APRIL 30, 2020
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED in France in 2018, Nicolas Mathieu’s second novel, And Their Children After Them, garnered that country’s most prestigious literary prize, the Prix Goncourt. A secret of its success was being one of the first French novels to provide a satisfactory chronicle of life growing up in a small, blue-collar town in the 1990s (Mathieu was born in 1978). It’s the sort of chronicle you didn’t realize was missing until you find yourself reading it for the first time, finding out, as this reader did, that in many ways it’s the story of your own wasted youth, discovering that the time period it recounts is not just the intimate stuff of your own memories but actually a perfectly bygone era with its own irreducible look and feel — a decade ripe for its novel. This is what And Their Children After Them masterfully provides.
Part I is subtitled “1992: Smells Like Teen Spirit.” In its opening pages we meet the 14-year-old Anthony, who roams the countryside with his older cousin, riding bikes and smoking cigarettes on a hot summer day. “The air was heavy with the smell of mud, of leaden, baked earth. July had scattered freckles across his already broad back. He was just wearing soccer shorts and a pair of fake Ray-Bans.” Anthony and his cousin are “bored out of their skulls,” but the reader is blissfully rediscovering that texture of teenage wasting in a time before cell phones, that feel of hot sun on your exposed skin, that smell of the baked earth that crunches under your BMX tires, that still-new taste of a cigarette, and, of course, that ineffable inflexion a Nirvana mention provides. Such summer days were an oblivion in their own right; like grunge, they were devoted to nothing other than oblivion itself, and so it is only right that their memory should pass into oblivion as well. And yet here is a 420-page novel in which we can indulge in their beautiful meaninglessness.
Mathieu’s laconic, matter-of-fact style of narration suits the rough-and-tumble world he depicts, one where the fathers, having lost their jobs when the factories closed, are alcoholics and racist, the mothers tough and wise. There are local customs, like drinking “Picon beers” (a shot of bitter orange liquor poured into a beer), and the fight that breaks out every Bastille Day after too many of said beverages. And there are local tragedies, like the kid that disappeared in the aftermath of one such fight: “In the end, the body was never found, and the Colin father went back to work without making a fuss. His wife hadn’t hung herself or anything. She just took pills.” Veteran translator William Rodarmor does a good job capturing this tone, deftly transposing the slangy French dialogue into its 1990s English equivalent: “We’re bored, like big time,” “Wait for me, for chrissakes!,” “A real douche,” are some of Anthony’s lines. Nicolas Mathieu’s tone is spot on for taking us through Anthony’s first encounters with drinking and drugs, sex, and fighting — rites of passage growing up in the fictional industrial valley of Heillange, with its landscape of abandoned factories whose portentous, dormant blast furnaces populate the horizon.
Mathieu creates a memorable adolescent dramatis personae to people this vivid, vacuous little world. With Stéphanie, for example, Anthony’s on-and-off girlfriend, we find indirect free style narration allows us to enter her perspective and see Anthony, Heillange, and dull existence through her eyes as well:
The old power plant was the worst possible place for a date. A ruin perched on a hill, it was covered with ferns and weeds, choked with brambles, and littered with fire pits, condoms, and broken glass. Steph was already feeling sorry she’d come, especially since the little jerk was late. She stood waiting, caught in the greasy immobility of that summer evening. She glanced at her watch again. She felt thirsty and horny.
Steph gets back at Anthony by refusing to have actual sex with him, dry humping him until she climaxes and leaving him unsatisfied. “For a few days he tried to convince himself that he had fucked her. But it was really the other way around.”
The 1990s were also a decade in which France found itself grappling with the growing crisis of the banlieues. Immigrants from former French North African colonies had been making their way to France since the postwar reconstruction era, when they provided cheap labor for what was then an overabundance of factory jobs. When factories began outsourcing and closing down, such families were often left stranded, economically destitute and effectively segregated from French society. It’s the reality poignantly brought to life in Mathieu Kassovitz’s groundbreaking film La Haine (Hate), released in 1995 — a reality which would explode in the form of riots a decade later in 2005. To this day the crisis remains acute in France, most recently depicted in Ladj Ly’s Les Misérables, released this year and nominated for an Academy Award for Best International Film.
Enter Hacine, the other protagonist of And Their Children After Them, son of a Moroccan immigrant who worked at the same steel mill as Anthony’s father. If the two fathers worked for the same employer, Metalor, they still lived in distinct worlds. Colonialism continued to function in the microcosm of the factory, where work-life was governed by “tacit rules, coercive methods inherited from the colonies,” according to which Hacine’s father “took orders for forty years, while being punctual, falsely docile, and an Arab, always. […] [A]n aura of suspicion always hung about him, some vague quality that forever put him in the wrong.” This is a novel about what one generation inherits from another, and Hacine’s generation, despite being born in France, is above all heir to this aura of xenophobic suspicion, one that develops by the 1990s into a stereotypical image of the banlieue thug, which, in fact, the drug-dealing Hacine lives up to. Meanwhile, on the other side of town, Anthony’s disgruntled and depressed father, Patrick, risks bequeathing to his son the racism and xenophobia that come to fill the vacuum left by his lost sense of self-worth. Without pretending they are on equal footing, Mathieu’s novel nevertheless reveals how much the working-class white kid and his “Arab” counterpart actually have in common — they both inherit and must call home the same post-industrial wasteland that so brutally consumed and discarded their fathers:
For a century, the Heillange blast furnaces had sucked all the life out of the region, gulping down people, time, and raw materials all at once. […] [T]he mill’s insatiable body had lasted as long as it could, fed by roads and exhaustion, nourished by a whole network of channels, which, once everything was deposited and sold by weight, had cruelly bled parts of the town dry. Those ghostly absences stirred memories, as did the overgrown train tracks, fading billboards, and bullet-riddled street signs.
Reading the novel, we perceive the tragedy of this shared fate in ways Anthony and Hacine do not. “[T]hey had grown up in the same town, been bored at the same jobs, gone to the same schools, dropped out of them too soon. […] They had run into each other a hundred times.” And yet, “those points in common meant nothing. A thickness hung between them.” When Hacine and his friends try to crash a party in the affluent, white part of town and are refused entry, Hacine gets revenge by stealing a motorcycle that happens to be Anthony’s father’s, which Anthony had stolen as a means of transportation to get to the party (not in his part of town either). When Anthony’s father discovers it’s missing, his rage leads to an episode of domestic violence that results in Anthony’s parents divorcing. When it is eventually discovered that Hacine was the culprit, Anthony’s mother, Hélène, insists on going and speaking to Hacine and his father, Mr. Bouali. To do so, she and Anthony must venture into the “enemy territory” of the ZUP (priority urban development zone), the banlieue housing projects the Boualis call home. In a foreshadowing of the 2005 riots, inside the complex they feel
the emptiness of the stairwell behind them, the building’s silent verticality, a numerous, mobile presence, a dull agitation. A whole group of underemployed people on the lookout, held by TV sets, drugs and distractions, heat and boredom. The smallest thing could rouse them.
The cordial but tense discussion that ensues between Anthony’s mother and Hacine’s father does nothing to dissipate this tension of colliding worlds. Hacine isn’t home, Mr. Bouali insists his son would never do such a thing. However, when Hacine returns later that evening his father beats him with an axe handle for dishonoring his family.
What has always separated Anthony and Hacine is the dense tension of inherited distrust, hate, and a history of violence stretching back to the French colonial era. When Anthony finally confronts Hacine about the stolen motorcycle, he finds himself standing at a crossroads pointing a gun at someone who — if just as French — he thinks of as an Arab. Add to this Mathieu’s insistence upon the blinding sun, along with a seemingly innocent reference to Albert Camus a couple pages prior, and the stage is set for a modern-day remake of the murder scene in Camus’s The Stranger. Anthony unwittingly finds himself on the precipice of reproducing Meursault’s absurd assassination. Whereas Part I of Camus’s The Stranger ends with a climactic rhetorical flourish and the gunshots going off like “four sharp knocks on the door of unhappiness,” here — without giving too much of a spoiler — let’s just say the result is, in the decidedly anticlimactic (teen) spirit of the 1990s, much less dramatic. “It was all so unforgivable,” reads the concluding sentence, and this seems to hold true whether we take it to be Anthony’s or Hacine’s assessment of the embarrassing situation, or, more globally, a remark about the absurdity and injustice of inheriting a history of violence.
Spanning the six years it does, And Their Children After Them takes us through the full range of the teenage years of its characters. As they evolve from children into men and women, there are occasional moments when their life transitions seem jarring. Hacine, for example, gives up his fast-paced drug-dealing lifestyle a little too easily for a mediocre job at the local Darty (roughly speaking, France’s version of Best Buy). I leave it to the reader’s judgment to decide whether or not Hacine — employed and at least materially assimilated into mainstream society — is not, on some level, just as effectively liquidated as Camus’s “Arab” in The Stranger. If so, the same might be said for Anthony, for the jobs he finds aren’t proving to be any better. But at least working them gets his mother (who “believed in killing yourself working”) off his back. It’s looking as though Hacine and Anthony will be equally expendable, just like their fathers had proven to be, when it comes to the whims of free-market capitalism.
Throughout this coming of age the tension between these two sons of Heillange persists, and its consequences unfold in interesting ways. Their respective senses of belonging to Heillange, and to France, also evolve. In fact, it is this fraught question of belonging, which, if unspoken, lies at the very heart of the novel. Will any of these kids ever get out of Heillange? If so, where would they go? Ultimately, what is so moving about And Their Children After Them is how it manages to express without undue pathos the desperate desire for true belonging that unconsciously animates these adolescents. Seemingly against all odds, they do manage to experience that strange sensation in rare moments. It takes them by surprise. They hardly know what to make of it. This occurs, in one instance, on Bastille Day. All the characters are out and about in Heillange, partying, looking for a fight, sarcastically awaiting the paltry patriotic festivities organized by City Hall. And yet, when the fireworks do go off, they are “a thousand faces […] lifted to the sky, reflecting bursts of red, blue, and white light.” Falling silent, they “couldn’t find anything to mock, despite the deeply gregarious atmosphere, despite Céline Dion and Whitney Houston. The sound and light captivated them, and they forgot to keep themselves detached.”
In another instance, Anthony is cruising along the roads of the valley on a motorbike, feeling “[t]hat imprint that the valley had left on his flesh. The terrible sweetness of belonging.” I suspect it must have been a difficult decision for Rodarmor when it came to translating this sentence. The original French, l’effroyable douceur, could also have been translated as the horrible, the dreadful, or perhaps even the appalling sweetness (or comfort) of belonging. However translated, it succinctly expresses all the ambivalence of belonging. Ultimately, this sentence crystalizes the delicate balancing act Nicolas Mathieu pulls off more generally in And Their Children After Them —a novel that is delightfully detached and disabused, and yet knows when to let down its guard and be moving.
Joshua Armstrong is an associate professor of French at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His fiction has appeared in Typehouse Literary Magazine and he is the author of Maps and Territories: Global Positioning in the Contemporary French Novel.