Lives Other Than My Own

  • Emmanuel Carrère
  • Metropolitan Books
  • 243 pp.
  • September 21, 2011

A witness to the 2004 tsunami in Southeast Asia lays bare the details of tragedy and ponders its effects on those who survive.

Reviewed by Courtney Angela Brkic

American readers tend to avoid books on dark topics. At least this is what prospective authors are told when trying to place manuscripts about cancer, bereavement or war. We like the escapist darkness of vampire stories. Or, for subject matter closer to reality, heroic accounts of vanquishing illness, racism or poverty, perhaps because we like to imagine ourselves as equally triumphant in those circumstances. And while there is plenty of reportage from war zones, it is often consigned to the Current Events section of bookstores.

Lives Other Than My Own by French writer Emmanuel Carrère is a thoughtful, occasionally confounding, hybrid of a book. Part memoir, reportage, biography and philosophical treatise, it shuns the easy answers of a heroic account, instead laying bare the mundane and searing details of tragedy.

In late 2004, while Carrère and his partner, Helene, are vacationing in Sri Lanka, the tsunami strikes. Carrere’s party is safe — their hotel is located on a cliff — but the nearby village of Tangalla is decimated. Carrère’s descriptions of the hours and days that follow are haunting, from initial confusion over what has happened to the details of the walking wounded: a Dutchman whose wife has been injured and who first tells Carrère about the catastrophe; Ruth, a newlywed who maintains a constant vigil outside the local hospital for her missing husband, Tom; and a French family whose 4-year-old daughter has been killed.

In subsequent days, Carrère and Helene become increasingly close to the girl’s parents, Jerome and Delphine. It is Delphine’s father, Philippe, who had watched Juliette playing at the water’s edge, unable to reach her and narrowly escaping his granddaughter’s fate. Carrère bears witness to the family’s tragedy through painstaking descriptions of those events: the heavy knowledge that Philippe must share with his daughter and son-in-law, the way that Delphine moves mechanically through the days after her daughter’s death, and the strange — almost obscene — normalcy at Carrère’s cliff-top hotel, where dinner is served each night and tourists continue to swim laps in the pool.

When Juliette’s body is removed from the local hospital, which is overwhelmed by the sheer number of corpses, nothing but a scrap of paper is left in its wake: “Little white girl, blond, in a red dress”. And when Jerome finally locates her body again in a Colombo hospital, he tells his wife that she is “lovely” and “undamaged”. And not — as is the case — that she is decomposing.

Carrère’s account is strongest in his descriptions of Juliette’s family. The loss of a child is shocking under any circumstances, but there is something about the unadorned nature of Carrère’s prose that is singularly profound, as is his frank assessment of his own circumstances: he and Helene have escaped unscathed and their own children are safe. The lightning may have struck nearby, but in missing them it has consigned the two French couples to two “separate branches of humanity.”

A second calamity ensues after Carrère’s return to France. Helene’s sister — also named Juliette — dies following a long remission from cancer. A judge in a small town, she leaves behind a fulfilling career, a loving husband and three young daughters.What strikes the reader about the passages detailing Juliette’s life is her contentment. As a juge d’instance, she occupies the lowest rung of France’s judicial system but — in the words of her colleague Etienne — she is an excellent judge. Her first bout of cancer had left her on crutches but she is deeply in love with her husband, who has carried her up flights of stairs from the early days of their courtship.

In the weeks before her death, she enlists the help of friends to ease the transition for her family. One will arrange the funeral. One will oversee her daughters’ education. One will facilitate their access to benefits. Only when she contemplates her youngest daughter does she falter. Diane is a baby and will not consciously remember her, and so Juliette asks another friend to take as many pictures of her as possible, hopeful that a portion may not be “too awful.”

Here, again, Carrère is witness. He observes Juliette’s deteriorating health and her final hours which, wrenchingly, take place on the day of her daughters’ school pageant. But the lightning misses him once again, a dichotomy that clearly unsettles him.

In an effort to understand Juliette’s life and death, he interviews her husband, Patrice, and her colleague, Etienne. The latter had survived two bouts of cancer, losing his leg at the age of 22, and he and Juliette — the two lame judges of Vienne — are linked as much by experience as by profession.

Etienne clearly fascinates Carrère, and it is at this point that Lives Other Than My Own loses some of its focus, exploring Etienne’s biography in great detail. Part of this is necessary to Carrère’s larger quest; Juliette is gone and cannot parse the nature of either her cancer or her profession, leaving Etienne as a sort of proxy. But many of these passages are tangential.

And it is where Carrère veers even from Etienne’s ruminations on cancer that he is on shakiest ground. Viewing the disease through a philosophical lens, he cites Cazenave, a psychoanalyst and cancer patient whose own patients saw cancer as he did: “an obscure consequence of their own history, the ultimate expression of their unhappiness and dismay as they deal with life.” Carrèe believes that some people have been so “damaged at their core almost from the beginning” that they cannot live. As a reader, it is difficult not to interpret this as a form of victim-blaming.

Much of the book’s strength lies in Carrère’s humility, and during the earlier tsunami passages he does not get in the way of his subject matter. But he is less successful here, in some ways proving his point — perhaps unwittingly — that those not directly involved with tragedy may witness it, describe it, reconstruct it, but can never truly understand it.

Courtney Angela Brkic is the author of Stillness and Other Stories and The Stone Fields, and is currently at work on a novel, “The Sun in Another Sky.” She teaches at George Mason University.


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