Prix Goncourt winner balances humour and horror: The Sermon of the Fall of Rome
Review: Jérôme Ferrari’s Corsican saga stretches across generations and draws on both history and human experience
Jérôme Ferrari: displays an unnerving grasp of the ways humans continually fail each other and themselves. Photograph: Jacques Demarthon/AFP/Getty Images
The Sermon of the Fall of Rome
Jérôme Ferrari, Translated by Geoffrey Strachan
It all begins with a man contemplating a photograph of long-dead family. The picture was taken in 1918. The date is important, as is every minor detail in this astute, cunning, brilliant narrative, to which the bewildered reader is advised to pay heed – and prepare for wonders.
The beauty of the opening sequence, with its seductive blend of ancient history and philosophy, sets the scene with such astonishing grace that it is easy to forget one is reading at all. Instead we are privy to a private ritual: “There was this photograph . . . which Marcel Antonetti would vainly persist in studying throughout his life, seeking to decode the enigma of the absence within it. In it his five brothers and sisters can be seen, posed with their mother. There is a milky whiteness all around them, with no sign either of ground or walls, and they seem to be floating like ghosts amid a strange mist that will soon swallow them up and make them disappear.”
Although the photograph was taken on a hot summer’s day before he was born, Marcel relives every moment of it, enduring the heat and reproaching his relatives for their indifference to him. He is furious with them all, even his absent father.
Having been captured early on, fighting in the Ardennes, Marcel’s father spent the war working in a salt mine in Lower Silesia. It was only after his father returned, his face burned by the salt, that Marcel was conceived. His childhood proved to be a battle against illness. Yet Marcel survived all the migraines, all the bouts of vomiting blood, remaining wary of excitement and always calm, even on the day he witnessed the first cyclist “anyone had ever seen passing through the village, hurtling down the road at top speed, the sides of his jacket flapping behind him like an oystercatcher’s wings”.
Marcel is angry, and this anger sustains both his character and this outstanding 2012 Prix Goncourt winner from Jérôme Ferrari, author of the magnificent Faustian morality tale Where I Left My Soul (2010; 2012), which was also translated by Geoffrey Strachan. So devastating is that earlier novel, his fourth – in which a group of French soldiers based in Algeria, aware that their power is coming to an end, conduct themselves with stark communal brutality – that it may seem Ferrari is moving away from its theme of the evil men do. He isn’t. This fifth work may not be quite as good, but it is still superb – and, technically, even more ambitious in the way it balances comedy and horror.
Ferrari, a Parisian-born Corsican who is now a professor of philosophy, counters logic with spellbinding images while displaying an unnerving grasp of the ways humans continually fail each other and themselves, whether as part of the community or privately. Although this novel observes a complicated family through three generations, it is also about the fall of empires, the Roman as much as the more recent French colonial power.
Strachan is to be praised for his tenacious representation of Ferrari’s baroque flourishes in lengthy passages, which at times appear merely ironic yet are charged with layers of meaning. Everything is relevant; Ferrari possesses frightening control. This is yet another of those European novels of ideas that reduce most current English-language fiction to pedestrian predictability by comparison.
The Corsican village in which Marcel festers in old age, doomed apparently to live forever, while his descendants go about their daily lives, revolves around the local bar. This is threatened when the previously dependable barmaid disappears, causing the owner to panic, as she has no desire to resume command.
Young Matthieu, the result of an unlawful coupling between Marcel’s abandoned son and his sister’s daughter, heads off to mainland France to study. He and his pal Libero, a somewhat more streetwise local, acquire university educations, yet on return from Paris their next move proves surprising. They decide to take on the bar, which has already proved too much for a succession of aspiring landlords.
The village sequences are lively, full of banter exchanged among typical locals, much of it laced with sexual innuendo, and a core group of characters is established, some of whom become central players. Suddenly Ferrari appears to have switched gear, and this narrative, which has the density and lively anecdotal quality of Latin American generational sagas, settles into comedy. The two graduates succeed where others have failed, and the bar not only recovers but becomes the heart of the local society for miles around.
Yet before this Ferrari has been cleverly leaving clues about the contrasting characters of the friends; Matthieu, slightly weary of his academic training, is emotionally adrift and weak, always ready to seek comfort as long as nothing is expected from him. His pal is more in control, or least aware of being inexperienced.
“Libero had had no intention of making the same mistakes as his hapless predecessors. He knew he was as lacking in expertise as Matthieu when it came to managing a bar but was confident that his local knowledge and a minimum of common sense would enable them to avoid another debacle. He spoke of the future like a visionary and Matthieu listened to him as if his were the voice of prophetic truth.”
Gradually the symbolism emerges; the bar is an empire, filled with happy workers and customers who construct their lives around it. For a while it is a bizarre Eden, and then corruption enters. Libero seizes his chance to get rid of the evil and plans an ambush. All the while a more dangerous sexual tension is building as loyalties shift.
In the midst of the contemporary strife, which ends in tragedy, Ferrari also incorporates a powerful flashback, in which he delves further into the personal story of Marcel. The vengeful ancient is seen as he once was, a young man in thrall to a beautiful and fantastically stupid girl whom he marries. Their fairy tale ends and he is left to endure his hell alone. Into this Ferrari reintroduces a glimpse of Capitaine André Degorce, the interrogator from Where I Left My Soul. The cross reference only adds to the ensemble study Ferrari has created in this stylistically mature new work.
All empires die, as St Augustine warned, and Ferrari makes inspired use of the great sermon from which this daring novel takes its title. History is the parallel text. Late in the narrative, he seems to be winding the story down towards what seems a passive conclusion: “There were no barbarian hordes. Not a single Vandal or Visigoth horseman. It was just that Libero no longer wanted to run the bar . . . he didn’t like what it had become. Matthieu felt as if he had been betrayed. What was he to do?”
It is all summed up in one enigmatic phrase: “The night when the world came to an end was tranquil.”
Blackly playful and serious, this is an earthy, philosophical tract drawing on history and human experience; the tiny hopes, the immense failures and, above all, the ambivalence. Ferrari pursues his story with the delicacy and skill of a musician reaching the final note.