‘Autopsy of a Father’ by Pascale Kramer (Review)

It’s always nice to get emails from publishers (even if I’m not always able to review their books), and I was intrigued when I was contacted a while back by Bellevue Literary Press, a publisher from the US that, in their own words, “…is devoted to publishing literary fiction and nonfiction at the intersection of the arts and sciences…”.  The book discussed in the email was a novel by Swiss writer Pascale Kramer and promised a look at an absent father and a society with racial tension bubbling just beneath the surface.  That’s quite a claim – let’s see how well it stands up…

Autopsy of a Father (translated by Robert Bononno, review copy courtesy of the publisher) begins with a prologue in which Gabriel, a radio journalist and documentary maker, is taking a train journey, possibly fleeing from some bad news.  At the far end of the carriage, he notices his daughter Ania and her son Théo, but chooses to keep his distance (as we are to learn, theirs is a rather estranged relationship).  The focus then shifts to Ania and a phone call she receives from her father’s second wife the day after the train journey:

The click of a lighter could be heard on the phone, then a very self-assured and feminine “Hello.”  Ania felt her heart skip a beat.  It had to be Clara.
“You know who I am, don’t you?” Clara said after that brief introduction.  “Your father died last night in his apartment in Monceau,” she continued with almost no change in her youthful, firm and pleasant voice.  “He swallowed some glass, nine pieces, fairly large, from a mustard jar,” she added, exhaling the smoke of her cigarette just as she would have sneered at the unbearable idea of repeatedly swallowing a razor.
pp.36/7 (Bellevue Literary Press, 2017)

The news drags Ania back into a world she left years ago, and she unwillingly makes her way to the family home of Les Épinettes, an ageing mansion just outside Paris.

As dramatic as the news is, it doesn’t come as a complete surprise.  Ania’s father has been in the news because of an inflammatory comment made after a gruesome attack on a migrant by youths from his home area, and his employers’ decision to cut him loose appears to have been the catalyst for the suicide.  However, Ania has little time to worry about the social ramifications of her father’s words.  With a son requiring constant attention, an ex-husband drifting in and out of her life and a step-mother carefully watching her every move, the prodigal daughter must return to watch over her father’s body, all the time reconsidering her life before the breakdown of their relationship.

Autopsy of a Father is a fairly short novel, and there are a fair few gaps in the story of a woman forced to confront her past.  The title figure may have passed away, but he still casts a shadow over the novel, his body placed prominently in the main room of the house he spent his life in.  Ania goes in and out of the house, trying not to argue with Clara, with the knowledge that her father is still present, in body if not in reality.  In many ways, the novel is one long countdown to the funeral, when events (both family and societal) will eventually come to a head.

Most of the book is told through Ania’s eyes, focusing on the people in her life.  Her son Théo is deaf, and the stress caused by looking after him (and nursing him through a sudden illness) makes coping with Gabriel’s death even harder.  She’s forced to seek help from her ex-husband Novak, a migrant from the Balkans, whose liking for the Parisian suburbs pushed Ania away from her family home.  Novak’s reappearance in her life makes Ania reflect on the difference between the two lives, at Les Épinettes and in her high-rise flat, leading her to wonder if she made the right choice after all.

This disconnect is linked to the novel’s wider theme of France and immigration.  Gabriel’s ‘crime’, the one leading to his ostracism and suicide, is his defence of the two local boys’ violent act, a choice made even more surprising by his history as a left-wing journalist.  Kramer carefully explores the reasons for his drift to the right by gradually dropping pieces of information into the story and showing the nervousness of locals around the village, eventually sharing stories of migrants from the suburbs shattering the calm.  When Ania compares these accounts with what she sees in her own daily life, she begins to understand why Gabriel felt compelled to stand up for the people around him.

The true heart of the novel, though, is the interaction between Ania and Clara.  From their first encounters, the older woman is nothing but helpful, yet Ania can’t help but remain cautious:

“Do what you think is best,” she replied, feeling that she had no prerogatives about the burial.  “Are you sure?” Clara asked, raising her eyebrows.  Ania watched her as she readjusted her raincoat.  The incident, though minor, had revealed a potential enemy beneath the beautiful and cautious face. (p.85)

There’s a mix of hostility and warmth in their encounters, owing to the stress of the situation and Ania’s sense of having to protect legacies, both real and imagined.  While happy to leave the practical arrangements to the grieving widow, she’s on guard lest Clara take advantage of the situation (and is particularly annoyed when Clara’s brother arrives to give moral support).  Kramer depicts Ania’s frequent emotional swings between anger at Clara for her control of matters and admiration of her manner and elegance.

It’s all nicely done for the most part.  The text is often deliberately awkward and stilted, reflecting the difficulties of a group of people thrown together by tragedy, the lack of affection shown in the spiky way the main characters interact.  Kramer takes her time in teasing the story out, particularly when it comes to the nature of Gabriel’s social transgression.  This works well mainly because Ania isn’t really sure how much, if anything, she wants to know about her father’s life and work, and in the dreamlike atmosphere of Les Épinettes, the real world can feel far away.

In truth, though, I found the novel a little too slow at times, with the drip feed of information frequently stopping completely.  It would have been good to have a steadier build-up to the finale, with more of Gabriel’s secrets revealed.  I was also unconvinced by the social angle of the novel as it felt a little forced.  Autopsy of a Father could really have remained a father-daughter relationship story, without the extraneous anti-migrant angle, and if the novel was to marry the two ideas, it may have been better to expand it so that this second strand had more room to develop.  As it is, the events of the last few pages don’t really act as a suitable conclusion to what came before.

While I’m not entirely convinced that Kramer really achieves what she set out to do, Autopsy of a Father is still an interesting read, a story of a sad end to a strained relationship with hints of wider societal issues.  It’s a telling reminder of how what we think is our safe environment is subject to change; it’s how we deal with life’s developments that determines how happy we’re likely to be.

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