11 October 2017

Sorj Chalandon: Profession du père (2015)

Sorj Chalandon's Profession du père is a staggering work, so powerful that indeed it would scarcely be possible to imagine it as a work of pure fiction, rather than a work of auto-fiction, the true blending in with the false. In some ways, too, it is in part a reprieve of Chalandon's La Légende de nos pères (2009), in which a ghost writer is asked to put words to his father's false experiences. In Profession du père, where the word 'profession' plays on the meaning of 'occupation' and that which is professed or claimed, lying also plays a central part. The back page blurb gives a strong indication of the content, which I translate:

'My father said that he had been a singer, footballer, judo teacher, parachutist, spy, pastor of a Pentecostal American church and personal advisor to General de Gaulle up to 1958. One day he told me that the General has betrayed him. His best friend had become his worst enemy. So my father announced that he was going to kill de Gaulle. And he asked me to help him.

'I had no choice.

'It was an order.

'I was proud.

'But I was scared too...

'At the age of 13, a gun is really heavy.'

In part, this book is really heavy too: a violent mythomaniac father – in fact a maniac tout court – tells his young son (in reality an amalgam of Chalandon and his brother) that he was been all of these things and more: he was a secret agent for the OAS, his American friend Ted (the narrator's godfather, so his story goes) was JFK's bodyguard, and he's angry if the narrator doesn't perform well at school; somehow, this is supposed to justify the child beating.

At times it's difficult to understand how the mysterious 'Dr Helguers' hasn't declared the father unfit as a parent, or indeed anything else, but then his understanding of psychiatry appears to be non-existent. And what of the mental state of the mother tolerating all this? Years later, when the narrator – a restorer of paintings (especially medieval ones) manages (mentally, that is) to re-visit his parents, his father, far from being welcoming, tells his son he's just a 'messenger boy', not a real painter. The narrator also brings his French-born half-Algerian wife Fadila and baby to see his parents, only to receive subtle racist abuse and Fadila to say 'never again', without her even knowing that the father has been sending the narrator two letters a year (latterly not even opened, but each becoming increasingly insane). Ted? Just an invention inspired by a movie, the narrator finds out by accident.

This is a shattering piece of literature.

My other post on Sorj Chalandon:
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Sorj Chalandon: La Légende de nos pères

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