This is a tale of poverty, inequality, and injustice in 21st century France.
Translated by Michael Lucey
Harvill Secker, £12.99
IF you think that Angela’s Ashes gave Ireland some kind of literary monopoly on miserable childhood memoirs then you’re mistaken; Édouard Louis has given Frank McCourt a run for his money with this French autobiography, The end of Eddy.
The original novel En finir avec Eddy Bellegueule, written when Louis was 19, has sold more than 250,000 copies in his homeland, and has quickly become a literary phenomenon, sweeping Europe and currently translated into more than 20 languages.
This is not a story fixed in some grim historical time-warp; it is firmly set in modern times. Édouard Louis was born Eddy Bellegueule in 1992 in northern France.
The novel recalls his primary school years spent in Hallencourt, a village west of the Somme, where many live below the poverty line. It was published in 2014 when Eddy was just 21 years old.
Eddy was an effeminate little boy who understood, though did not then welcome, his homosexuality. He gives candid accounts of repeated verbal and physical abuse for being different and of a family that was ashamed of him.
He recalls a childhood of poverty; often lacking food, his mother would steal wood to heat and cook for her family. Cardboard was the instrument used to keep rain out of cracked windows and keep broken beds together.
In a house without doors, Eddy recalls that almost every room had a TV, the media perhaps the opioid of choice. His intimate and too personal account of family ordeals makes difficult reading.
He states: “I have no happy memories from childhood.” Violence and anger create both literary voice and space; unrelenting harassment in the school hall (you can taste the spit of Eddy’s aggressors) spring from a village where hatred and violence is ubiquitous against ‘faggots’; against Arabs; against and amongst women (who use the clout of their venomous tongues to combat their men’s fists); amongst men in the cafes. His crippled father’s alcoholism too pervades the vulnerable Louis’s sad childhood in Hallencourt.
An absorbing story, one doesn’t have to examine it too closely to uncover the sociological and political observations that lie underneath. Hallencourt, abandoned by many of the factories that employed previous generations, has become a place where a full-time factory worker with a pension is now considered ‘bourgeois’.
Eddy’s parents, like many, have been relegated to low-paid and sporadic part-time employment by these same factories, and are dependent on meagre welfare payments to supplement their income. Louis refers to them as “invisible” people living below the poverty line.
They are the dispossessed; the excluded; the poor. (Interesting to note many Irish workers are currently in opposition to a perceived violation of their acquired rights and fight to maintain viable contracts.)
Despite their struggles, it is not a flattering portrayal of the contemporary French working class. Eddy didn’t want to be different, but a combination of homosexuality and intelligence helped him escape its vicious cycle of poverty and violence, and with all its homophobic tensions, as it had rejected Eddy. Eddy too finally rejected it, eventually changing his name.
Louis’ family voted for Marine Le Pen “because she’s the only one who talks about us, the little people.”
Similarly, this literature is sourced in simple language; you certainly don’t need to be a scholar to access it.
And, as Frank McCourt didn’t make himself popular in his native Limerick, I doubt that Édouard Louis will have any plaque unveiling in Hallencourt any time soon.
But what’s most fascinating about this book is that evidently Europeans have turned off TVs in their millions to read about the boy who was not only a victim of homophobia but also of social inequality and injustice in socialist France.
It’s become food for thought for the masses, a type of which the political elite never approve.
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