The troubling descent of Degorce
FICTION: Where I left my Soul, by Jérôme Ferrari, translated by Geoffrey Strachan, MacLehose Press, 158pp, £12
All notions of decency have been lost by a group of soldiers based in Algeria. The French are aware their colonial empire is coming to an end, yet while they still have power they will use it against the rebels battling for independence. As elegant as a knife blade and as deadly, this shocking and magnificent novella explores the evil men do. It is a descent into hell for the victims but even worse for the survivors.
Set over three days in 1957, the action centres on three men caught up in a deranged love triangle that is not at all concerned with sex, only perverted affection.
In this, his fourth book and the first to be translated into English, the Parisian-born Corsican writer Jérôme Ferrari, a professor of philosophy, balances logic and poetry with an unnerving grasp of the ways humans fail each other and, most of all, themselves. There is an almost balletic grace about the essential obscenity of it.
Lieutenant Andreani addresses his superior, Capitaine Degorce, with the tender fury of a jilted lover. Ferrari, who won the Prix Goncourt last week with a new novel, yet to be translated, makes effective use of this calm, depraved character, who is reminiscent of Clamence, the narrator of Albert Camus’s La Chute (1956). Andreani is bluntly laconic and detached. He quickly establishes both the tone and the mood of what proves a disturbing two-way narrative. The lieutenant strolls in and out of the action, easing the narrative along between the remarkable third-person sequences in which the gradual disintegration of the righteous Degorce is described through flashbacks and his own dawning realisations.
Degorce wishes to believe that he is still the young idealist and talented mathematician who became caught up in the second World War. Tortured by the Nazis and imprisoned in Buchenwald, he would, on release, choose a military career, intending to right the wrongs he had suffered.
Ferrari’s approach is that of a trained philosopher, but he never loses the storyteller’s impulse. It is a Faustian tale, if one caught up in historical realities.
The personal is never far away. Andreani, a nihilistic truth-teller who could have easily featured in a 19th-century Russian novel or in a 20th-century French existentialist tract, ensures that no one, particularly the tormented Degorce, forgets the squalid truths. “You may perhaps remember that little student from a seminary,” he says, “a conscript some stupid pen-pusher who knew nothing about our mission had assigned to me as an assistant, a religious zealot, like you, afflicted with a sensitive soul, but a genuinely sensitive one, very much more innocent and honest than yours.”
Andreani’s gleeful descriptions of the hapless seminarian become vital to the story; the terrified young man symbolises a fall from grace that is graphic and incredibly moving. His responses to what he sees are devastatingly poignant. In his evocation of innocence betrayed Ferrari avoids cliched sentimentality while sustaining a narrative constructed on set pieces, each more shocking in turn.