Who Killed My Father by Édouard Louis review – dangerous masculinity

The French literary phenomenon focuses on his father’s story, in an exploration of different forms of machismo

There is a kind of privilege that consists of being more or less unaffected by politics. This, the French literary phenomenon Édouard Louis writes, “is what separates some populations, whose lives are supported, nurtured, protected, from other populations, who are exposed to death, to persecution, to murder”. Like his previous books The End of Eddy and History of Violence, this short work tackles the intersections of class, gender and sexuality in contemporary France, but instead of relating his own experiences, Louis gives voice to the way the cruel, crude hegemony of masculinity has essentially destroyed his father’s life, making him “as much a victim of the violence” he inflicted as of the violence he endured.

The body politic has, as ever, an unrelenting impact on the bodies of the poor. The question of the title, Who Killed My Father?, is not to be taken literally; Louis’s father is disabled but alive, having been injured at the factory where he worked until 2000. He was left barely able to walk, dependent on a machine to help him breathe, which led to obesity, diabetes, high cholesterol and a bad heart, and a ventral hernia, his belly having been “torn apart by its own weight, its own mass”. “You’re barely fifty years old,” Louis addresses his father. “You belong to the category of humans whom politics has doomed to an early death”. Through a non-chronological series of memories – fragments of his childhood concerning his father – Louis takes aim at the self-defeating masculine ethos of the place where he grew up, which led to the humiliations and abuses suffered in The End of Eddy. It includes a taste for violence, vengeance, the imperative not to do “effeminate” things like cry or take school seriously, not to take anything seriously that could improve his lot in life: as “far as I can tell, constructing your masculinity meant depriving yourself of any other life, any other future, any other prospect that school might have opened up. Your manhood condemned you to poverty, to lack of money. Hatred of homosexuality = poverty”.

But Louis also shows us a man who, despite being ashamed that his son wants a VHS of Titanic for his eighth birthday, nevertheless loves to sing along to Céline Dion in the car, who is moved to tears by a live opera broadcast on TV, who loved to dance in his youth, who laughs until he cries at his little son’s impression of an alien, who spends more money than he should buying his eight-year-old not only a copy of Titanic, but a coffee-table book about the film as well. With remarkable delicacy and understanding, Louis conveys the relationship between a father and a son whose love for each other is so fierce and so hard to assimilate to their experience of masculinity that it often can be mistaken for hatred.

Kwaku Mills and Alex Austin in The End of Eddy at The Studio, Edinburgh, 2018.
Kwaku Mills (left) and Alex Austin in The End of Eddy at The Studio, Edinburgh, 2018. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian

The careful, deliberate narrative reads as if Louis were testifying, or building a case for a jury in real time. For the crime of condemning his father to his current state Louis points his finger at the leaders of France who – though Louis doesn’t say it specifically – exert another, self-important form of machismo, the kind that comes with keeping other men down, by cutting housing benefits and increasing the work week, reducing unemployment assistance. From Jacques Chirac to Emmanuel Macron, Louis blames them for his father’s ills, for the misery that produced him and so many like him, men seen in the newspapers recently, demonstrating in the streets of Paris and other French cities, wearing gilets jaunes.

In an episode familiar from The End of Eddy, Louis has a go at exercising masculine power – making his mother pay for calling him a “disgrace” and a “faggot” by tattling to his father that she was giving his older brother money on the sly, against his express instructions. But in trying to get revenge on his mother, he ends up nearly killing his father. “I wasn’t innocent,” he writes, admitting his complicity in the cycle of violence. The effect is of a slightly older narrator than in The End of Eddy, one who has become increasingly politicised, who takes a philosophical, sociological view of events. Who Killed My Father reads like a hinge work between Louis’s early autobiographical fiction and the mature writing that is surely to come: perhaps a gilets jaunes Germinal for the 21st century.

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.


Lauren Elkin

The GuardianTramp

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