As the Gilets Jaunes protests continue, Édouard Louis’s “Who Killed My Father” offers a timely commentary on current political unrest in France.
In recent months, the writer Édouard Louis has been a frequent presence in the French press, weighing in on debates over the Gilets Jaunes protesters and the political establishment they decry. It is not the first time Louis has swept France’s newsstands and TV screens. Following the publication of his debut novel “En finir avec Eddy Bellegueule” in 2014, Louis quickly became one of the country’s most talked-about young writers. Translated into English as “The End of Eddy,” the novel recounts Louis’s experience as a young, gay man growing up in a post-industrial, poverty-stricken corner of northern France. His second novel, “History of Violence,” cemented his reputation as an important voice in the discussion of France’s problems with homophobia, racism, and class discrimination. Yet it is Louis’s third novel, “Who Killed My Father,” that is his most overtly political. Released in English last month, but published in French last May, the book seems to foreshadow many of the issues at the heart of the recent political protests.
“Who Killed My Father” traces the life of Louis’s father, with its wearily familiar pattern of poverty, exclusion, and hopelessness. We read of his father’s violent upbringing, his dropping out of school at 14, and his long hours working in a factory until an accident cripples his back, leaving him unable to work and with no state support.
If this is a biography of sorts, Louis rejects the traditional third-person voice, choosing instead to write in the first person, addressing his father directly. As such, the book constructs a fragmentary portrait through the prism of Louis’s own memories and the scraps of stories he has been told. As the opening pages make clear, Louis speaks on behalf of a man who would never have had the means or desire to write his own life story. Autobiography, Louis reflects, is a luxury the working class are rarely afforded. The book thus bears a sort of testimony by proxy — raising questions about the representativeness of voices that get a platform in French society or make it into the annals of history.
Louis’s novel mostly follows a non-chronological series of personal recollections, but, in the final pages, the focus suddenly shifts. The dates are no longer tied to domestic memories, like scenes from a distant Christmas day, instead they enumerate political reforms: “In March 2006, the government of Jacques Chirac […] announced that dozens of medications would no longer be covered by the state,” “In 2007, presidential candidate Nicolas Sarkozy leads a campaign against what he calls les assistés,” and so on.
The shift is abrupt, and the message is clear. Louis is no longer talking in vague terms about policy reforms and the everyday lives of the people they affect; Now he is naming names. As the book’s title suggests, the tone here is confrontational. With its notably absent question mark, “Who Killed My Father” is not a question demanding an answer: it is an accusation, an epithet for the politicians the writer holds accountable. As the book concludes, Louis is clear on who the culprits are: Jacques Chirac, Nicolas Sarkozy, François Hollande, Emmanuel Macron — the leaders whose political decisions trickled down to his father’s sickbed, reducing his access to medication, penalizing him for being unable to work, and then stigmatizing him as the lazy, undeserving poor.
Upon publication in France last year, “Who Killed My Father” was criticized for its supposedly reductive and simplistic political stance. This appraisal is not unfounded: there are times when Louis’s desire to convey the urgency of the current political situation comes at the expense of a more nuanced account. But this is precisely the point he is making: composing a measured and delicately delivered argument is the kind of luxury afforded to those who don’t have to worry about paying the rent and putting food on the table.
The violence of poverty that shapes the lives of people like Louis’s father (whether systemic, state-inflicted violence or the everyday violence of drunken brawls and domestic abuse) will inevitably seep through to the political arena. When people’s livelihoods are threatened — their food, housing, or transport at risk — they head for the streets. And, like Louis’s novel, their message will not be balanced: It will be angry and vengeful.
After enumerating a long list of politicians and their reforms, Louis writes: “I want to inscribe their names in history, as revenge.” The word is a powerful and unexpected one. Revenge has no place in abstract debate or intellectual posturing, it belongs to the realm of the emotional. In the generically ambiguous “Who Killed My Father” — part biography and part autobiography — this quest for revenge is two-fold. Louis gives voice to the anger he ascribes to his father, providing a platform for someone who wouldn’t otherwise be heard, but there is also the anger of Louis himself and his sense of mourning for the father he didn’t have.
Throughout the book, Louis underscores the way trauma is passed from generation to generation, as he moves from his father’s joyless life to his own hurt and resentment at the hands of his father; and then the subsequent redirection of his anger — away from his father and toward the external factors that shaped him.
Whatever your political allegiances, “Who Killed My Father” packs a punch, as both a prophetic exploration of the questions raised by France’s recent wave of protests, and as an exposition of how politics shapes even our most intimate relationships.
“Who Killed My Father” by Édouard Louis, translated by Lorin Stein, is published by New Directions (RRP $18.95).