Set in Hallencourt in the Somme, a small and isolated factory town of 1,300 people where Louis grew up, the book is a stark tale of his life below the poverty line, punctuated by his father’s drunken violence – the rage of the humiliated working-class male: racism, homophobia and casual daily brutality.
Eddy Bellegueule (Louis’s real name, which means “beautiful face” in French) is an effeminate child; as a “faggot”, “queer”, “poof”, as he is regularly reminded, he is even worse than an “Arab”, “Jew” or “black”.
Another oft-repeated phrase – “just who do you think you are?” – serves to remind him who he is, where he comes from and where everyone assumes he is going. Instead, Bellegueule forges a new path, via a scholarship and one of France’s elite university schools, writes everything down and changes his name.
Its unemotional style is similar to Zola’s work, though the author claims not to have read him.
It’s non-stop misery, like Gypsy Boy. It’s vidid, powerful. The writing is violent and there is no escape for the reader. There’s no humour, c.f. Oranges are not the Only Fruit.
He suffers not for doing something but for being something and looking like something.
The shed scene is unbelievable: not because boys don’t get up to this but for the seeming enjoyment of a ten-year-old, getting an erection whilst being raped. However, he seems to have wanted this to happen. On p., 130 he speaks of repressed desire, relishes the smell of the older boys and leaps at the chance of wearing women’s clothes and jewellery.
We wondered why he didn’t avoid the bullies. Well, on p. 25 he says that he didn’t want others to see him being beaten up because they’d then know he was gay. On p. 136 he speaks of fear of retaliation.
It jumps about in time a bit. Then again, people with a traumatic past get confused about chronology.
The only black person in a racist village is seen as OK because different.
There’s a vivid and memorable description of his first orgasm.
Were they really that poor in the 1990s? More like the 1950s. And homophobia was much less marked in British schools then.
Is it novel or autobiography? Was it written too son after the event? Not enough perspective?
One chapter title quotes the King James Bible ‘Stait is the gate’. A postgrad student, of English no less, though this was about sexuality.
Who is Tristan at the end? Is he a positive to balance the book’s negative beginning?
The French title has a different nuance: Doing Away with Eddy.
‘Before I had a chance to rebel against the world of my childhood, that world rebelled against me. In truth, confronting my parents, my social class, its poverty, racism and brutality came second. From early on I provoked shame and even disgust from my family and others around me. The only option I had was to get away somehow. This book is an effort to understand all that.’
From my childhood I have no happy memories. I don’t mean to say that I never, in all those years, felt any happiness or joy. But suffering is all-consuming.”
“from my eye towards my lips, ready to enter my mouth”
“As far back as I can remember I can see my drunk father fighting with other drunk men leaving the café, breaking noses and teeth,”
“into a plastic supermarket bag” and swinging it against some cement edge “until the bag was filled with blood and the meowing had ceased”.
“the still-warm blood” “it’s the best, the blood you get from an animal right when it dies”.
“Every day I came back, as if we had an appointment, an unspoken contact . . . There was just one idea I held to: here, no one would see us, no one would know. I had to avoid being hit elsewhere, in the playground, in front of the others.”
[S]he was already standing frozen, unable to make the slightest sound or the smallest gesture . . . Her gaze never left mine; I don’t remember what that gaze held. Disgust perhaps, or anguish – I can no longer say.”
“Don’t you ever do that again . . . ”
“Wasting petrol for this theatre shit of yours, really why should I?” Yet he does drive him.
“On the day when the amount of the allowance at the start of the school year was raised, my father, with a joy we rarely saw because he usually played at being the man of the house who could not show his feelings, shouted: ‘Sunday, we’re going to the seaside.’ And indeed we went, six of us in a car big enough for five. I rode in the boot.
“It don’t make sense, when he says we should kill all the ragheads but then when he lived in the Midi his best mate was a raghead.”
He wasn’t embarrassed, he didn’t feel the violence the prosecutor was exercising, the class violence that had excluded him from the world of education, the violence that had, in the end, led him to the courtroom where he now stood. In fact he must have thought that the prosecutor was ridiculous. That he spoke like a faggot.
There’s a revealing interview with the author here.