side of Australia she never knew of before. For example, she sees that her birth mother limps and she’s horrified to learn she has leprosy.

Leprosy. I am shocked because I thought lepers only existed in the Bible and lived in poor countries like India and Africa. I thought they walked with bells around their necks warning people to keep clear and lived in colonies where they couldn’t infect anyone and where their limbs and appendages dropped off. I slide my ill-informed thoughts into the rubbish bin and slam the lid down tight, angry that our First World country can live in ignorant bliss of our Third World problems.

Her adaptation to her mother’s way-of-life isn’t smooth. Life in Tiwi Islands is very far from what she’s always known and her mother has reactions she can’t expect and can’t understand. The whole environment is a challenge for her and sometimes it’s hard on her.

I am disheartened by the brutality of life in this place. It’s everywhere. Dogs with broken legs that have never been set limping down the road, birds trying to fly with wings shattered by a kid’s slingshot, big green turtles turned onto their backs and carved up alive, their hearts still beating, joeys tortured. For a few minutes I long for white middle-class suburbia where ugly crap is hidden behind doors and white picket fences where I don’t have to see it.

What she describes reminded me of Kim Scott’s novel, True Country. The setting is fictional but similar: an Aborigine who lives in white Australia goes to live among Aborigines in the Northern Territory. Munkara pictures the same scenes in a hostile but beautiful nature, the poverty and rampant violence. In both books, I was shocked about how much alcohol is consumed. And I guess Scott is also disheartened by Indigenous people’s living conditions. There seem to be little progress there. Thanks to Scott’s book, I wasn’t surprised by what I read about her new living conditions.

I was mostly angry for her. I can wrap my head around colonizing a place for economic reasons. I’m not saying it’s right, I’m saying there’s a logic behind it, greed. What I can’t fathom is this arrogance of Christianism. In this case, the Catholics decided to found a mission in this Tiwi island for no other reason than bringing “superior civilization” to these poor blackfellas. And these Catholics were so sure of their worth, of their superiority and of their evangelization duties that they found normal and even desirable to retrieve children from their families. And we’re in the 1960s, not in the 16th century. This is something I can’t understand. How could they? How could the Australian government encourage it and make it legal? And to top it off, they placed her in an abusive family, proving there was no proper screening of the foster/adoptive families. This institutionalized child trafficking is appalling.

We had that kind of institutionalized child deportation in France too with the Enfants de la Creuse scandal where 2163 children were sent to mainland France from La Réunion island from 1963 to 1982. The idea was to bring fresh blood in rural departments with low natality and high rural exodus.

In Canada, 150 000 Indigenous children were sent to the Canadian Residential School system.

We, white people really have a lot to apologize for.

Despite all the misery in Munkara’s life, this is not bleak book. She’s often quite funny in describing her experiences with her family and the confrontation of life as she knew it and life as she gets to live it with her mum. It’s challenging but rewarding. While she struggles with their different views on hygiene, personal property and modesty, she learns to enjoy the nature in her surroundings and a more relaxed approach to life.

Read more about Marie Munkara in Lisa’s thoughtful review here and in Sue’s post Monday Musings about Australian Literature: about Arnhem Land.

This read also qualifies for Australian Women Writers challenge.

The Poor Man’s Son by Mouloud Feraoun

July 8, 2018 10 comments

The Poor Man’s Son by Mouloud Feraoun (1954) Original French title: Le fils du pauvre.

Mouloud Feraoun was born in 1913 in Tizi Hibel in Kabylia, Algeria. He became a schoolmaster in Algeria and was assassinated on March 15th, 1962, a week before the war of independence ended. He wrote the Poor Man’s Son in 1954, during the dark moments of the war. This novella is largely autobiographical, the main character’s name, Fouroulou Menrad is almost an anagram of Mouloud Feraoun.

The book opens with a preamble: Menrad is a schoolteacher in a small village in Kabylia and he wrote his personal story in a notebook. The first par of the novella is a first-person narrative with Fouroulou telling about his childhood. He recreates his small village, describes the genealogy of his family, their way of life. Like a gifted storyteller, he makes us hear and see life in this remote part of Algeria. He describes the streets and the houses, the family clan and its living together, the bickering and jaleousy between his mother and his aunt.

As the only son, he was cherished by his parents and was always put first. His sisters didn’t have the same position in the family; he had better food and better care.

Comme j’étais le premier garçon né viable dans ma famille, ma grand-mère décida péremptoirement de m’appeler Fouroulou (de effer, cacher) Ce qui signifie que personne au monde ne pourra me voir, jusqu’au jour où je franchirai moi-même, sur mes deux pieds, le seuil de notre maison.

Since I was the first viable boy born in my family, my grand-mother peremptorily decided to call me Fouroulou (from effer, to hide) This means that nobody in the whole world could see me until I’d cross the threshold of our house myself, on my own two feet.

That’s how important he was to his family.

Feraoun depicts a place where everybody was dirt poor and always on the verge of being poorer. Any accident or illness preventing the adults to work could lead to starving. Any event affecting the crops could lead to not having enough food to put on the table. All of the adults’ energy is spent on staying afloat and feed the family. If needed, men went to France to work for a while and send fresh money back home. Feraoun weaves a wonderful homage to his aunts as he loved spending time in their house. They were artisans, creating potteries and baskets with artful drawings. He remembers their craft and their affection.

With little touches, little anecdotes and memories, the scenery appears in our eyes mind. We see the dusty streets and the unbearable summer heat. We hear children laughing and running through the village, playing together. We see the family. We imagine Fouroulou in the fields, destined to be a shepherd. Anecdotes about fights, tricks and illnesses let us see the local traditions. The presence of the French State is only palpable in some areas like the police (the villagers did their best not to involve the French police in their quarrels) and of course, the school system.

That’s when things start to change for Fouroulou. When he goes to school. It’s a sacrifice for the family: they need to buy him supplies and clothes and while he’s in school, he’s not working. This is common in poor communities, school isn’t seen as as vital as working. And Feraoun wonders:

Les pères de famille qui passent leur temps à essayer de satisfaire les petits ventres peuvent-ils s’occuper également des petites cervelles ?

Are family men who spend their time trying to satisfy little bellies able to also take care of little brains?

As you can guess from Feraoun’s biography, going to school will be a turning point in his literary doppelgänger’s life. Fouroulou’s school teacher in the village made him participate to a competition to win a scholarship to go to collège (junior high). This was common practice in the French school system of the beginning of the 20th century. Schoolteachers were on a mission to detect bright pupils and help them go further. It was also a way to have candidates to enter the Ecole Normale, the state network of schools that trained future schoolteachers. That’s what Menrad and Feraoun did. (It still existed in the 1970s) For the second part of the book, we switch from Fouroulou’s voice to that of an omniscient narrator. This part relates Fouroulou’s years in college and his years after graduation.

There’s no real plot in The Poor Man’s Son. It’s mostly an homage from a grown man to his origins. If I had to compare him to other writers, I’d say he’s like Pagnol with La gloire de mon père or Ramuz or Giono. He recalls his childhood with tenderness and emotion but doesn’t sugarcoat the poverty.

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