For those of you who read my post from Friday, I did manage to get through Où on va, papa? over the weekend. It turned out to be a relatively smooth read once I could take some personal distance from the book. This was really the only way for me to read it – to take myself and my own intangible, half-defined worries about impending parenthood away from my reading experience. And really, I think Fournier’s story deserves to be treated on its own terms, without putting any of the reader in there. Eventually, as I read deeper into his experience and began to understand how difficult it must have been for him to write the book, there was simply no room left for any consideration about me. As it should be.
As I mentioned before, Où on va, papa? is a memoir about what it was like to raise his two mentally disabled sons. His honesty in terms of his experience is one of the most disarming elements of the book. A combination of anger, disappointment, guilt, frustration and a complicated love. There is humor in the book, but his humor is the uncomfortable kind, a humor of grief. He uses humor a bit like a weapon, a kind of protection. I think as long he says the worst thing first, no one can take him by surprise.
The book is really a collection of tiny little flashes, short reflections or anecdotes that move more or less chronologically from the birth of his first son, Mathieu, followed two years later by the shock of having a second son, Thomas, with essentially the same level of handicap. They eventually have a third child, although they considered terminating the pregnancy until a doctor advised them otherwise. The doctor actually tells them that having a third handicapped child won’t change much for them in the long run, but that the chance to have a normal child would mean they wouldn’t have ended on a failure. Can you imagine? Fournier tells this short story without condemning the doctor, yet I think it’s clear how he felt when you see how acidic his narration becomes and how he ends the anecdote with an uncomfortable joke:
Notre chance s’est appellé Marie, elle était normale et très jolie. C’était normal, on avait fait deux brouillons avant. Les médécins, au courant des antécédents, étaient rassurés. Deux jours après sa naissance, un pédiatre est venu voir notre fille. Il a examiné longuement son pied, puis, tout haut, il a dit, « On dirait qu’elle a un pied-bot… » Après un petit moment il a ajouté, « Non, je me suis trompé. » Il avait certainement dit ça pour rire.
[We named our non-failure Marie. She was normal and very pretty. Which was expected, we’d made two rough drafts first. The doctors, aware of our history, were reassured. Two days after she was born, a pediatrician came to see our daughter. He examined her foot for a long time, and then announced, “It looks like she has a club foot…” After a short moment he added, “No, I must be wrong.” He certainly said this to get a laugh.]
Some of the book is written like a conversation between Fournier and his two sons. It’s clear he harbors a huge amount of guilt for what he imagines their life must have been like. His oldest son, Matthieu, dies at the age of fifteen. His younger son, Thomas, fades away in an institution. Fournier can’t seem to forgive himself, or fate, for that matter, for putting the three of them through this difficult experience.
Où on va, papa doesn’t have little gems of wisdom for anyone in a difficult situation. It is intensely personal, avoids any and all platitudes, and doesn’t come to any satisfying emotional wrap-up. I can’t help approving of the honesty in that. There simply aren’t answers to most of Fournier’s questions.
I often think of memoir as a means to catharsis. I envision the writer sitting down at the end of his or her life, or after some significant experience, and going back over the details of what happened, mining that time period for what it taught them, what it brought to their understanding of their life and purpose. Fournier’s take on this exercise doesn’t come with any real sense of catharsis; it is so much more raw and unprocessed. Less a meditation on his experience and more a testament.
Just a last note to finish up, the rights for Où on va, papa? have been sold to an American publisher, so hopefully in the next year or so an English version will become available.