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.

Heart of darkness

Within pages of engaging with this harrowing, haunting performance, it is as if the reader becomes complicit in the horrors. Ferrari has absorbed the stark communal corruption of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1902), bringing with it more than a century’s worth of man’s crimes. The brutality of Guantánamo Bay seethes through the pages, yet Ferrari is as relentlessly alert to the individual story he wants to tell as he is to his message. If his intent is didactic moralism he conceals it well behind high art. It may be gruesome, but this dramatic novella is a work of alluring beauty.

In the troubled character of Degorce Ferrari has created a complex study of humanity on trial. Initially there is no doubt that he is a good man and one who has suffered. The capitaine – the gifted translator Geoffrey Strachan has retained the French version of the word throughout – is revolted by the soldiers’ viciously sexualised torture of a female prisoner. Degorce, who is married to an older woman who was widowed in an earlier war, is also a father to a daughter and to the child of his wife’s dead brother. Ferrari presents the capitaine as a thinking man who seeks comfort from his daily life in the Bible. Not surprisingly, an obvious parallel emerges, with Degorce appearing to adopt the convenient avoidance of responsibility perfected by Pilate, the procurator of Judea. Degorce, when he finally loses his soul, does so with appalling cruelty.

Into his vile routine enters a Christ figure, Tahar, a rebel leader of unusual serenity. Although himself guilty of many killings in the name of freedom, Tahar is calm, appearing blameless. He sits in his cell, waiting for the inevitable. Yet something in this man inspires an anxiety to please in the capitaine, who sets out to woo the prisoner. Degorce, having become unable to reply with any warmth to his wife’s letters, begins to experience an overwhelming love for Tahar. He seeks his approval, even insisting that the rebel’s shoes be returned to him. Tahar, significantly, does not put them back on. The ever-decreasing world of Degorce, and with it his moral vision, becomes devoted to the protection of Tahar, who can see beyond this: “In chess, I believe, there are situations where in the middle of the game one of the players understands that he can no longer win. Any possible move, any move at all, whatever he does, will only make his position more difficult.” It is a profound observation in an extraordinary work. Echoes of Tahar Ben Jelloun’s 2004 Impac-winning This Blinding Absence of Light track one’s reading of Where I Left My Soul. Yet this is praise, not criticism. Ferrari’s masterful narrative, shaped by a chilling wisdom, moves and unsettles in equal, unforgettable measure.

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