Tue. Apr 7th, 2020

Sorj Chalandon: "We loved the world of mine badly, and we buried it badly" | Culture

For the novelist and journalist Sorj ChalandonThat day was a rare moment of communion between the writer and his readers, and between the novel and reality. "It's an unusual luck for a writer," he said in mid-August in a café in Paris, near the writing of the satirical and research weekly Le Canard Enchaîné, where he works. And he showed, on his phone, photographs of that special day, on December 27, 2017: that of the commemorative act of the anniversary of the Liévin catastrophe, the death of 42 miners on December 27, 1974. That disaster is the plot center of his novel The day before (Reservoir Books in Spanish, translation by María Palmira Feixas Guillamet; Abans day in Edicions 1984 in Catalan, translation by Josep Alemany).

Sorj Chalandon, in Paris in mid-August.

Sorj Chalandon, in Paris in mid-August.

"With these people, little joke," observes Chalandon, 67, while still showing the photos. Because there were the widows, the children, the relatives of the dead, listening while Chalandon read a fragment of his novel. The situation was strange: the real protagonists of his imaginary text; a severe jury. Logical that they lived it with nerves. The day before It is a fiction: the story of the revenge of a man who, in 1974, lost his mining brother, and the murky meanings of memory, self-deception and crime. But the context is very real: the biggest mining accident in postwar France, when coal was a symbol of national prosperity.

The accident was recorded in the memory of Chalandon, who then worked in the left-wing newspaper Liberation. “The first thing we heard on the radio was that it was a fatality. As if a miner's work contract included death. That formed me, ”he explains. "I am a man in anger, and my first anger dates from the Liévin catastrophe."

Chalandon metamorphoses anger into narrative material: a mixture of thriller and report, social denunciation and homage to the fallen, and all this in a world of grays where the good are bad and the bad, good. The protagonists are the forgotten heroes of a time that seems remote and that was actually four days ago. "We loved the world of mine badly, and we buried it badly," sums up the author.

I know that I will find myself in front of the widows, in front of the orphans, in front of the survivors. I can't pretend I'm one of them

All his work — since in 2005 he made the leap from journalism to the novel with Le petit Bonzi– It is an alchemy: the author transforms into fiction what he has lived and observed. The cornerstone must be looked for in Profession du père (Professió del pare ’ Edicions of 1984). It is the story, based on his own childhood, of a family subjected to a fabulous father until delirium, and tyrannical. “I was raised by a crazy father, a liar, a mythomaniac. He died in a psychiatric hospital. I spent all my childhood with a man who, when I crossed the door of my room, could be a tough Frenchman, a fighter pilot, a judoka or a Presbyterian pastor, ”he says. "And this madness keeps chasing me."

My limit as a novelist is the facts. I need the facts to be absolutely proven

Another moment that marks Chalandon – and also appears transfigured in his work – is the conflict in Northern Ireland, which he covered in the 1980s to Liberation. Chalandon knew one of the leaders of the IRA, Denis Donaldson, well. Years later it was revealed that during those years Donaldson had spied on for the British. And shortly after he was killed. “I never got over it, never,” says the writer, who reworked this experience in Mon traître and in Retour à Killybegs (Return to Killybegs, Edicions 1984).

His latest novel, Une joie féroce, one of the most outstanding news in this rentrée French literary, works with a similar mechanism. It is the story of a woman who is diagnosed with cancer and whom her husband abandons: a more or less bland existence with an unexpected turn and with police dyes. The protagonist, Jeanne, joins a group of women who prepares the robbery of a jewelry store. The plot offers the same background as his other novels: the faint line between truth and lies, between heroes and the wicked, and the small lives struck by the storm of the extraordinary and violence. They are fictions of a reporter: anchored in reality and documented as in a report, in this case about cancer and its treatment.

Chalandon's wife, like him, has known the experience of cancer, just as he first knew the Ulster, and that it was documented in detail about the world of mines in northern France to The day before. “My limit as a novelist is the facts. I need the facts to be absolutely proven. I can't write about a street in the north, with a little coffee, if I haven't entered that cafe, ”he explains. In Liévin, 42 miners died, but he refuses to make fiction with the real dead, and that is why he invents a miner number 43: Jojo, the narrator's brother, Michel. “I know that I will find myself in front of the widows, in front of the orphans, in front of the survivors. I cannot pretend that I am one of them, ”justifies the author. "The only way to be as close as possible to them is to invent characters that do not spoil reality."

At the end of the book is the list of the 42 dead, as a memorial. In Liévin, an old miner told him: “We accept your type, Jojo, as one of ours. If you want to put it with the number 43, we agree. ” It was the final approval: the real characters had accepted their fictional partner. For Chalandon, there could be no better reward.

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