Who Killed My Father by Édouard Louis, Harvill, £10.99. 80 pp, ISBN: 9781787301221
Who Killed My Father is a beautifully written and deeply felt memoir of Édouard Louis’s working-class father, a man who was beaten down by social injustice and who, by fifty years of age, was physically and emotionally crushed. For the author, the “verdict” passed on his father’s life was an inevitable outcome of economic inequalities ingrained in French society and accentuated by the neo-liberal policies of recent governments. With an unyielding imaginative commitment, Louis slowly uncovers the damaged human who is his father, a quest which draws its energy from a real love between the two- a love which had lain undiscovered beneath the debris of their constricted past.
Unlike his father, Édouard (Eddy) escaped the “verdict” on his own life. Being gay in a homophobic culture left him little alternative but to get out and from the relative remove of Paris, where he enjoys the personal freedom afforded by the city, he contemplates his past and condemns the systemic economic injustice that afflicted his hometown.
Who Killed My Father is the third in Louis’s series of memoirs; it is not a political tract, rather it is an artistic statement with a political core. The creative force of the work draws on Eddy’s fragmented and disjointed memories of childhood with his father. Outside these personal memories, economic oppression is the overarching and shaping force leading to the author’s realisation that his father’s life is defined not what he did but by what he was prevented from doing.
As a young man Louis’s father had lived in dire poverty, his own father having walked out on the family when he was five. Stubborn masculinity was the bogus refuge of males in the small town where Eddy grew up. The culturally approved response to schooling was suspicion, derision, and even physical resistance: one cousin was regarded as hero for having hit a teacher. The result was that boys went straight into factory servitude from a young age.
Before succumbing to this fate, Louis learns, his father made a break for freedom and headed down south to the sun. There he drank and stole mopeds but without resources this was an illusory freedom. In the end he slouched back north and took a factory job in a town adjacent to the one in which he was born. The verdict had been passed. He stayed and toiled in repetitive physical work for many years until something very heavy fell on him and he was left seriously injured and barely able to walk: a working- class life played out. “The history of your body stands as an accusation against political history.”
Louis constructs the picture of his father from scraps of memory and unconnected images. The bond between the two is slow to emerge, the author having kept his distance growing up. What seems at first like the father’s hostility towards Louis and his effeminate ways gradually appears more as an unease and an uncertainty. There is a basic decency and in time we see this this flawed individual actually loves his son. In recent years the liberated young writer spends time with his invalid father.
“You’ve changed these past few years… We’ve talked a lot. We’ve explained ourselves.” Eddy’s father becomes proud of his gay son, the writer. He wants to know about the man his son loves. He is no longer afraid Eddy’s politics will get him in trouble, telling him “You’re right, what we need is a revolution.”
This memoir is a wonderful and powerful rejoinder to the anti-politics of recent decades, the endless self-serving view which maintains that personal responsibility is the answer to all society’s questions. Significantly, Who Killed My Father was written and published in France before the Gilets Jaunes movement emerged. It prefigures that movement.
Louis is not afraid to name names. In March 2006 Jacques Chirac’s government announced that the cost of dozens of medicines would no longer be covered by the state. These included the medicines needed by his father for his digestive system which was damaged as a result of lengthy periods on his back. “Jacques Chirac and Xavier Bertrand destroyed your intestines” In 2007 Nicholas Sarkozy led a campaign against the unemployed accusing them of stealing money from French Society. “This kind of humiliation by the ruling class broke your back all over again.” Sarkozy, in power, then went on to “incentivise” the unemployed to work by reducing welfare and insisting the unemployed apply for jobs. Louis’s half- crippled father ended up a street cleaner bent over and pushing a brush in a town forty kilometres away for €700 euro. Just getting there and back cost him €300 in petrol.
And so on to Macron who, Louis tells us, confronted two protesters wearing t-shirts:
Macron dismisses them in a voice full of contempt: “You’re not going to scare me with your t-shirts. The best way to afford a suit is to get a job.”
The concept of personal responsibility as a cure-all yet again. This same Macron, as we know, wanted to add an additional tax to the fuel used by the poor who drive their clapped-out cars to nickle-and-dime jobs. With Macron’s proposal the wealthy insisted it was the working class who must pay for capitalism’s destruction of nature.
Macron has since climbed down as the t-shirts turned yellow and were joined by many thousands more. Maybe politics is not quite as redundant as some neo-liberals have maintained.