The Origin of Violence by Fabrice Humbert
|The Origin of Violence by Fabrice Humbert|
|Genre: Literary Fiction|
|Reviewer: Robin Leggett|
|Summary: French prize winning literary fiction exploring the impact that Nazi occupation and concentration camps has had on one family's life to the modern day. This is a book whose full impact is only revealed in the final pages - not a book to give up on!|
|Buy? Maybe||Borrow? Maybe|
|Pages: 256||Date: December 2011|
|Publisher: Serpent's Tail|
Fabrice Humbert's French Orange Prize winning The Origin of Violence has a young French teacher as a narrator who, while leading a school trip to Buchenwald concentration camp, sees a photograph of a Jewish prisoner taken in 1941 and is struck by the similarity in appearance of the man to his own father. However, he discovers that not only does the man in the photo have a different name to his, but the man died in 1942. Clearly there are dark family secrets afoot that he sets about discovering.
However, while that would make an intriguing story of its own, Humbert's book is an altogether more confusing and subtle piece. In part, that is down to the fact that French literature is often heavier on ideas and concepts than English and US literature, which both makes it more interesting but also, harder to discern the author's intentions - at least to this reader. There is no doubt though, that the finale of the book is truly moving and at least partially unexpected and it is moving in the way that the historical events can still impact on lives in the current day.
The book is split into two parts and roughly speaking the first part deals with the discovery of the photo and the experiences of the man in the photo, David Wagner, during the horrific time spent in Buchenwald. There is a tragic love story at the heart of his pre-war life which our narrator quickly discovers. And that was the initial disappointment for me. He seemed to manage to discover this history with remarkable ease and he quickly identifies a couple of people who just spill the beans to him. There's no piecing together of fragments of a story which might have been an interesting approach.
Yes, the fictional Wagner's story is well linked into some historically real and important figures responsible for running the camp and this is interesting and well written, although none of the sources of information could possibly have known about the events that Wagner experienced in such depth, although some of it could have been reported. Humbert handles the factual content well and suitably evokes the horrors of the camp life.
Perhaps aware that this is an already well trodden literary path though, the second half of the book deals with the narrator's current situation and his relationship with his father, Adrien, his paternal grandfather, Marcel Fabre, and his girlfriend, who in a somewhat belief-stretching coincidence is related to some of those slightly involved in David Wagner's story. Here again, Humbert allows one of his characters, the previously taciturn Marcel to suddenly explain a whole part of the story. This isn't in the form of a conversation between grandson and grandfather, but rather a 24 page, uninterrupted diatribe from a hospital bed.
One area that the book does successfully give pleasure though is in the ideas expressed. There is a moral debate running throughout as to wether it is better not to know about your past (the father's view), to know it and then forget it (grandfather's view) or to know and understand it (narrator).
Books in translation can lose something of their 'je ne sais quoi'. For the most part the translation reads well, although neither author nor translator is helped by some poor proof reading in the first edition. This is not an issue but there are times when the errors just make a nonsense of what is being said. At one point one of the characters describes a meeting with the narrator's father at an early age and tells the narrator that they didn't discuss, amongst other things 'your childhood'. Well, no - he hadn't been born yet! Clearly this should have been 'his childhood'. It's a small error in itself but in a book where the reader is forced to try to piece together events and ideas, it introduces an unnecessary level of confusion.
At one point the narrator's girlfriend, who is against his writing about David Wagner's life, asks him if the world really needs another book about the concentration camps. I must say that for much of the book I empathized with this view, although I have to say that by the end I had modified my view more towards the view that if it does, then this is certainly a good example. In fact, if you dig deeper it's less about the Nazi regime and more about human weaknesses. I just wasn't convinced with the ease at which the past was discovered.
Our thanks, as ever, to the kind folk at Serpent's Tail for sending us a copy of this book.
Human impact World War Two stories have attracted literary prize nominations on this side of the English Channel too this year in the form of Booker long-listed Far to Go by Alison Pick.
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