Cloé Mehdi: Nothing Is Lost (Rien ne se perd), transl. Howard Curtis, Europa Editions, 2023.
Born near Lyon and currently living in Marseille, Mehdi was only 24 years old when she wrote this, her second novel, which won several notable prizes in France. It is set in the Parisian banlieue, with which the author seems equally familiar, at least judging by her essay written about Fleury-Mérogis, a southern suburb of Paris which is home to the largest prison in France (and Europe), a jail that is a hotbed of Islamist radicalisation.
This is an unapologetically political, even militant novel: it addresses very dark themes (police brutality, social injustice, poverty, mental illnesses and how they are treated, murder, suicide, parental neglect). The humour, if we can describe it as such, is of a cynical variety as voiced by the precocious and world-weary narrator Mattia. At just eleven years old, Mattia has already experienced more than his share of trouble: his father’s mental health problems and subsequent suicide, his sister running away and his mother ‘gave him away’, unable to cope with him after his own attempt to commit suicide aged seven. He is the ward of the eminently unsuitable Zé, himself only 24, who comes from a wealthy white family, but has gone ‘down’ in the world, overcome by guilt since he was accused of killing a classmate at high school, works as a nightwatchman at a supermarket, recites French poets non-stop and forgets to pick Mattia up from school, and tries desperately to keep his girlfriend Gabrielle from committing suicide.
Mattia is bored in school, wary of grown-ups and the authorities, but things get worse when graffiti start appearing, demanding justice for Said, a young teen killed in a police identity check gone wrong. The case happened fifteen years ago and the policeman who beat up Said was acquitted, but it appears that Mattia’s family was somehow involved in what happened then, before he was even born.
This is not really a mystery or suspense story, but more of a relentless portrayal of contemporary French society at the margins, in the vein of the films La Haine or Bande de filles. It also reminded me of Jérôme Leroy’s Little Rebel in its mix of anger and black humour, or the documentaries and novels of Karim Miské set in the 19th arrondisement of Paris. The voice of the eleven-year-old does not always ring true – although he has had to grow faster than others, the language and concepts he uses are too mature and articulate for his age. Some of his outbursts are age-appropriate and ring true, while others are less successful.
When I was small, I thought grown-ups never cried. I realized later that they hide in order to do so. Now I’ve stopped trusting them. I’ve learned to look beyond what they agree to show me, because grown-ups keep the most important things to themselves.
I have a conjugation test tomorrow. How fortunate that someone invented the imperfect subjunctive to distract us from how lousy things really are!
The misfortunes heaped upon our main protagonist can feel almost manipulative at times, to provoke our pity. However, the novel succeeds best in its quieter moments, when there is less commentary attached to the observations of everyday life. For example, there is a scene where the crowds are rioting in response to the acquittal of the police officer against a backdrop of a poster at the bus stop advertising the perfume ‘La vie est belle (Life is beautiful)’.
Some might say that the author tries to work too much into the novel: race and deprivation and redevelopment (the blocks of flats are being torn down and the area is being gentrified), as well as mental health issues. The truth is that all of these problems often coexist and aggravate each other. No wonder Mattia feels that mental breakdown is inevitable, particularly if you have a family history of it. The author is scathing about the treatment of patients experiencing suicidal tendencies or other mental health conditions.
Gradually, the treatments worked. A nameless fog in your head. After that, the idea of escaping or dying was a long way from your daily concerns. As long as you could drink a cup of coffee without spilling it on your pajamas… And so it went on, until they decided you could leave. Free at last, but on borrowed time. Until the next breakdown and the next spell in hopsital. Thanks to them, you were again ready to live in society. You were normal. Were you happy? Nobody cared about that. The important thing was to make you capable of living outside, no matter in what state. No matter if the world around you hadn’t changed. They said it was up to you to adapt. They haven’t yet invented antipsychotics that can modify reality.
This was a brutal if somewhat messy read (the revenge narrative gets a bit bogged down, for example). I was glad to have read it – it feels like a necessary slice of urban life that we need to be aware of – and I read it quite quickly, but it left me feeling there is not much hope for any of the characters involved.
Europa Editions is an independent publisher of quality fiction in translation (I am particularly in love with their Europa World Noir series), so I can link my review once again to the #ReadIndies initiative.