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“The Elephant of Liers”

SKIRTING THE ISSUE
French literature out of touch with social realities.

Patrick Erouart-Siad

I

8Last fall, I spent a few weeks traveling in the suburbs of Paris during the season the French call the “rentrée littéraire”: the annual flurry of publishing that leads up to the season’s prestigious and lucrative literary prizes. While in the city, as French publishers and their marketing departments jockeyed for position in the prize sweepstakes, I rode the suburban train network recently rechristened the “Transilien” in an effort to counter the notoriously negative image of the Parisian suburbs. I wanted to “read” the suburbs in light of the books of the “rentrée litteraire” and to read the novels of the literary season in the light of the reality of the French suburbs. I wanted to interrogate, in juxtaposition, two poles of my country’s consciousness: one, the incredibly prolific publishing world where literature is inextricable from the national honor; the other, the “banlieu de Paris,” an area whose name itself contains exile and rejection (“lieu,” place; of “ban,” banishment). De Gaulle once said that there is a two-thousand-year-old dependence of the very “liberty of the world” upon France’s grandeur. I wanted to know where, today, is the “grandeur” to be found in the banlieue and in the books of the rentrée?

II

Every autumn it’s the same story: there are too many novels published in France during the rentrée littéraire. In no other country in the world are so many novels published in such a short time: by this past November 663 novels had already landed in French bookstores, all vying for attention from the judges of the Prix Medici, the Femina, the December Prize, and of course the Goncourt, which celebrates its centenary in 2003 as the highest literary honor in the nation.

In this country where literature is held nearly sacrosanct even the national train service has a celebration of the literary season. For two days in October the Gare de l’Est was filled with actors, writers, artists, athletes, and political figures for a reading of The 1,001 Arabian Nights, an enormous celebration generously financed by the Ministry of Culture.

The setting is apt, because every day tens of thousands of French citizens travel through the Paris train stations from the famous suburbs to work, and they return again at night. The Parisian suburbs are a mosaic of highly diverse socioprofessional and urban realities. Some neighborhoods are collections of housing developments, largely populated by impoverished North African and sub-Saharan immigrants, with the full spectrum of intractable inner-city problems; others, like Bourg-la-Reine, Choisy-le-Roi, Saint Denis Basilique, Jouy-en-Josas, and Bures-sur-Yvette, can be as expensive as Paris. Still they suffer from the same bad rap as the projects of the “bad” banlieues.

All 2,200 communities surrounding Paris are united with the capital city by a series of high-speed, impeccably maintained trains and beautiful stations—user friendly, with perfect signage and canned music. There is a strange parallel between the Transilien and the literary season. Books are means of transport: to read is, in a way, to travel after all. And both present France’s view of France at its best: a scintillating, vibrant literary culture on one hand; a technologically advanced, well-working cosmopolis on the other.

But the reality of France is quite different from either. This past fall the sociological review Cités succinctly listed eleven “demons” eating at the social fabric of France: exceptionalism, the sense that France, unique in everything from wine to human rights, follows only its own rules; revolution, the troubling dependence on radical activism in place of more constructive political engagement; paternalism; monarchism; the national obsession with rank and honors (such as literary prizes); populism; the rise of the extreme right; anti-Americanism; the media; moralism; and last but not least, anti-Semitism.

Eight months after the shocking French election that saw the rise of the notorious extreme-right-winger Jean-Marie Le Pen and which marked the end of years of progressive socialism under Lionel Jospin, the democratic vitality of France is in question as never before. This is a country that no longer knows how to define itself in relation to Europe, to find its place in the global reality, or to handle the deeply divisive national issue of immigration.

Nowhere are the cultural and political realities of France better summed up than in its Parisian suburbs: the Transilien is in this sense a tour of all of France’s demons, from impoverished housing developments to Disney World France to the elegant suburban homes of French CEOs. Of the 663 novels published last fall, do any come to grips with the demons and the realities of the country?

*  *  *

I begin my tour of the suburbs from Nation, the central Paris Transilien station. Right away, on the platform waiting for my train, I am approached by a young “Beur,” easily recognizable as a first generation French child of North African parents. (Paris slang reverses, often several times, the syllables of a word and distorts its vowels, therefore: Arab becomes raba, which becomes rebeu, which becomes, in turn, Beur.) It was an apt introduction: the suburbs house millions of North African immigrants, who came to France in the sixties after the war of Algerian independence, when the economy of France was in full bloom. The young man wanted to know if on my way in I had noticed whether police were checking whether exiting passengers had valid tickets. When I tell him they indeed were, he disappears again into the station to wait until the coast is clear and he can leave the station without being fined or arrested for ticketless travel.

I board the train, and as I am carried quickly toward Marne la Vallée I find myself in a world of perfect European good taste. The station is brightly colored and pleasant; the calming world-music of Youssou Ndour fills the air, a music that Senegalese immigrants brought with them in the eighties and which—like other immigrant influences in popular French culture—is mainstream enough today to be played from the loudspeakers of the Transilien.

However, Christine Angot’s novel Why Brazil, which I open in my “reading compartment” of the train, makes me sit up quickly despite its rather sluggish opening: “I was so exhausted, so thoroughly drained, that I had found I had to organize my life in function of my physical well being alone. And that I had to avoid everything else, which is to say in particular, love.” It’s one of the biggest novels of the season, so big that I was able to buy it at a supermarket display—none of the “shelf-space” problems for Angot that so many contemporary novels face.

“No one wanted to know anyone else; they weren’t attracted to each other, they were empty. Intelligent, quick, but empty.” Reading Angot’s lucid prose on the way to Disneyworld France produces an emotional intensity that catalyzes one’s mind. Angot brings the reader to the here and now, to the heart of a French mental countryside; pitiless, perhaps, but immediate and unambiguous. There is no plot in Angot outside the plot of her own life. “I was sick of selling the events of my own life.” It is a feverish self-fictionalization that documents not only the real violent paternal incest of her experience, but also her real love affair with Pierre Louis Rozines, a real journalist from the publishing trade rag Books Weekly who appears in the book as a character.

“It was the end of August; the beginning of the ‘rentrée littéraire.’ The papers went on endlessly about the ‘rentrée,’ about the books being published, but there wasn’t a word—not a single damn word—about the effort, the enormous effort that was behind it all. Nothing.”

Reading Angot, we move back and forth between fine descriptions and narcissistic self-indulgence. We are in the middle of the Parisian literary world, described by a celebrated writer who, like Angot, is a single mother of a daughter just arrived from her home in the provincial city of Montpellier. The title is a reference to Angot’s father—the father of the incest theme. It’s the beginning of a letter from him to his daughter: “Why Brazil? Perhaps because it is a country whose wealth is in the future, like you to whom the entire world is destined to belong.”

Why Brazil is a book for the age of reality TV and morning talk shows, and it is astounding at first for its exposure, its refusal to respect literary precedent, and the joy it takes in opening wounds. Soon, however, it becomes exhausting to me. Angot is everywhere, using and abusing the season’s opportunities for self-promotion. After a while it becomes impossible to distinguish between the book’s dimensions as literature and as self-promotion, an all-too-contemporary use of the media. By the end of my train ride I was afraid of dying from an overdose of narcissism.

III

Outside the window of my train stands the voiceless France of the banlieue. A high gray sky spreads all the way from Paris, dropping a thick fog over Val Fontenay as we approach. This, “the place of the ban,” does not look like the narcissistic world of Angot’s acclaimed fiction; France appears to me more like the backhoe I see through the train window in a construction site, suspended for the night from a crane so it can’t be stolen, swinging helplessly in the air like an oversized, abandoned toy.

In Torcy, four Asian adolescents—Vietnamese, perhaps—climb from another impeccably maintained station into the car. But unlike the Beur, the Arab boy hunting for an escape from the Paris train station, these four are a veritable poster for the ideal of integration as they laugh and chat happily in French, schoolbook editions of Camus under their arms. Looking up from Angot’s world, a portrait of herself as “an exhausted earth, an empty well,” I wonder: could suburban children like these be the antidote to her bleak vision? They are the new France after all, full of energy and optimism. For a little while my heart lifts. We pass through some real French countryside, tractors busily working the sugar-beet fields. But at the next station, Bussy-Saint-George, the bulldozers and cranes are already at work and fields of concrete quickly replace farmland. Soon the children in the train are shouting in all the languages of Europe, greeting the two big Mickey Mouse ears that wave to us from above the ancient water tower of Marne-la-Vallee at the “Parc Disneyland” station. And the sugar-beet fields all around, I know, will soon be transformed, each in their turn, into part of this El Dorado.

The next stop is Lognes le Mandinet, a pretty little suburb of wooden houses that seem to have sprung right up out of the ground. A young telecommunications executive with the aristocratic French name of “Mederic” climbs into the train. “Everyone knows that the building materials here are just façade,” he tells me. “Nothing lasts. There’s no more traditional building in stone. But Disneyland has transformed the rich farmland around here into a developer’s dream. So they offer the American Dream, and it works.”

IV

Olivier Rolin’s Paper Tiger failed to win any of the prestigious prizes. His book takes place during the night, in a car orbiting the “periphérique,” the beltway circling Paris: a “roadway glistening into the night, golden black between Bobigny, Lille, Bruxelles, Porte de Bangolet—the black towers of the gateways to Paris losing their peaks in the fog.” A generational story, Paper Tiger tells of the fabled period at the end of the sixties when it was still possible to believe in the Revolution, that fundamental French ideal now reduced to one of the demons listed by Cités. Jazzy and innovative, Rolin writes in the second-person singular—“You lived over there, on the right, in the black night, at the top of this street.” Paper Tiger, writes Rolin, is “a story told by a guy to his best friend’s daughter; a story of the time when Imperialists were paper tigers, China was Red forever, Che was greater dead than alive, and the Internationale was to be the future of humanity.”

Rolin has informed his text with all the enthusiasm of the epoch. But like an overwhelming number of the season’s books, it tells a story about France’s past, not its present. Still, it’s the immediate past this time, the period of his—and my—childhood, and Rolin’s dazzling prose brings it to immediate life. He burrows deep, like a worm into a piece of fruit, into Cité’s demon of Revolution, having been there for the real thing: Rolin belonged to the secret leadership of a revolutionary party. His book is very free with its subject and gives him room for all his stylistic audacity, which is perhaps what cost him a chance at a prize. But after all, aren’t the same class enemies of his book the same people who officiate at the literary High Mass of the “rentrée”?

If Rolin’s France has nothing to do with the reality around me, no more so does Anne F. Garréta’s Not One Day, a book composed of twelve nights. In twelve chapters, Garréta gives herself over to a thorough examination of her desires, her “proclivities,” as she is pleased to describe her homosexuality.

Winner of the prestigious Prix Medici, this is an intensely sophisticated book in which twelve women, over twelve nights, confront a single narrator. Garréta, as singular as her narrator, is a member of the literary group Ouilipo, founded by Raymond Queneau. And yet aside from the structure of twelve nights and not one day that gives the book its title—as well as the discipline of the book’s conceit in which the narrator spends five hours each day in front of her computer in order to sidestep the selectiveness of her failing memory, she avoids all the mathematical formalism associated with Oulipo.

Garréta follows her desire wherever it goes, and the thirteenth woman in her book—the narrator herself—plays on the border of autobiography. She achieves distance from her narrator—like Rolin—with the second-person-singular voice. But unlike Rolin, Garréta’s narrator will never be politically correct. Rolin’s revolutionary heroes have long been absorbed by the political establishment or relegated to marginality; in either case they no longer exist as they were. Garréta’s France, however, like her style, is an abstract projection in which real-life people are brilliantly if cruelly deconstructed without any sentimentality whatsoever.

We are in a rarefied world where failing memory brings up fragments of the past that can be more or less gripping. Garréta is able to avoid the shopworn clichés of homosexuality and to bring us poor, reading travelers of the endless suburbs as close as possible to the most irrational drives.

V

Blood, desire, voluptuousness, vice and hell: reading Garréta on my Transilien I had totally forgotten the cannibalism of Paris itself. The City of Light has never been kind to its suburbs, as if afraid to have a shadow cast on its greatness, as if the myth of Paris is only satisfied by denuding the suburbs of any positive image.

The Museum of Nogent-sur-Marne, right nearby, refreshes my memory with an exhibit on Paris’s growth during the annexations of 1860, annexations that lie at the heart of the identity of the contemporary Paris suburbs. All of a sudden the capital was enlarged by decree from twelve to twenty arrondissements, by absorbing the outlying neighborhoods. In the same way, Paris pushed beyond the fortified walls of Thiers, absorbing a military zone that, off-limits to buildings, was given over to vagabonds and rag-collectors, living in cabins and caravans, in an atmosphere of fear and discomfort. During the second half of the nineteenth century these “zoniers,” as were called the inhabitants of the “zone,” were the last avatar of Paris’s rejects.

“Historically and etymologically,” the museum catalog explains, “the suburbs have always been the place where the rejects of Paris are sent. Protestants to Charenton, incurable patients to Ivry, the dead to Pantin, and society’s dregs to the Hospital of Bicetre.”

Amélie Nothomb’s new book, The Dictionary of Proper Names, is a departure from her earlier work. “I try to balance on the border between sense and the purest insanity,” she told Le Monde. “The books that I don’t publish, for the most part, are those where I lose my balance.” But this fall, in the middle of France’s crisis of values, her Dictionary of Proper Names was published by Albin Michel to an astounding mainstream readership. Her well-mannered prose, her clear and accomplished style, her aristocratic culture of a bygone day (Nothomb is the daughter of a Belgian diplomat)—perhaps this is why she has touched such a large audience in France, nostalgic for a time when French literature was preeminent among the arts and in the world.

On my Transilien I try once again to understand the mystery of bookselling. But this Dictionary of Proper Names is beyond my comprehension. Northomb’s 2002 entry is enough to put me to sleep. But her trademark eccentricity, it seems, sells. This young woman, like Angot, is a virtuoso performer. The Dictionary of Proper Names is the story of an extraordinary child baptized Plectrude by a mother with a taste for the medieval, who then disappears completely. Plectrude ends up as a female vocalist called Robert—the name of a popular series of dictionaries in France, of which one is Robert’s Dictionary of Proper Names. Robert, in turn, will end up assassinating . . . Nothomb. We were warned about this by the jacket copy, in which Nothomb explained that she was going to recount the history of her own murder. Note to gossip columnists: Nothomb lives with a female vocalist called Robert. This interplay with reality is meant to function as one of the book’s draws, but I for one could not consider it among the more impressive experiences of my suburban reading. There’s nothing of interest in this shabby book, really an overstuffed novella filled with meaningless dialogue. I’ll have either to wait until next year’s rentrée for the next uneven entry by the eccentric Nothomb, or else for the arrival in record stores of the new CD by the female vocalist called Robert, for which the “dictionary,” in fact, is nothing more than an advertisement!

Not far from Kremlin Bicetre and Villejuif I open the winner of the 2001 Prix Goncourt, Pascal Quignard’s The Wandering Shadows. I’d chosen this book before the prize ceremony, hooked by the cover copy: “When one reads, one waits, without any object. To read is to wander; and reading is wandering. Beware of wandering knights, and beware of novelists!” Thinking about these words I lift my head and see opposite me a pretty blond girl who is also reading. Her name is Dorothée, she is nineteen, and the book she toils over is by a Japanese author and was assigned by her nursing school. Outside, on the stone facades of suburban houses, wild grapes are turning the rusty hues of fall and losing their leaves. France is, I think to myself, still a country where nursing students are required to read literature.

The Wandering Shadows is a demanding book that moves from Rome in the fifth century to Japan in 1933 and back to 470 under the reign of the last Roman king, Syagrius. It’s a sort of dive into the historical collective consciousness, a series of long prose poems more than a real novel. Adding to the complexity is the fact that it’s part of a longer series called The Wandering Shadows. But to my taste, the classification of the book—poetry, series—is of no importance; what matters is the charm of this amazing work. It’s a miracle that a book of such inspiration has reached such a large readership; it nearly justifies the literary prize system in France and the sacrosanct “rentrée.” In the seventh chapter, called “The Nursing Baby,” we are brought into religious mysteries of the fourth century. A nun, the washerwoman of her convent, declares that she is pregnant with the child of Saint Brice, long after he had become bishop of Tours. In a few pages, Quignard has brought us deep into the arcane corners of our Western unconsciousness. It’s a universe of blood and of terror, of miracles and visions, of lies and myths that lack little, if anything, of the worst excesses of the modern world.

Then the crowd turned against the babe’s mother. They laid bare the breasts of the religious washerwoman. A young man cut them off. That done, the woman’s body was not only covered with blood, but with milk, also, because she was still nursing her 30-day-old child. The nun was stoned to death by the Tourangeaux to punish her for her lie.

But Quignard was violently taken to task in the newspapers not for violence but for elitism. “The 2002 Goncourt symbolizes a literature in ruins,” said an op-ed piece in the leftist daily Libération. “A prize given to rubbish . . . to bits and pieces, ashes, to a wandering shadow of those we once admired . . .” It was an enormous indignity for a demanding, erudite author like Quignard. In fact, he was being blamed less for his writing than for the marketing strategies of his publisher, Grasset, who got him the prize by playing the politics of the season to perfection.

But The Wandering Shadows doesn’t pretend to possess a drawing-room erudition. Yes, the historical context is drawn with precision; Latin quotations defy critics and statistics are verifiable (“From the beginning of the First World War to the end of the second, 70,000,000 humans were massacred”), but the tone of the book leads us into what is properly the territory of poetry. Reading Quignard I feel like the girl I met on the Transilien, Dorothée,who said, “I like to read with all these people around me. In my room, when I read, I feel too lonely.” In chapter 45 Quignard even takes us into a suburb, during a dream, with a reference to Drancy, from which Parisian Jews were deported. He is walking on a street, his face to the ground, and is violently attacked from behind. The attacker steals his wallet. An old woman, rushing to help him, asks if he’d like to call the police.

“Absolutely not!” I murmured, suddenly panicked.

“Why?” Asked the old woman.

In my dream, I cried. I said: “I don’t want to be taken to Drancy.”

While the train stops at Antony, I read on the bottom of page 21: “We live once again in 1571. The suburbs are haunted by religious war. Democracy is a ferocious protestant religion. Islam is a terrible sexual religion.” This comes closer than I’ve seen so far to articulating the reality around me to the literature of the Paris salons. Syagrius, decapitated by Clovis—the King of the Francs—asked, dying: “Where are the shadows?” These are the wandering shadows of Quignard’s mysterious title: the shadows of yesterday and those of today.

VI

This autumn the brute reality of the Parisian suburbs is the equal of those “wandering shadows.” In the beginning of October a seventeen-year-old “Beur,” Sohane, was burned alive in Vitry-sur-Seine by a boy with whom she had quarreled. The mayor of Paris was stabbed that same weekend by a man called Azedine Berkane, a psychiatric patient from the suburbs. Nanterre, in the eastern suburbs, echoed with gunfire just before the elections: nine municipal administrators were shot dead by a madman. . . . Is this just coincidence or the symptoms of a bona fide societal malaise?

The suburb in which I passed my childhood in the fifties was still a French village. As a child I would go with my friends to the little woods at Montjean, across fields of wheat as evocative as a Van Gogh. But suburban sprawl quickly took over our little forest and our fields and enclosed my school in a zone of discount chain stores, many franchises of American businesses: Staples and Office Depot, among others.

By my adolescence this countryside was already spoiled. And for me, as for adolescents everywhere in the suburbs, boredom was my predominant experience, a given of life. The only escape was to the boulevards of Saint Michel or Saint Germain, the other end of the Transilien, in Paris, and there was nothing we wouldn’t do to get away from the suffocation of our suburb. And today?

Toward the end of my tour, I came to visit the College Charcot of my childhood. Not far from the entrance I found four boys, Mamadou, Samir, Norredine, and Bilal, sitting on a low retaining wall on which was inscribed “Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity.” They greet me at first with the ferocious expressions of all urban children, so much so that I begin to suspect my own motives: am I just another voyeuristic Parisian on suburban safari? Around me mill black and Arab children, aimless and unenthusiastic, vividly reminding me of the physical sensations of adolescent boredom: the feeling of weight on the neck, on the spine. Automatically I find myself bending my back. It’s a beautiful day but the skies may as well be weeping. On my way here I passed by a chain restaurant, “Buffalo Grill,” with a fake totem pole and a massive set of bison horns on the front door. Urban sprawl has no soul. And all this, here, right next to the Parc de Sceaux, perhaps the most sly and beautiful piece of landscaping anywhere in France, done by Le Notre for Louis XIV. Another cunning corruption of the suburbs by creeping Americanization, as at Disneyland Paris?

Bilal is the first to open up when I explain what I’m doing here. Right away, the conversation turns shamelessly consumerist. “How much were those Nikes, Monsieur? And your jacket?” Bilal knows all the American brands. When I tell him the prices—at least, what I think may have been the prices—I realize to my shame that I’m acting here as an ambassador for Americanization. But he is impressed nearly beyond words. “I swear, I am so totally going to the States!” The same old story: France’s love/hate relationship with America.

“We’re all afraid of America.” Amadou speaks in a sullen tone. “Especially Colin Powell. That guy wants war!” But these young folk in the suburbs are in general more consumers than critics when it comes to American capitalism. They tell me about a local hip-hop group who have a new CD: “It’s pure Bronx, Monsieur, I swear.” His accent on the word “Bronx” gives you a sense of how deeply engrained is America, not as a culture but as a brand, and not only in his adolescent’s suburban universe but in his very identity.

The role models for these young people aren’t Bin Laden or al Qaeda but the rappers of New York and Los Angeles: so far, the fundamentalists have failed to provide a draw as strong as Eminem. And without any doubt the violence of hip-hop permeates this place. “When I hear the word suburb,” says a piece of local graffiti, “I take out my stun gun”—echoing not only Goering’s dictum but, here in France, also Godard’s American film producer in Contempt: “When I hear the word culture I take out my checkbook.”

On the news tonight is a report that the secret services are surrounding an apartment building in the suburb of Seine-Saint-Denis, tracking a member of al Qaeda. Similar actions are taking place in Clichy-sous-Bois. After all, Zacarias Moussaoui came from the suburbs—from Beziers. All of the social problems of our time are present here: Islamic destabilization in Algeria, sub-Saharan poverty, global terrorism. In sociological terms, all the senses of the word banlieue are here, in greater or lesser degree, including the other etymological meaning of “lieu de ban”: the place at the limit of a king’s authority.

So here is the reality of an enormous, key population of the the cultural heartland of France, and yet by the end of my tour of the rentrée I had to conclude that it is a reality reflected nowhere in the season’s literary offerings. In these six-hundred-odd books one is far more likely to find the word king or queen than Transilien. The books celebrated by the prizes have taken refuge in history. Even for Rolin, the years of Maoism seem like halcyon days, seen from today.

In Chantal Thomas’s Farewells to the Queen, which took the Femina Prize, we are transported to Vienna in 1810, a city ruined and humiliated by Napoleon. An erudite, knowing novelist, Thomas is fascinated by the last hours of Versailles and the singular, touching beauty of Marie Antoinette and the world she created: an elegant and opulent world, narrated to us by the young Queen’s tutor. I opened this book while my Transilien approached the majestic suburban city of Saint-Germain-en-Laye. A late-autumn storm shoved heavy gray clouds across the sky and into the distance. Then it started to pour. In the Parc de Saint-Germain-en-Laye a golden plaque on the castle announces that this is the birthplace of Louis XIV. Even in its suburbs France is forever chasing past grandeur.

But it is only at Mantes-la-Jolie that I come across a really royal piece of writing: Pierre Michon’s The King’s Body. Next to me a traveler is reading another Michon, Abbeys, which shared with The King’s Body the December Prize. Since the appearance in 1980 of Little Lives, which told the story of how Michon became a writer and which became a cult success, Michon has enjoyed a faithful public and the recognition of his peers. But never before his double win in 2002 has he won a prize—although the 30,000 euros of the December Prize will do a lot to fix this.

The Rouen-Yonville coach, in Madame Bovary, is called “l’hirondelle,” the Swallow. The coachman is called Hivert. Hiver means winter, and winter is ushered in by the swallow. And so it goes. The sun brings in the night, rivers run toward their source, and to see clearly is to go blind. . . .

Michon’s novel is populated by the kings of literature: Beckett, Faulkner, Flaubert, Joyce . . . and its style is equal to its characters: this is an irresistible book; as monumental as Saint-Germain-en-Laye; as subversive as Mantes-la-Jolie—the combination that makes literature grand. It wins my Transilien Prize for 2002.

Michon also quotes in the novel the American historian James McPherson, saying that when a soldier in the Civil War saw action for the first time, it was said that “He has seen the elephant.”

Michon writes that Faulkner wanted passionately to see the elephant. But Faulkner was, “as were many others, violently, and perhaps principally, an imposter: we know today that his experience [during World War One] as a pilot was limited to a few practice flights in Canada, and the war was over before his squadron had a chance to go see the elephant in the sky above Verdun.”

VII

I, however, do get to see, if not the, at least an elephant.

In the middle of the ancient hamlet of Liers, to be precise.

I find myself standing perplexed in front of a bar—The Elephant Bar, where stands a four-ton mass of pachyderm. What, in God’s name, is a statue of an elephant doing in the middle of this suburban desolation, standing as if in the middle of Pierre Michon’s phrase?

The day before, Catherine Sultan, a distinguished judge in the Evry family court, eloquently described her world of adolescents in crisis, runaways, impoverished parents, the existences of people here, precarious in so many different ways, the violence: “In political terms, I have never been as worried as I am now. I simply don’t know how to do my job. I cannot continue to condemn children to prison just because they’re left alone all day with nothing to do.”

“Lately,” writes Sylvain Gire in Johnny Died, which I read on the Transilien and liked a lot because of the generosity of his points of view, for once so modern and close to the reality of France today, “most of the women I like are single mothers of mixed-race children. Am I to deduce something from this? No, thanks: I’d rather not. In this life, it’s all too easy to behave like a tourist in a foreign land, making hasty conclusions, generalizing from insufficient evidence.”

Gire’s irony hits its mark every time in this masterful first novel composed of a series of short stories. He fashions his fiction from a malicious primary material, a street-smart awareness and fluid understanding of relations that could well come from the suburbs of Paris.

And what am I to conclude now, in front of this massive elephant in the middle of nowhere? Shall I, like Gire, attempt a tourist’s conclusion about the suburbs?

Perhaps instead I should talk to the elephant about my experiences touring the suburbs of Paris and the literary season of France. I could tell it that there is hope. That the average print run of novels in France is going up. That books have been selling well in France over the past two years. That here, in the middle of this suburb, art is more relevant than ever, more joyful, more important,because it creates history in an ever-more-confused world. In this world without name other books, films, works of art will come to give form to the unexpressed desires of the suburbs, even if the 2002 rentrée littéraire was so mute.

Or I can tell it another story. I could say that the 2002 rentrée littéraire has abandoned it, ignored it, and did so to its own shame. Literature has many roles and many responsibilities, and one is to reflect and explore what is. The novel, said Flaubert, “is a mirror being carried along a road,” and from Beckett to Le Clezio fiction has continually reinvented its role as a commentator on reality. Now, French fiction ignores the reality of the complex world in which it exists at its peril. It cannot leave fallow these vast areas, the vast social complexity outlying the borders of Paris. That’s like inviting the elephant into a china shop. It does too much damage.

The elephant of Liers is a public trust.

They say that, from time to time, it even turns pink.

Pink as certain elephants can turn when you’ve spent too much time in the Elephant Bar, and you have just the time to run, as fast as you can, to catch the last Transilien home. <

Patrick Erouart-Siad is a journalist and novelist living in New York. His article on Somaliland recently appeared in Geo. He is working on his fourth novel about the Horn of Africa.

Originally published in the February/March 2003 issue of Boston Review



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