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.