Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

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.   


12 Responses to “Jean-Louis Fournier – Où on va, papa?”

  1. Stefanie

    I don’t know how you managed to get through it. What a sad story. I wonder how Marie must feel as the ‘normal’ child?

  2. Litlove

    It sounds to me like there’s another book waiting to be written about this book. Like Stefanie, I wonder about Marie’s upbringing. And I also wonder how it makes the story different to be told from the father’s point of view rather than the mother’s. My instinct is to imagine it would be far more distanced, and possibly more angry, but I’m speculating here which isn’t a good idea. What do you think?

  3. verbivore

    Stefanie – I do think Marie’s story would be fascinating. I imagine her life was not easy at all. Although I do believe her two brothers lived mostly in full-time institutions while she was growing up. Not that that makes things necessary easier, I’m sure that also raises its own special set of problems.

    Litlove – You mention the mother and we had a long discussion about that in our group because she was wholly absent from the book and you really only learn halfway through that she left the family at some point. He doesn’t go into much detail but he gives the impression that he remained the primary care giver for the rest of their lives. Or maybe they just took on the burdens completely separate from one another. I would have enjoyed seeing her perspective…

  4. Dorothy W.

    Wow, this sounds like an amazing book. To write about that experience without trying to find closure or larger meaning at the end sounds brave — also brave to put the book out into the world when it seems like people might be disturbed by it and its lack of comfort. But maybe I’m being unfair to readers — I’m curious about the kind of reception the book got (and will continue to get).

  5. Austra

    I finished reading “ou on va papa” a few days ago. I laughed, I cried. It took me no time to read that book, I could not part from it, a few hours at the most.
    I do not agree with your translation above “notre chance s’est appellee Marie”, it would be more “Our luck was called Marie” not ” We named our non failure”. It refers back to doctors telling him there was a chance he could get a “normal” child.
    Great read.

  6. verbivore

    Austra – Yes, this was a beautiful book, I couldn’t agree more. I also read it quickly and we had a great discussion in my book group.

    I agree with your literal translation of the phrase, notre chance s’est appellée Marie, however, I went for something a bit less literal…especially since, as you point out, Fournier’s sarcastic comment is referring back to an earlier comment by the doctor, who tells them to go ahead and have the child, so they wouldn’t end on a failure. But as with any translation, there are several ways to try to get to the nuance of a phrase.

  7. collysil

    i have been reading “ou on va papa?” for my french class and i just couldn’t quite go through with the book.
    Your blog has been most helpful:)

  8. Lindsay

    Agnes, the mother of Mattieu and Thomas has a blog: http://mamanmathieuetthomas.monsite.orange.fr/index.jhtml
    where she responds to Fournier’s book essentially refusing to believe that her son’s lives were for nothing and that sometimes love is a more powerful communication than words. She includes pictures, links, and responses to her blog. It is in French.

  9. verbivore

    Lindsay – thank you for the link, very interesting to see a few of her thoughts on the book. I’m going to provide an updated post with the link.

  10. more Fournier « Incurable Logophilia

    […] dealing with Fournier’s life with his two disabled sons. My reactions to the book are here and here. As I mentioned when I first discussed the book, it was a controversial piece of literature when it […]

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