The People of the Village

Tash Aw

  • The End of Eddy by Edouard Louis, translated by Michael Lucey
    Harvill Secker, 192 pp, £12.99, February 2017, ISBN 978 1 84655 900 6
  • Histoire de la violence by Edouard Louis
    Editions du Seuil, 230 pp, £22.00, January 2016, ISBN 978 2 7578 6481 4

A chance encounter on Christmas Eve ends with Edouard Louis, a student at the École Normale Supérieure, taking a stranger back to his apartment. Louis has struggled with the decision to invite the man to share his home and his body, and now, poised on the brink of terrible physical and emotional violence that will have long-standing consequences for both of them, the young men have choices to make. Both have a chance to end the sequence of events that led them to this point: in other words, to flee. But neither does. ‘I believe that each decision made that evening,’ Louis writes in Histoire de la violence, ‘on my part as well as his, rendered all other decisions impossible the very moment afterwards; that each choice destroyed all other possible choices, and that the more he chose, the less free he became.’

This sense of being trapped – by society, class, family, one’s own body and desires, even by seemingly free choice itself – permeates Louis’s work. His pair of heavily autobiographical novels – both huge bestsellers in France – are built on the conflict between the urge to break free of social and emotional shackles and the inability to do so. Violence is everywhere, manifesting itself both in physical brutality and in the long-standing cycles of oppression and deprivation that render the principal players in Louis’s story powerless to change their fate. Everyone – the young Louis himself, his family and the inhabitants of his childhood village, and, much later, his assailant in Paris, and even the bigoted police officers who interview him after his ordeal – is merely fulfilling a predestined role.

In a brief interlude in Histoire de la violence, Louis reflects on his reading of Faulkner’s Sanctuary, and notes Temple Drake’s inability to escape from the people who raped and abducted her, even when the opportunity presents itself. She has no clear understanding of her actions, and is incapable of resisting bad choices. The interlude takes place at a point of high drama in Louis’s novel – he will soon be strangled and raped at gunpoint by the man he has picked up – but even at that moment he is aware of the alternative choices available to him. He does not take them.

Much of his extraordinary first novel, The End of Eddy, is concerned with explaining and understanding this inability to break free, both on his part and on the part of the people around him. The novel is, on the surface at least, the coming-of-age story of a boy, Eddy Bellegueule (Louis’s name at birth), who realises early on that he is different from the others in his remote working-class village in northern France – an intelligent child attracted to theatre, music and, above all, other boys. It is the story of his struggles with identity, of his survival of the casual brutality of the community he lives in: the near daily beatings at school, the rampant homophobia, racism and sexism, the patterns of alcoholism, crime and violence that are normalised in the families of the village.

Despite his best efforts, he is incapable of changing his physical comportment: ‘I was dominated, subjugated by these mannerisms and I had not chosen that high-pitched voice. I had not chosen my way of walking, the pronounced, much too pronounced, way my hips swayed from side to side, or the shrill cries that escaped my body.’ His manner is a particular source of shame for his father, un dur, one of the hard men of the village, who begins to join in with the casual homophobic abuse of his own son (at the age of ten, Eddy is drawn into sexual relations with other boys in the village, including one of his own cousins, and rumours abound).

In order to survive, Louis has to escape the village, his family, even himself. The novel’s title in French, En finir avec Eddy Bellegueule, translates as ‘Finishing Off’, or ‘Putting an End to Eddy Bellegueule’, which gives a sharper edge to the act of escape and transformation than the English translation’s more neutral version: somehow, Eddy has to break free not only from the village, but from the generations of cultural and social baggage he is burdened with. Like so much in Louis’s richly specific picture of working-class rural France, the full significance of a family name such as Bellegueule is a challenge to even the most skilful translator. Michael Lucey opts for ‘Prettymug’, which is as close as English gets: a man with ‘une belle gueule’ tends to be rugged and macho, while one with ‘un beau visage’ is handsome in a more standard fashion. When combined with Eddy (very much not Édouard), the narrator’s name takes on a markedly working-class flavour – it’s ‘a tough guy’s name’. In order to exist in the present, Louis has to finish off his past as Eddy Bellegueule.

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