Who Killed My Father by Édouard Louis review – a short, sharp shock

The latest book by The End of Eddy author is a bludgeoning critique of France’s treatment of its working class

Since the publication of The End of Eddy in 2014, Édouard Louis has assumed for himself the voice of the voiceless in his native France. His autobiographical novel, published when he was only 22, sold nearly half a million copies, was translated into 20 languages, and was hailed as an authentic insider’s story of that demonised demographic, the provincial poor, living on minimum wages and diminishing benefits, instinctively homophobic and reflexively racist. Louis, bullied at home and at school for being effeminate and gay, wrote neither to condemn those attitudes nor to exonerate them. He rather claimed them as his birthright – they were the brutalised opinions of his father and brothers. He placed the blame for them, however, squarely on the post-industrial despair in which families like his own had been required to exist – and, moreover, on the remote political class that had systematically denied dignity to a generation of low-paid men and women.

This book, published in France more than a year ago, is a short, sharp shock of a coda to that novel, which ended when the author/narrator changed his name, moved away from the small town he grew up in and went off to study philosophy in Paris. It is written as a long letter from Louis to his father, the figure who remains his inarticulate muse – drunk and obese and mostly housebound after the industrial accident that crushed his spine and his spirit, and left him unable to care for his wife and seven children. The author does not so much put words into his old man’s mouth as seek to find some hard-won common ground with him. It is a kind of love letter, but one that admits only the bluntest truths: “One night, in the village cafe, you said in front of everyone that you wished you’d had another son instead of me. For weeks I wanted to die.” And, a question that goes both ways: “Is it normal to be ashamed of loving someone?”

In short, intense bursts of prose Louis unpacks the reality of that shame, by examining over and again the sources of it in what has gone on between himself and his father. In particular, he captures the gap in self-knowledge between them in sentences that narrow in, Beckett-like, on the texture of the life he left behind near Abbeville in northern France: “Nothing was unexpected any more because you no longer had any expectations, nothing was violent because violence wasn’t what you called it, you called it life, you didn’t call it, it was there, it was.”

Louis clings to straws of shared experience. He will write: “When you’d had too much to drink, you’d lower your eyes and say that no matter what you loved me, that you didn’t know why you were so violent the rest of the time.” Or: “You cried when the twin towers collapsed.” Or: “You used to rub your hands together before you ate.” Or: “When I bought sweets at the village bakery, you’d take one from the bag with a little guilty look, and you’d say: ‘Don’t tell your mother!’ All of a sudden you were the same age as me.” It is precious little on which to build the story of a filial relationship, but it has to suffice.

Having established these few strands of connection, Louis names and shames those successive presidents and their ideologies that have stripped hope from his father, and left the family so threadbare: Jacques Chirac, who “destroyed your intestines” by withdrawing subsidy for medications for chronic conditions; Nicolas Sarkozy, who skewered his father’s self-worth first with a campaign against “les assistés” (the “skivers” and “scroungers” of the austerity lexicon) and who then “incentivised” him back to work as a street sweeper after his disability benefits were cut; François Hollande, who relaxed regulation to allow employers to extend his father’s hours; and finally Emmanuel Macron, who reduced housing subsidy by a critical five euros a week, while reducing taxes on the rich.

Not surprisingly, Louis has, in recent months, been canvassed for his views on the gilets jaunes who share much of this analysis of recent French political history. In his longest reply to those requests, he wrote that when he watched the protests on TV, the faces and bodies looked like “the bodies of my family”, hence the fact that he “felt personally targeted by the scorn and violence of the bourgeoisie who immediately fell on this movement. Because, in me, for me, every person who insulted a yellow vest insulted my father.”

The sentiments in that response, and in this small book, are not straightforwardly persuasive, and they offer few interesting answers. Louis sacrifices some of the nuance of his first novel for a more bludgeoning polemical directness. The result, even so, speaks with an emotional authenticity and a stylistic confidence that is hard to ignore.

• Who Killed My Father by Édouard Louis (translated by Lorin Stein) is published by Harvill Secker (£10.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99

Contributor

Tim Adams

The GuardianTramp

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