The Origin of Violence

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The Origin of Violence

Fabrice Humbert
Serpent’s Tail 2011

The Origin of Violence (L’Origine de la Violence), the author’s third novel and the first to be translated into English, was swiftly extolled by the French press as a ‘great novel’ and a ‘revelation’. The novel won Le Prix Renaudot du Livre de Poche (the Prix Renaudot paperback award), a French literary award created in 1926 as a corollary of the Prix Goncourt. With the novel the author is also the first winner of the Prix Orange du Livre, the first literary award to involve web users throughout the award process. His latest novel, La Fortune de Sila (Sila’s Luck; Le Passage, 2010), has also been received with great acclaim, winning the Prix Jean-Jacques Rousseau, as well as Le Grand Prix RTL-Lire.

This compelling, if flawed, novel begins with a metaphysical reverie on the nature of evil, evoking the fall of Lucifer and images of Satan remembered from Dante. Evil as an abstracted personification takes on a real dimension when the narrator, a member of an old Norman family and teacher at the Parisian Franco-German lycée, takes his pupils on a trip to Buchenwald. The story begins here, when the narrator sees a photograph of the camp doctor with a prisoner —who is the living image of the narrator’s father. This haunting image propels the protagonist’s research into the identity of the prisoner, and through it the author inscribes him into the history of the Jews — since this anonymous prisoner takes flesh as his real grandfather, David Wagner.

The narrator’s problematic relationship with his father is played out in dialogue (as are all the relationships in the book) as flat and barren as his father’s life — the contours of whose circumscribed internal world are compared to his repetitive meanders of the streets of Paris. The narratives of David’s brother and a survivor of Buchenwald — David’s steadfast friend in the camp — lead the reader into the vividly evoked life of David Wagner. Through them, the resistant silence of that implacable fortress, which is the Fabre patriarchy is shattered, and the narrator becomes witness to the rise and fall of the morally flawed David; his amorous entanglements within the Fabre family — one driven by ambition, the other, passion; the consequent birth of a bastard, the narrator’s father; and the horrors of his imprisonment in Buchenwald. The narrator professes an obsession with violence — alluding to some nebulous, unexplained origin in childhood — an obsession which seems to find its fulfilment in the hell of Buchenwald, in the murder of his father’s father.

It is indeed in the account of the violence of Buchenwald that the author writes most powerfully and hauntingly. Throughout the work the narrator situates himself in relation to other authors, claiming that he can only respect accounts of lived experience in the camps, citing, for example, Primo Levi. The novel’s compelling account of the sheer madness of the camp, an arena in which the sadistic fantasies of the camp’s perpetrators (Martin Sommer, guard, Karl Otto Koch, Kommandant, and his wife Ilse) are brutally played out, and of the hierarchy of the prisoners, ranging from the Kapo to the living dead figure of the muselmann, is in every way worthy of Levi. Each perpetrator appears to embody a different facet of the face of violence; the sheer animal brutality of Stommer, who strangled, hung, poisoned hundreds of prisoners; the depravity and promiscuity of the flame-haired Ilse Koch, drunk with absolute power; most sinister of all, the insidious violence of the camp doctor (given a fictional role and name in the novel) who, in telling David the ‘Parable of the Jew’, implicitly assigns to him the role in the parable of the poisoned rat; a role which is fulfilled with David’s murder. Particularly graphic and disturbing is the account of David’s period as a Kalfacto in the Kochs’ house, where he exists as
a ghost, stripped of his identity and manhood, and ultimately, of hope.

Such convincing and poignant accounts as David’s are not — perhaps disappointingly — to be resumed in the novel. Following this profoundly felt excursion into the past, the story becomes somewhat bathetic, and the account of the narrator’s meeting and romance with a German teacher, the granddaughter of the morally tormented member of the Nazi party who was yet not a Nazi, lacks the resonance of the account of David’s affair. At this point the subject of the story becomes the narrator’s struggle to write his grandfather’s story itself; and the chapter about David’s experience in the camp appears to the reader to be a foretaste of this imagined story. The author fills the hiatus in the action of the novel with an intelligent and searching analysis of the social pre-conditions of Nazism, which is written more in the register of an historian rather than a novelist; consequently the reader experiences a jarring of styles, and feels almost as though the author is finding himself as a writer as much as the protagonist (both narrator and author are teachers turned writers).

The reader is drawn back into the overarching drama of the novel when the protagonist is called back to Paris to visit his dying ‘grandfather’ (husband to his father’s mother), heralding the dénouement of the novel. An element of doubt in the narrator’s relationship with both his father and grandfather lends a sinister edge, a sense of an unplumbed horror within the family…the horror, ultimately, of the Fabres’ betrayal of David. As both a Fabre and a Wagner, the protagonist carries both victim and perpetrator within him, and, in bringing the truth of David to light, enacts the wider authorial purpose of giving life to an anonymous face — and playing some part in expiating France’s heritage of guilt.

Fabrice Humbert is, like the narrator in The Origin of Violence, a young teacher at a Franco- German Lycée. He will, along with the novelist Agnès Desarthe (author of The Foundling), be talking to Michael Arditti during Jewish Book Week 2012 about his novel. Both authors have written novels about men who launch investigations into their own family histories, and through them find themselves confronted by the darkest atrocities of World War II. ( Sunday, 19 February 2012, 6.30 pm, King’s Place, St. Pancras Room)

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