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Welcome to the fifth instalment of This Week, Those Books, your rundown on books new and old that resonate with the week’s news and developments.
The few minutes you take to read this newsletter will make you smarter, faster…guaranteed. Here, you will find a deep dive on fiction and non-fiction about the week’s big story and/or perfect watercooler convo and dinner party small talk.
(The first post on ‘dictator chic’ is here. The second on ecocide and the late, great Cormac McCarthy is here. The third post on what to know about Russia, revolts and 1917 is here. And here’s the fourth one on America’s 247th birthday, Bidenomics and To Kill a Mockingbird.)
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July 14 is Bastille Day, a countrywide celebration in France of the moment in 1789 that sparked the French revolution. This Bastille Day, as always, official fireworks will light up the night sky. But barely a fortnight ago, flares were being fired in anger at symbols of the French Republic.
The violence erupted after a police officer shot dead Nahel, a teenager of Algerian and Moroccan descent during a traffic check. Rioting spread from the deprived suburbs of Paris to most French cities, more than 3,000 people were arrested with an average age of 17 years; 721 police officers were injured, some of them shot at by rioters with live ammunition. The devastation left the following trail of debris: 12,031 torched cars; 23,878 burnt rubbish bins; 2,508 buildings and shops set on fire or looted, among them 273 police stations, 168 schools and 105 town halls.
So what was that all about?
This week, we’re lucky to be given a steer on how to interpret events in France by Henri Astier. He’s a Paris-born, London-based journalist and my former colleague at the BBC.
After reading a piece by philosopher Gaspard Koenig on the riots in France, Henri was reminded of Saint Augustine’s autobiography, Confessions, which dates to the late fourth century AD. Confessions, which consists of multiple volumes, details Augustine’s misspent youth and conversion to Christianity. It is considered influential in terms of both Christian theology and secular philosophy – and now, as a way to understand why young men run riot!
In Confessions, Augustine does not portray himself as a holy man but as a sinner – some resonance there with the rioters? And here’s another interesting point of linkage. Of Berber or indigenous North African origin, Augustine served as the bishop of Hippo in Numidia, Roman North Africa, now modern day Algeria. Nahel, of course, was half Algerian.
Dear Reader, this week reminds us of those books:
By: St. Augustine (Author), John K. Ryan (Translator)
Many French commentators saw the mayhem as an expression of anger at the deprivation and discrimination suffered by people of foreign origin. Others described it as an identity-driven revolt against the Republic and the woeful consequence of mass immigration. But one analyst warned against interpreting events in overly political terms.
Gaspard Koenig, in a column in Les Échos newspaper, harked back to Saint Augustine. The fury, he noted, was characterised by extreme violence and extreme consumerism. The looters targeted not just symbols of authority but also Nike stores, McDonald’s outlets and phone shops.
Now Saint Augustine didn’t know much about sports shoes or iPhones. But he sure was familiar with the teenage appetite for destruction.
In Confessions, Augustine tells of his wild youth in fourth century North Africa. At one point he recalls hanging around with his mates at the age of 16 and breaking into an orchard just for the hell of it.
“We carried off a huge load of pears, not to eat ourselves, but to dump out to the hogs after barely tasting some of them,” Augustine writes.
Stealing pears may seem benign compared with setting cars on fire. But the bishop of Hippo describes mental mechanisms that young males of all times can identify with.
The theft, he says, gave him the first thrill of transgression for its own sake: “Doing this pleased us all the more because it was forbidden…It was foul, and I loved it.” Months later he found himself in Carthage, revelling in lust.
Augustine also describes a group dynamic in which friends egg each other on: “Alone I could not have done it. I loved, then, in it the companionship of my accomplices with whom I did it.”
The sheer fun of rule-breaking and collective rampaging is evident in the laughter you hear in videos of the French estates on fire. This is not to condone the looters, and Saint Augustine too did not seek to excuse his riotous past.
By looking at the violence through the lens of the Confessions and avoiding political narratives, Koenig points to the possibility of resolution.
If we regard restless youths as either victims or enemies of the French Republic, we rob them of agency. Most banlieue kids did not riot or steal. What should we make of them? A sense of responsibility is the precondition for both moral judgement and redemption.
By Leila Slimani
This is a murder story that involves two very young children and adults of different races. It plays out in Paris. It is unputdownable and unerringly humane. It is a portrait of social, economic and moral deprivation. It will unsettle you, mostly because it skewers gender, class and racial stereotypes, turning them upside down. The main reason you need to know this book or about it is that the story reminds us no race or ethnic group has a monopoly on human emotions and actions, good or bad. It’s good to keep that in mind as you think of the recent riots in France.
In the US, Lullaby came out as The Perfect Nanny. It’s been made into a film and a TV series starring Nicole Kidman is reportedly coming from HBO.
So, what can I tell you about Lullaby that would underline how disturbingly good it is? Originally published as Chanson douce in France in 2016, the novel became a bestseller perhaps because France seemed to recognise itself in the world Slimani portrays – casually discriminatory, fearful of terrorism and Muslim violence.
The novel won France’s most prestigious literary prize, the Prix Goncourt, making Slimani the first Moroccan woman ever to do so. It brought the author to the attention of France’s President Emmanuel Macron, who also hails from Slimani’s prestigious alma mater Sciences Po. Macron bestowed upon her the job of “promoting the French language and its culture”.
But what culture does the novel transmit? In actual fact, it’s not especially French.
The profound unloved loneliness of the nanny, Louise. A poor white French woman with deep emotional issues, Louise remains isolated even when she takes the children to the park because she does not know the languages spoken by other immigrant nannies.
The shiny successful life of her employer, Miriam, a French-Moroccan lawyer, who’s married to Paul, a music producer. The couple’s small flat in chic central Paris with daughter Mila and son Adam. Their profound relief (recognise this, parents everywhere?) that Louise is so good with their children and such a good cleaner and cook. “Paul and Myriam are overjoyed. Paul tells her with a smile that she is like Mary Poppins.”
Slimani has emphasised in interviews that she “felt it very important to say that sometimes the boss is an immigrant, and that sometimes the poor are white. This made it violent as a social relationship…” Louise, she says, is doubly tragic because she “belongs to nowhere and no one. She is at the bottom of society, she is a woman and she is poor. She is no one”.
The devastating end is actually the beginning of the novel. On page one (and on the cover of the UK edition), we are told that Mila and Adam will be killed by Louise: “The baby is dead. It took only a few seconds.”
Gradually, the other details emerge – a warm bath, a sharp ceramic sushi knife.
Some great scenes and lines in there, not least about the enduring doubts of working mothers.
Myriam: “She had always refused the idea that her children could be an impediment to her success, to her freedom. Like an anchor that drags you to the bottom, that pulls the face of the drowned man into the mud. At first, the realization that she was wrong had plunged her into a profound sadness. She thought it unjust, terribly frustrating. She became aware that she could never live without feeling that she was incomplete, that she was doing things badly, sacrificing one part of her life for another.”
Louise: “Hate rises up inside her. A hate that clashes with her servile urges, her childlike optimism. A hate that muddies everything. She is absorbed by a sad, confused dream. Haunted by the feeling that she has seen too much, heard too much of other people’s privacy, a privacy she has never enjoyed herself. She has never had her own bedroom.”
The how becomes clear in the book but the why is complex.
Perhaps like the situation of France today. Perhaps like life itself.