Autopsy of a Father: A Novel

  • By Pascale Kramer; translated by Robert Bononno
  • Bellevue Literary Press
  • 208 pp.
  • Reviewed by Jeanne Mackin
  • August 8, 2017

This complex story of a troubled family becomes a metaphor for the racial and cultural tensions plaguing contemporary France.

This haunting novel by acclaimed French writer Pascale Kramer, recipient of the 2017 Swiss Grand Prize for Literature, begins with a strange scenario: A man on a train sees another man throw himself onto the tracks, witnessing the suicide a millisecond before the train passes. His reaction is not one of shock or pity but a cool recognition of his own solitude and despair.

Immediately after this brief and violent incident, the man, Gabriel, sees his daughter and grandson on the same train, but the daughter does not see him. Surely, he is in her line of sight, yet they never make eye contact, never speak. 

In the next chapter, we discover Gabriel has himself committed suicide, and his daughter, Ania, is traveling back to her childhood country home for the funeral. 

Ania’s dislike for the parent she hasn’t visited in years is thick on the page, far beyond any usual and expected discord between father and daughter, and beyond any means of repair. What has happened between these two is never made completely clear; it probably couldn’t be since neither Ania nor her father is certain of what has bricked up between them.

They are both victims of some circumstance, both mutual perpetrators of animosity in those circumstances. Gabriel, on the surface, seems a loving and generous parent. He is also judgmental and uncomfortable with his daughter’s lack of intellectual achievement; he’s certainly unhappy with her choice of husband. Ania, for her part, lives and works in an impoverished immigrant community rather than return to the comfort of her middle-class French origins.

Is this why Gabriel, a former left-wing intellectual, has become anti-immigrant and xenophobic? Rebellion between father and daughter is too easy an answer in this novel. We know there has been a murder of an immigrant by three young men of the town, and that Gabriel has publicly spoken in support of the killers, thereby losing his job as a radio commentator and most of his friends. His daughter’s love he lost long before.

Gabriel’s wife died years before the beginning of the novel; the details are skimpy, but they seem to include construction materials and a fleeting sense of a road accident and horrific violence. The reader never knows if the people involved in the accident are traditional French or immigrants.

What is made clear is that Gabriel deeply loved his wife, who was Iranian. Later, Gabriel remarries a younger woman, Clara, who reluctantly shares the self-imposed exile of her husband in the French countryside, in the house he once shared with his daughter and first wife.

Ania, half French and half Iranian, has a child, Theo, who is deaf. Gabriel has helped arrange special schooling for his grandson, yet Ania never brings her son to visit him. Theo is a lively little boy who lip-reads and understands others only when they face him directly.

Metaphor layers on top of metaphor in this novel, with Theo representing a new generation, an uneasy bridge between traditional French culture and the new wave of Muslim culture. What made this reader uncomfortable is that disability or deformity could be read by some as punishment for the mixing of cultures and races. Theo and his deafness represent the largest risk taken in this risk-taking novel.

Autopsy of a Father is neither easy nor simple. It leaves the reader vaguely agitated by a set of circumstances no one fully comprehends or deals with. Least of all Ania, who has rejected the past, and Gabriel, who rejects the future.

The autopsy of the title is political and psychological, not physical; it is an autopsy of contemporary France, as well as of Gabriel. This is a contemporary France of burned-out suburbs and high-rise communities hovering outside mainstream culture, decaying country estates, and racial tension.

The distance between father and daughter becomes the distance between the older culture and the newer one and is fraught with misunderstanding, dislike, and violence. The only compromise offered in this story is in the blurring of boundaries: Ania’s rejection of her father’s life and culture is not complete. The one item she wants from his estate is a painting by Degas, that most French of French painters.

The novel haunts on all levels, both in the reader’s desire for a hint of hope, and in the author’s refusal to console. Once read, this story is not forgotten.

Jeanne Mackin is the author of several novels, including, most recently, A Lady of Good Family and The Beautiful American from New American Library. She has published in many literary journals, and her work in journalism has won awards from the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education, in Washington, DC.

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