September 20, 2008


Philippe Grimber, Un secret

I stumbled recently upon the short book by Philippe Grimbert, Un secret, which has inspired the movie by the same name. Telling his own story, with a few adaptations, the author brings us to discover the tragic family secret which was hovering over him as a child, until the age of fifteen.

The narrator is a young child, born after the war in Paris, the only son to parents who cultivate their athletic bodies with daily exercise. The young boy is sickly but obsessed by a fantasy about an elder brother who resembles his parents more than he does: tall, strong, the elder one is a source of pride for his parents. On the day he turns 15, the child is in school watching a documentary on Auschwitz. When a schoolmate makes an anti-semitic remark, the boy at first laughs along but a moment later finds himself fighting recklessly the author of the remark. On that day, a friend of the family will reveal to him his origins but also the tragic tale of love and sacrifice from which his parent's union emerged.

I don't write more because of the excitation and emotion I felt unfolding the story in all its details under the pen of Philippe Grimbert and I highly recommend reading the book. Un secret has been published in English under both titles Memory: A Novel and Secret.

I you really want to read more details, I refer you to the Fiche de lecture réalisée par Rachel M, élève de 3ème, these notes on a Rencontre avec Philippe Grimbert or even the pedagogic material aimed at teachers detailing both the book and the movie.

Martin Winckler, La maladie de Sachs

As a proof that any family secret evokes any other one, I want to write about an other book I recommend warmly, Martin Winckler's La maladie de Sachs (which appeared in English as The Case of Doctor Sachs: A Novel.)

I'll borrow first from this excellent review the outline of Martin Winckler's novel:
Dr. Bruno Sachs, a slight, stooped, and somewhat unkempt general practitioner in a French village is dedicated to his work and loved by his patients. Sachs is a solitary, self-effacing man who takes his Hippocratic duties seriously and is especially sensitive to the needs of his patients.
The reader views Sachs through the eyes of multiple narrators--his patients, colleagues, friends and acquaintances, all of whom write in the first person and present Bruno Sachs as "you" or "he." Thus, the reader gradually builds up a "connection" (...) with Sachs by synthesizing multiple glimpses of his behavior and facets of his character. At the same time, Sachs is trying to find his own voice, his own connection, by becoming a writer. At first he jots down random thoughts, then he keeps a notebook, and eventually he produces a complete manuscript.
Sachs is a hero to me: His attempt to listen to his patients and understand what they are saying with their symptoms or their hypocondria, their sometimes vocal and sometimes silent calls for help. His attempt not only to treat the symptoms but also to advise the people who came to him on their real, often non-medical, problems. To alleviate the pain of the patients. To set the patient as his sole concern, including respecting a patient who wants to be allowed to die. (Insofar as Winckler, through Sachs, is very critical of the medical establishment - and moralizing - I do hope he is a good doctor himself...)

Back to family secrets. One story in The Case of Doctor Sachs, intertwined among other patients' stories, is entitled "The secret". Like in Grimbert's novel, we are first aware of the surface effects, the symptoms and only later do we understand the terrible family secret that lies below the surface. The backdrop is the same period in France: the occupation. A young woman and a young Jewish man named Abel are lovers. She is pregnant. Abel is arrested and deported. Abel's best friend, a French aristocrat, marries the young pregnant woman out of loyalty for his late friend. A generation later, after they have raised Abel's child and a second child together, she reveals the truth in a moment of anger: she had plotted the whole scenario and denounced Abel whom she didn't care for, in order to pave the way for a marriage with him, the aristocrat, her ultimate target.

It is hard for me to believe that Winckler made up entirely this horrible secret of ambition and treason, it is just to horrible to come to the imagination. Maybe I'm wrong.

[Some chapters, including the first two chapters of "The Secret" are available online through Google Books (pages 283 and 341), but the third one, the comprehensive "original version" isn't (page 355).]