APRIL 30, 2020
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED in France in 2018, Nicolas Mathieu’s second novel, And their children after them, won the most prestigious literary prize in this country, the Prix Goncourt. One of the secrets of its success was to be one of the first French novels to offer a satisfactory chronicle of life in a small blue-collar town in the 1990s (Mathieu was born in 1978). This is the kind of column that you didn’t realize was missing until you ended up reading it for the first time, discovering, as this reader did, that in many ways, this is the story of your own wasted youth, discovering that the time period tells is not only the intimate substance of your own memories, but in fact a perfectly bygone era with its own irreducible aspect – a decade ripe for his novel. What’s this And their children after them masterfully provides.
Part I is subtitled “1992: Smells Like Teen Spirit”. In its opening pages, we meet Anthony, 14, who travels the countryside with his older cousin, bikes and smokes cigarettes on a hot summer day. “The air was heavy with the smell of mud, leaded terracotta. July had scattered freckles on his already broad back. He was just wearing soccer shorts and a pair of faux Ray-Bans. “Anthony and his cousin” miss their skulls “, but the reader happily rediscovers the texture of an adolescent wasting away before cell phones, the feeling of hot sun on your exposed skin, the smell of terracotta that cracks under your BMX tires, this still new taste of a cigarette and, of course, this ineffable inflection provided by a Nirvana mention. These summer days were a complete forgetting; like grunge, they were devoted to nothing but oblivion itself, so it’s only fair that their memories should also be forgotten. And yet, here is a 420-page novel in which we can indulge in their beautiful insignificance.
Mathieu’s laconic and realistic narrative style suits the harsh world he describes, a world where fathers, having lost their jobs when the factories closed, are alcoholics and racists, hard and wise mothers. There are local customs, such as drinking “Picon beers” (a glass of bitter orange liqueur poured into a beer), and the fight that breaks out every day in the Bastille after too many of these drinks. And there are local tragedies, like the kid who disappeared in one of these fights: “In the end, the body was never found, and Father Colin went back to work without making any fuss. His wife had not hanged herself or anything. She just took pills. The seasoned translator William Rodarmor does a good job in capturing this tone, skillfully transposing the French slang dialogue into its English equivalent of the 1990s: “We are bored, like the great moments”, “Wait for me, for the chrissakes!” , “A real shower,” are some of Anthony’s replicas. Nicolas Mathieu’s tone is perfect for taking us through Anthony’s first encounters with alcohol and drugs, sex and fighting – rites of passage that grow in the fictional industrial valley of Heillange, with its landscape of abandoned factories whose somnolent and sumptuous blast furnaces populate the horizon.
Mathieu creates a memorable teenager dramatis personae people this little living and empty world. With Stéphanie, for example, Anthony’s intermittent girlfriend, we find that indirect free style narration allows us to get into her point of view and see Anthony, Heillange and a dull existence through her eyes:
The old power plant was the worst possible place for a date. A ruin perched on a hill, it was covered with ferns and weeds, smothered with brambles and strewn with fireplaces, condoms and broken glass. Steph was already sorry for coming, especially since the little shake was late. She was waiting, caught in the oily stillness of this summer evening. She looked at her watch again. She was thirsty and excited.
Steph returns to Anthony by refusing to have sex with him, shaking him until she reaches her peak and leaving him dissatisfied. “For a few days, he tried to convince himself that he had fucked her. But it was really the opposite. “
The 1990s were also a decade in which France found itself struggling with the growing crisis of suburbs. Immigrants from the former French colonies in North Africa had been heading to France since the post-war reconstruction era, when they provided cheap labor for what was then an overabundance of factory jobs. When factories began to outsource and shut down, these families were often stranded, economically deprived and effectively separated from French society. It is the poignant reality that came to life in the revolutionary film by Mathieu Kassovitz Hatred ((Hatred), published in 1995 – a reality which would explode in the form of riots a decade later in 2005. To date, the crisis remains acute in France, more recently described in the book by Ladj Ly Wretched, released this year and nominated for an Oscar for best international film.
Enter Hacine, the other protagonist of And their children after them, the son of a Moroccan immigrant who worked in the same steelworks as Anthony’s father. If the two fathers worked for the same employer, Metalor, they still lived in separate worlds. Colonialism continued to operate in the microcosm of the factory, where professional life was governed by “unspoken rules, coercive methods inherited from the colonies”, according to which Hacine’s father “took control for forty years, while being punctual, falsely docile and an Arab, always. […] [A]an aura of suspicion still hung over him, a vague quality that always put him in the wrong. This is a novel about what one generation inherits from another, and Hacine’s generation, despite its birth in France, is above all heir to this aura of xenophobic suspicion, which developed in the 90s in a stereotypical image of the suburbs thug, who, in fact, Hacine drug dealer lives up to it. Meanwhile, on the other side of town, Anthony’s disgruntled and depressed father Patrick risks leaving his son the racism and xenophobia that fill the void left by his loss of self-confidence. Without pretending that they are on an equal footing, Mathieu’s novel nonetheless reveals all that the white kid of the working class and his “Arab” counterpart have in common – they both inherit and must call home the same post-industrial waste land that was so brutally consumed and thrown away. their fathers:
For a century, the Heillange blast furnaces had sucked the whole life of the region, swallowing up people, time and raw materials. […] [T]The insatiable body of the mill had lasted as long as it could, fueled by the roads and exhaustion, nourished by a whole network of canals which, once everything was deposited and sold by weight, had cruelly drained part of the city. These ghostly absences stirred memories, as did the overgrown railroads, discolored billboards and bullet-riddled road signs.
Reading the novel, we perceive the tragedy of this shared destiny as Anthony and Hacine do not. ” [T]They grew up in the same city, got bored of the same jobs, went to the same schools, dropped out of it too soon. […] They had met a hundred times. And yet, “these commonalities meant nothing. A thickness hung between them. When Hacine and her friends try to party in the white and easy part of the city and are refused entry, Hacine takes revenge by stealing a motorcycle which happens to be Anthony’s father, whom Anthony had stolen as means of transport to get to the party (not in its part of the city either). When Anthony’s father finds out that he is missing, his rage leads to an episode of domestic violence that leads to Anthony’s parents being divorced. When it is finally discovered that Hacine was the culprit, Anthony’s mother, Hélène, insisted on going to talk to Hacine and her father, Mr. Bouali. To do this, she and Anthony must venture into the “enemy territory” of the ZUP (priority urban development area), the suburbs the housing projects that the Boualis call home. In a prefiguration of the riots of 2005, inside the complex, they feel
the emptiness of the stairwell behind them, the silent verticality of the building, a large and mobile presence, a dull agitation. A whole group of underemployed people on the lookout, held by televisions, drugs and distractions, heat and boredom. The slightest thing could wake them up.
The cordial but tense discussion that ensued between Anthony’s mother and Hacine’s father does not dissipate this tension of the colliding worlds. Hacine is not at home, Mr. Bouali insists that his son would never do such a thing. However, when Hacine returns later in the evening, his father beats him with a handful of ax for having dishonored his family.
What has always separated Anthony and Hacine is the dense tension of inherited mistrust, hatred and a history of violence dating back to the French colonial era. When Anthony finally confronts Hacine about the stolen motorcycle, he finds himself at a crossroads pointing a gun at someone who – if just as French – whom he considers an Arab. Add to that Mathieu’s insistence on the blinding sun, as well as a seemingly innocent reference to Albert Camus a few pages before, and the scene is ready for a modern remake of the murder scene in Camus’s The stranger. Anthony finds himself involuntarily on the brink of chasing a repeat of Meursault’s absurd assassination. While the first part of Camus The stranger ends with a rhetorical flowering culmination and the shots that start as “four sharp knocks at the door of doom”, here – without giving too much spoiler – let’s just say that the result is, in the spirit resolutely anticlimatic (adolescent) from the 1990, much less dramatic. “It was all so unforgivable,” we read in the last sentence, and it seems true that we consider it to be Anthony or Hacine’s assessment of the embarrassing situation, or, more generally, of ‘a remark on the absurdity and injustice of the legacy of a history of violence.
Over six years, And their children after them takes us through the full range of teenage characters. As they evolve from children to men and women, there are times when their life transitions seem shocking. Hacine, for example, gives up his drug trafficking lifestyle a little too easily for a poor job at local Darty (roughly speaking, the French version of Best Buy). I leave it to the reader to decide whether Hacine – employed and at least materially assimilated in traditional society – is not, to a certain degree, as effectively liquidated as Camus’ “Arabic” The stranger. If so, the same could be said of Anthony, because the jobs he finds do not turn out to be better. But at least making them work makes him lose his mind to his mother (who “thought he would kill himself while working”). It seems that Hacine and Anthony will also be consumable, as their fathers proved, when it comes to the vagaries of free market capitalism.
Throughout this maturity, the tension between these two sons of Heillange persists and its consequences unfold in an interesting way. Their respective senses of belonging to Heillange and to France are also evolving. In fact, it is this heavy question of belonging which, if not said, is at the very heart of the novel. Will any of these children ever leave Heillange? If so, where would they go? In the end, what is moving so much And their children after them this is how he manages to express without undue pathos the desperate desire for a true belonging that unconsciously animates these adolescents. Apparently against all odds, they manage to experience this strange sensation in rare moments. It takes them by surprise. They hardly know what to think about it. This happens, in one case, on Bastille Day. All the characters are on the move in Heillange, partying, looking for a fight, sarcastically awaiting the ridiculous patriotic festivities organized by the town hall. And yet, when the fireworks go off, they are “a thousand faces” […] raised to the sky, reflecting bursts of red, blue and white light. “By being silent, they” could not have laughed, despite the deeply gregarious atmosphere, despite Celine Dion and Whitney Houston. The sound and the light captivated them, and they forgot to detach themselves. “
In another case, Anthony is riding the valley roads on a motorbike, feeling “[t]hat imprint that the valley had left on its flesh. The terrible sweetness of belonging. I suspect it must have been a difficult decision for Rodarmor when translating this sentence. The original French, the terrible sweetness, could also have been translated by the horrible, the terrible, or maybe even the appalling sweetness (or comfort) of belonging. Whatever its translation, it succinctly expresses the whole ambivalence of belonging. In the end, this sentence crystallizes the delicate game of balance that Nicolas Mathieu more generally succeeds And their children after them – a delightfully detached and disillusioned novel, but one that knows when to let your guard down and move on.
Joshua Armstrong is an Associate Professor of French at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His fiction appeared in Typehouse Literary Magazine and he is the author of Maps and territories: global positioning in the contemporary French novel.