The troubling descent of Degorce
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.