Twenty years after his parents jumped from the window of their Parisian apartment to their deaths, Philippe Grimbert decided to write about the secret that had overwhelmed their lives. “I had been in mourning for those 20 years,” says the French psychoanalyst, “which is a lot more than Freud suggests is normal. The Guardian, April 2007
Secret, by Philippe Grimbert, translated from French by Polly McLean, is a haunting story of a boy who senses something held back from him from those around him, it is post-war Paris, he is an only child who imagines he has a make-believe brother, seeing things from his perspective as well as his own, even going so far as to fight with him.
He is aware of his mother’s silences, his father’s sadness, without knowing the reason why, yet knowing not to ask. They are athletic, good-looking parents, but they birthed him, a delicate child they must keep from the jaws of death.
I survived, thanks to the care of doctors and the love of my mother. I would like to think my father loved me too – overcoming his disappointment and finding in care, worry and protectiveness enough to stoke his feelings. But his first look left its trace on me, and I regularly glimpsed that flash of bitterness in his eyes.
Full of fear at school, one day after watching a particularly disturbing documentary about the Holocaust, he is overcome by emotion at the insulting comment of a boy in the class and starts a fight, an act completely out of character for him and yet he had felt an inner rage that compelled him to react violently.
The incident left me with a patch above one eye that I wore around school with great pride. But the injury brought me much more than ephemeral glory – it was the sign for which Louise had been waiting.
The neighbour Louise is the only person he tells the truth about why he got in the fight.
Louise was always my favourite, even though she wasn’t actually part of the family. Perhaps I felt a deeper complicity with her than with my blood relatives. Affectionate as they were, my uncles, aunts and grandparents seemed surrounded by an intangible barrier forbidding questions and warding off confidences. A secret club, bound together by an impossible grief.
He is surprised at how upset she becomes, not at his behaviour, but something else, something greater, the burden of which overwhelms her, something she too has known all these years, and believes now she must reveal to him.
The day after my fifteenth birthday, I finally learnt what I had always known.
He fills in the gaps of the story, imagining the narrative himself, he knows nearly all the characters, except those that have haunted him, but he seems to have known them too. However, he too guards the secret, knowing makes it easier on him, but it can’t change his relationship with his family.
To overcome the final hurdle, he needs to fill in the gaps, to find out the facts.
There remained a gap in my story, a chapter whose contents were not known even to my parents. I knew a way to un-stick its pages: I had heard about a place in Paris where I could find the information I was missing.
The narrator shares the same name as the author, and though he never knew the exact details of what happened before he was born, except by anecdote, he used fiction to explore and build a narrative that hopefully might have let some of the ghosts he had lived with for many years to rest.
Why, I ask him, did he write a novel that would involve fictionalising real events? “Because I had no choice. For me, in reconstituting this story that was so brief in terms of what I had been told, reconstituting it in all its duration, was all I could do. My sole tool was the novel. Perhaps someone else could have made a film, done a painting. Somebody else could have written a history, but I couldn’t. The only way I could pay homage was to write this book.”
The Guardian, April 2007
It’s a compelling, thought-provoking read and all the more so upon finishing when I realised there is indeed a strong link to the author’s own life. In addition to the secrets explored in the book, which I don’t want to give away as they are better left to explore in reading, they also let him grow up thinking he was Catholic, something that I think may have been quite common among survivors of WWII.
“I now think that what they did was an act of love rather than cowardice. They sought to protect themselves and me by doing these things. But discovering that I was really a Jew and not a Catholic made me into a neurotic and then into a shrink.”
The book has also been made into a dramatic French film.