|WHERE I LEFT MY SOUL
Translated by Geoffrey Strachan
MacLehose Press (maclehosepress.com)
Released: 10th October 2012
I am always slightly surprised when I come across a book that deals with a period of history of which I have been woefully ignorant. Jérôme Ferrari’s Where I Left My Soul, the French author’s first novel translated into English, presents just such a period, dealing with the decades following the end of the Second World War during which the French Empire appears to have completely collapsed, leaving an entire generation of young men feeling used and betrayed by their government.
One such man, André Degorce, stands at the centre of this short, bleak novel. Having joined the French Resistance at the age of 19, halfway through 1944, he finds himself captured by the Germans. In May 1945, he leaves the camp at Buchenwald weighing five and a half stone. Almost exactly nine years later, he leaves a re-education camp in Vietnam, having been captured by the Viet Minh. Now, 1957, Capitaine Degorce is at war again, this time in the Northern African climes of Algeria, and this time the shoe is on the other foot.
Degorce, now a torturer, has been tasked with capturing Tahar, one of the commanders of the National Liberation Army. Lieutenant Horace Andreani, a man with whom he was captured in Vietnam, has joined him once again in Algeria, seemingly enjoying his new role much more than the Capitaine. When Tahar is captured, Degorce senses a kinship and during the short period when Tahar is his prisoner, the Algerian also becomes a confessor. When Tahar is transferred to Andreani’s care, Degorce is lost, unable to comprehend what he has become.
The bulk of the story takes place over the course of three days at the end of March 1957. These third-person narratives from the point of view of Degorce are interspersed with a first-person rant in the voice of a much older Lieutenant Andreani, a stream of bile and invective aimed at Degorce, a man once respected, even loved, now reviled and considered a traitor. What slowly unfolds as the story progresses, are the portraits of two men broken in very different ways by the same circumstances. On the one hand, Degorce, a man filled with remorse, increasingly questioning the tactics he uses on a daily basis, unable to comprehend why he is slowly becoming the same as his captors in Buchenwald and Vietnam; on the other, Andreani, a man willing to do anything in the name of his country, remorseless and happy, the perfect tool.
Ferrari states in his preface, that it’s not about the war, nor the politics:
“…it was not French wounds, nor even history, that interested me; I was only interested in the trajectory these officers followed, as a paradigm of the way in which man, as he plunges into his own inner darkness, loses his soul.”
In this, at least, he succeeds. We meet André Degorce as his world is about to collapse around him. Through a series of flashbacks we discover how he has arrived at this point, and can infer certain things about the choices he has made. The capture of Tahar, and the similarities Degorce sees between himself and his captive, serve to push him over the edge, and we witness a man whose world is falling apart around him: his remote and crumbling relationship with his family, who have no idea to what lengths he has gone in the service of his country; and his position within the army, a job that suddenly seems irrelevant to him, his unquestioning loyalty now at an end, a source of embarrassment and shame.
“He was no longer even trying to shake off the grip of humiliation. He was simply waiting for the whole charade to be at an end. It occurred to him that Jeanne-Marie would see his picture in the papers next morning and would in all probability be proud of him. If she were to learn one day what he was really doing here she would be unable either to believe it or to understand it. And she would be right: in spite of all the logic in the world, it was at bottom impossible to understand and it was better for his wife to remain in permanent ignorance.”
In parallel with this, we also witness the descent of Horace Andreani into the same pit. It is a descent on a much different trajectory, taking over forty years to complete, and it is driven by the Lieutenant’s hatred of his one-time Capitaine.
The narrative is at times dense and slow-moving, particularly in the Andreani sections, where sentences span half a page, and paragraph breaks are few and far between. Despite the daunting appearance, Andreani’s voice is engaging enough, and what he has to say interesting enough, to allow the reader to make short work of these sections. The Degorce sections are more conventional, and give us a more detailed look at the soldiers’ time in Algeria, and the work they do: torture both physical and psychological in the name of dismantling a terrorist network that existed long before such a thing was considered the norm. Ferrari’s writing is beautiful, his compact novel giving us at once a shapshot of a specific time and location, but also a timeless scenario that could well be playing out in a handful of countries right now. The war, the politics, as was Ferrari’s intention, are secondary to the main story: a look at two men’s descent into hell, and the broken husks that remain.
Where I Left My Soul is a short, powerful tale that presents a look at the human soul in all its darkness. Behind that beautiful Monica Reyes cover is an equally beautiful tale that shows Jérôme Ferrari’s understanding of the dark side of humanity. It’s a quick read, but one that will remain with the reader for a long time afterwards, a consequence of strong characters and engaging storyline. In a year already bursting with wonderful reads, Where I Left My Soul still manages to stand out.