French in June and #20Books: Gael Faye and Lola Lafon

The reviews for these two books will be short, not because I didn’t enjoy the books, but because I have run out of time. The end of this month has been a particularly busy one for me. That is also the reason I am grouping them together, although the only similarity they have is that they both feature child narrators (at least partly) and are based on true stories, although they are both works of fiction.

Actually, now that I think about it, ‘enjoy’ is perhaps the wrong word to use about either of these two books, each dealing with such difficult themes. They were quite challenging to read, but I am glad I did. They both had very powerful, moving prose, although Lafon tries to be more clinical and detached.

Book 8/20: Gael Faye: Petit Pays (translated by Sarah Ardizzone as Small Country)

Gabriel is living in France as an adult, a country that is oddly familiar to him (with a French dad, and having gone to a French school all his life), but also one where he never feels he fully belongs (his mother is a Tutsi refugee from Rwanda, and he spent most of his childhood in Burundi). After a brief prologue – in which Gabriel’s father tries to explain the reasons for the civil war in Burundi and Rwanda, which the children interpret as ‘because the Hutus and the Tutsis don’t have the same type of nose’ – we see Gabriel living a very threadbare life in the Paris region but not entirely sure if he dares to return to his home country. The rest of the book describes this childhood in Burundi in 1992-94, and in particular life in his close, a relatively affluent area of Bujumbura, full of mixed-race marriages or diplomats.

One highlight is Gabriel’s eleventh birthday party, where everyone is invited, even people who are normally quite hostile to each other. Although a confrontation takes place there between two of the boys, and then there is a black-out, the party continues with live instruments and improvised music and dancing. It is the last moment of joy and insouciance for those present, for soon afterward the war erupts in Rwanda (with dire consequences for Gabriel’s relatives), and then the fragile new democracy in Burundi crumbles too. The friendship between the boys on the close unravels too.

The book is now widely taught in French schools, has become a modern classic, as well as winning the literary prize chosen by high-school students (and not just because the author is a popular rapper). It provides an eye-opening description of a certain time and place, and explains so well the reasons why people become refugees. There are some great scenes, often funny, but also moving, and there are some lyrical passages which are very well written, but there are also shocking scenes, which are not sugarcoated at all for a YA audience. Occasionally, the child’s voice slips and we are transported to the adult’s perception, but I didn’t find that annoying. The finale could be seen by some as too sentimental, but I think it struck just about the right note.

Book 9/20: Lola Lafon: Chavirer (translated by Hildegarde Serle as Reeling)

This was another hard-hitting book, quite difficult to read at times, although it was less graphic than Faye’s novel. Based on the author’s own experience of studying ballet, it is in essence the Ghislaine Maxwell/Jeffrey Epstein network transposed to a French setting. Girls as young as 13 are lured in by an elegant, well-educated and well-connected woman at the Galatea Foundation, with the promise of a scholarship that would enable them to pursue their dreams of becoming a dancer, an artist, an actress etc. Cleo is one of the girls who falls under the spell of the glamorous Cathy but soon finds herself trapped in a frightening situation that she barely understands. It gets even worse when she becomes complicit with the sinister operation, recruiting ‘promising’ girls. As Cleo grows up, and as the victims of this network start to speak out, she struggles with her own role in this pedophile ring, and that she never warned the girls of the dangers.

But it’s not just Cleo’s story. We see multiple points of view, including the discussion boards set up many years later by investigative journalists and documentary makers trying to find out what had been going on. The book shows just how difficult it is for #MeToo experiences to be taken seriously, especially in a country like France.

Those lunches, in the nineties, that brought together girls and powerful men? It was common knowledge. These are the words of the female producer of a radio show with whom Enid and Elvire are talking about their forthcoming documentary. Everyone knew about it. And if those lunches took place for so many years without anyone complaining about them, it’s proof that nothing that serious went on at them, she adds.

Although the scenes of abuse are not shown directly, and certainly not in detail, we are shown the effect it has on the girls, the temporary disassociation of body and mind that they have to enact in order to survive, but also the long-term trauma. By allowing a multiplicity of voices to be represented, Lafon makes us question ourselves and our hypocrisies, and makes us wonder to what extent we too have often been complicit in the exploitation of others.

… it’s not what we are forced to do that destroys us, but what we consent to do that chips away at us; those pricks of shame, from consenting every day to reinforce what we decry. I buy things knowing they’re made using slave labor, I go on vacation to a dictatorship with lovely sunny beaches. I got to the birthday party of a harasser who produces my films. We’re shot through with such shame, a whirlwind that, little by little, bores into us and hollows us out. Not having said anything. Or done anything. Having said yes because we didn’t know how to say no.