on 11 May 2014
Jerome Ferrari is fairly unknown in Britain, despite having won the Prix Goncourt for his previous novel, 'The Sermon on the Fall of Rome'. This wonderful, perfectly translated novel deserves to change that. Despite its brevity (158 pages), 'Where I Left my Soul' tackles huge themes with subtlety, compassion and deep intelligence. How can a good person stay true to his morals in a bloody war? Which deserves more loyalty; universal principles of justice, or the men of flesh and blood who fight on your side? Does the hatred involved in war inevitably corrupt everyone involved? Is torture ever justified?
I read voraciously, but this is certainly in my top ten novels of all time. The contrast between the cynical, corrupted Andreani, with his skewed moral compass and burning hatred, and the idealistic, naive and divided Degorce is compelling. The disjunction is emphasized by the differing writing styles; Andreani's highly charged sense of personal grievance contrasts with Degorce's more impersonal journey into the heart of darkness.
This is certainly a dark book, focusing on the worm in man's soul which can shatter their integrity and destroy their life. It refuses to preach or judge, and has the confidence to allow the reader to make up their own mind about the characters. Although many of the events of the book are hideously cruel, the motivations of the twin protagaists are clearly and beautifully delineated.
Finally, a note on the translation. I have read a huge number of translated authors, and this is the most impressive I have ever come across. Geoffrey Strachan surpasses even Edith Grossman or Margaret Jull Costa (and that is some compliment). 'Where I Left my Soul' seems more elegantly and subtly written than most novels originally in English. Not only this, but the characters retain a French flavour to their speech.
This is one of those books that, if you stumble across it, you think how lucky you have been and begin to wonder how many other novels are out there like this, waiting to be discovered. This kind of book in the reason I read. If you love books then please, please buy this one. It might just light up your year.
on 13 March 2015
Jerome Ferrari – Where I left my soul
Not an easy book to read, both in terms of the content (painful and brutal at times) and style with first 16 pages pages without a break and much stream of consciousness writing. But it is also replete with poetic language and questioning of what it is to be human. Is goodness possible within a terrible brutal war – Algerian war of independence? 1957. How do you stay true to yourself?
Capitaine Degorce, naïve and driven, was interned at Buchenwald, captured by the Vietnamese, and is finally in Algiers as an interrogator. Tahar is captive commander of the unit Degorce is eliminating. Lieutenant Andreani, cynical and cruel is determined to see Tahar hanged. Unhinged, Degorce permits cruelty to replace the decency he so values. The torturer and the tortured are bound together. We see into their souls.
I would love to quote the last lines but it would give too much away.
A moving side account of his marriage to an older woman – she calls him ‘my child’.
A wonderful translation.
on 31 December 2014
The Algerian revolt against French rule (from 1954 until independence in 1962) has inspired a multitude of creative works attempting to come to terms with, expose, or simply explore the war’s impact on history, nations, and individuals, including Gillo Pontecorvo’s cinematic masterpiece “The Battle of Algiers.” The war was the occasion for so many tests of loyalty, identity, and character, and for so many searing and nearly unspeakable acts of brutality by all sides, that it will likely be a long time before it is exhausted as a troubling source of inspiration, a wound that may have scarred but has not healed, and which therefore cannot be forgotten. And this does not apply only to those who lived through it. Jérôme Ferrari was born six years after Algerian independence, but in the intensely personal relationship between captor and captive he has found inspiration for a deep and introspective novel that attempts to lay bare the heavy toll that the war levied on individuals, as well as on ideas of justice, beauty, and patriotism.
The story revolves around the experience of Capitaine André Degorce, who is tasked with dismantling an organization within the Algerian rebellion. Suspected rebels are arrested, and then tortured until they give up the names of other rebels, both Algerian and French. Though depictions of torture are few, it is the constant undercurrent. Degorce does not simply order others; he is himself a hands-on interrogator. But this is one off the fundamental sources of tension in the novel, because for all of his brutality as an interrogator, he is a cultured, introspective man who finds himself helpless in the face of the reality of war, duty, and the irresistible momentum of violence.
If you are not accustomed to (or are turned off by) stream-of-consciousness, you may have some difficulty persuading yourself to give this book a chance. But if you can get past the 16-page, single-paragraph first chapter, you’ll be into it. (It’s not quite James Joyce. At least it’s not all one sentence.) This style, containing the musings, recollections, complaints, and recriminations of one of Degorce’s comrades-in-arms, alternates with the story of the arrest, detention, and interrogation of Tahar, the leader of the violent organization that Degorce is tasked with eliminating. But Degorce is strangely drawn to Tahar, making him prefer his company and his conversation (such as it is) to that of his own men. The arrest of Tahar heightens Degorce’s introspective tendencies, and his captive and foe becomes the one person to whom he feels he can unburden himself, if only the irreducible imbalance in their status will allow it. These are two intelligent, thoughtful, violent men, but it is clear that Tahar is not the only captive. It is not that Capitaine Degorce is alienated from his duty; indeed, when he conducts an interrogation on someone other than Tahar, he seems to carry it out with enthusiasm, skill, and considerable violence. His duty compels him to gather intelligence by whatever means may yield results, and as a dutiful officer he does not question this necessity, despite the fact that he was himself a prisoner both at Buchenwald and in Vietnam after the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu.
Ferrari is a philosopher; his book is not light reading but it is powerful if you give it a chance. The title comes from Degorce’s increasingly desperate conviction that he has left his soul somewhere along the course of his life, and that if only he could retrace his steps, he might find it. But of course, there is no going back. And this is the great tragedy of Ferrari’s book. Degorce must look in the mirror and realize that he cannot claim that the man staring back at him—the man who would do the things he has done—is not himself, and yet “the possibility of beauty must be preserved, that was all that mattered, even though he himself must turn away from it and renounce the enjoyment of it” (p. 141). Ferrari suggests that events like the Algerian war give humankind the opportunity to “open its eyes in horror at itself” (p. 10), but he does not offer much reason to hope that we will find ways to prevent future horrors. But there is a deeper question than the frequency with which humans got to war with one another, with any number of stronger or weaker justifications. The strains, atrocities, and the hyper-reality of war may, in the end, simply be too much for a man to bear and still remain fully human. If that is the case, then perhaps war is not the natural state of man, since to believe otherwise would be to identify a creature inevitably and irresistibly at odds with itself. Such a being cannot survive.