This autumn, two YA books by very prominent authors are coming out in France, explicitly 'on the theme of' the 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris:
Arnaud Cathrine's A la place du coeur (In place of the heart/ instead of the heart) takes place in a large provincial town. The story follows a group of friends, led by Caumes, who turns 17 on January 6th (my birthday too, incidentally, though I turned 26 on that day), and who begins to date a beautiful girl called Esther. The next day, the Charlie Hebdo shooting occurs. The novel maps the next few days in the lives of the group of friends, until Sunday, January 11th, when they - not all of them, for reasons I won't disclose here - head to Paris to take part in the huge march that took place on that day to protest the attacks and defend freedom of speech.
A la place du coeur shrewdly, and with great sensitivity, tackles terrorism from the viewpoint of teenagers who would normally have, to put it simply, other things on their minds than politics. Caumes is wrecked with guilt; is he allowed to love Esther, to experience his new romance, in a country that has come to a complete standstill? The political and the personal mingle, teenagers struggle to understand the situation, to have an opinion.
The diverse group of friends - Esther is Jewish, another boy is a non-practicing Muslim - suddenly find themselves having to reclaim identities that they never thought were important to them before. The students are keen, too, to talk to their teachers, who aren't too sure how to lead the conversations. Confusion and ambiguity dominate in those discussions, showing, non-didactically, that adults aren't wiser than teenagers in those disturbing days.
Vincent Villeminot's Samedi 14 novembre (Saturday, November 14th), as the name indicates, unfolds over one day, the Saturday directly following the November 13th massacre. The protagonist is a young man, first (un)identified as B., and later given a name, who has just lost his brother, shot dead next to him in one of the restaurants. B. spots someone who he is convinced is one of the terrorists, and stalks him, away from Paris, to a seaside town in the north of France, where the terrorist seeks shelter at his younger sister's. B., walking into the flat, takes the boy and his sister hostage.
The difference with A la place du coeur is obvious: B. is a direct victim of the terrorist attacks, Abdelkrim a direct perpetrator. Both novels are moving and violent in places, but Villeminot's is especially tense, some scenes very disturbing. The novel is organised like an ancient tragedy, with choral intervals in which the thoughts of many different people, fleeting narrators, adults, children, Parisians, provincials, are heard, adding breathing space and some polyphony to B.'s oppressive monologue.
Both Cathrine and Villeminot are superstar writers in France (Cathrine is also famous for his music), and those really are remarkable novels, beautifully and delicately written, impeccably structured and hugely interesting. There is no way either of those novels could be accused of sensationalism, or of voyeurism. Yet of course they were written, and came out, soon, very soon. Too soon? Last time I was in France, I asked many people what they thought about it. Here's a medley of replies I remember:
- A young male teenage blogger, 19 years old, who loved both: 'I needed those books - I was Caumes after Charlie Hebdo, we were all so confused and wondering what life was going to be like now. It's not too soon, because the teenagers who witnessed that in 2015 need books to bring them answers and solace now, not later.'
- A common response, I've found, in a number of 20-30+ female readers: 'It's too soon for me personally as a reader - I find it a real strain to read books on the subject, however well-written. It's just not what I need now.'
- Bookseller: 'It's useful to have those books for people who are specifically looking for books 'on' the attacks. But I'm not sure how to recommend them to people who just come for advice on their next read.'
And another bookseller, who, when I mentioned the two books, said, 'They won't be sold here in this shop.' Why not? I inquired. She pointed at another employee of the shop and told me, he was at the Bataclan that night. She then said the exact words, it's too soon.
It's difficult when, especially in Paris, everyone knows someone who. Last year, in Paris and elsewhere, over 200 people died horrifically, and yet those deaths could be so easily made theatrical, spectacular, dare I say - exciting, through fiction. It isn't what those two YA novels are doing. But it could be, and it's understandable, I think, that people are uncomfortable with the notion.
Both Villeminot and Cathrine told me they were seized with a similar thought after the attacks: I need to do something about this, I need to write about this - how can I do it well, sensitively, intelligently? Cathrine said, in a talk I did with him earlier this year: 'I want to write books that I know won't change the world, but that I know will not have been useless, either.'