The End of Eddy

The End of Eddy

Title: The End of Eddy

Author: Édouard Louis, translated by Michael Lucey 

Review by Aneesa Abbas Higgins 

How do you come to terms with a childhood that leaves you with “no happy memories”, a family life where violence, abuse, hatred and cruelty are everyday realities? This is the question posed by Édouard Louis’s autobiographical novel The End of Eddy.

From the very first chapter of this powerful and often harrowing tale, we are plunged into a world of extraordinary brutality, where Eddy the child is beaten, spat on, vilified and excluded, branded a “faggot” in an intensely macho community. Eddy’s world is a rural working-class community in Picardy, a village in which the majority of families eke out an existence of grinding poverty. It is a closed, inward-looking community, distrustful of the bourgeoisie and of outsiders, a marginalised section of society that is rarely the focus of contemporary fiction but which will seem all too familiar to readers of Zola’s bleak tales of working-class and country life at the close of the nineteenth century.

Controversy

The End of Eddy was the subject of much controversy when it was published, to huge acclaim, in France in 2014. The novel is explicitly autobiographical: Hallencourt in Picardy, where the work is set, is a living village, complete with its war memorial, church, and brass foundry that supplies work to the men of the area. Bellegueule, the protagonist’s surname, is the author’s family name. So it comes as no surprise to read of reports in the local press that the author’s family felt slighted by the way they are characterised in the novel, that the left-wing weekly Le Nouvel Observateur called into question the novel’s depiction of the proletariat as brutal, misogynistic, racist and unashamedly homophobic. Reading the novel, one is indeed shocked at the casual brutality depicted, but there is much more to this book than mere violence. Eddy Bellegueule’s narrative answers the question posed by the opening pages: this is a coming-of-age story, a heart-rending tale of a boy’s transformation from abused adolescent in denial of his own sexuality to hopeful young artist finding his place in a society that values his gifts and accepts him as he is.

The novel opens as ten-year-old Eddy begins his schooling at the local collège. Two older boys approach him, spit in his face and begin the ritualistic homophobic abuse to which Eddy will be regularly subjected. We are spared none of the details of the brutal beating and of the child’s humiliation at the hands of his tormentors. Eddy keeps silent about his ordeals, turning his pain to self-loathing and a pretence of happiness that prompts him to speculate later that his silence was a form of complicity in his own abuse. As a child, Eddy is effeminate from the start, given to mannerisms and a way of speaking that constantly give rise to taunts from his contemporaries and exhortations from his mother to “stop acting like a girl”. Men are expected to be tough and hard-drinking, their bodies worn out at an early age by repetitive labour, heavy smoking and poor diet. Eddy’s sensitivity and gentle ways are an affront to his father’s manhood. “I could feel my father’s gaze when it fell on me, I could feel the terror mounting in him, his powerlessness in the face of the monster he had created”. His mother too is appalled by the cuckoo in her nest. Women are held responsible for their men’s behaviour, it is up to them to make sure that their sons and husbands fulfil their destiny as lovers, fathers, fighters.

Unflinching

Edouard Louis

Louis delivers the narrative with force and immediacy

The novel is equally unflinching in its depiction of the dehumanising effects of poverty. Eddy’s family live in a damp, cold house, where heating is an expensive, often unaffordable luxury, scavenging for wood when times are bad and relying on foodbanks to supplement a wretchedly inadequate diet. Health and hygiene are scorned, doctors and dentists considered unaffordable and untrustworthy. Obesity is expected, Eddy’s slight frame being a further cause of embarrassment and one which he attempts to remedy by binging on crisps and his mother’s greasy food. The television plays constantly, conversation at mealtimes is silenced so that it can be heard, its drone the soundtrack to Eddy’s homework sessions in the shared living space. Aspirations are crushed, Eddy’s sister advised by her school not to aim to be a teacher (a career considered to be an easy route to riches) but to set her sites on a more realistic occupation such as hairdressing or working in a shop. Everyone is casually racist, the principal targets of abuse being Algerians and Arabs in general.

And yet there is a glimmer of light in this bleak landscape. Eddy’s father is proud of his son’s success at school, even when Eddy begins to betray his class by speaking like an educated member of the reviled bourgeoisie. Abused by his own father, Eddy’s father is determined never to beat his own children. Eddy’s mother struggles endlessly to feed and clothe her seven children, making a game of collecting firewood to protect her children from the truth of their abject poverty. And the family members are themselves given voice throughout the novel.

Edouard Louis tells Eddy’s story in unadorned language that delivers the narrative with force and immediacy, an aspect of Michael Lucey’s translation that is particularly successful. Woven into the narrative are the words of the speakers, their coarse and colourful vernacular depicted in italics and never separated from the flow of the text. When I read this in French, I could hear those voices with all the cadences of authentic speech, the rich lexicon of expletives exploited to their fullest effect. Such vernacular speech is inevitably problematic to render in translation. Do you opt for a particular regional style of speech or go for a more generic form of slang and colloquialisms? This translation tends towards the latter, with a transatlantic flavour that faithfully conveys the spirit of the original without relying too heavily on anglo-saxon expletives.

This is a gripping, troubling read, a novel that comes as a stark reminder of the realities of life in a marginalised community, and of the continued prevalence of vicious homophobia in the heart of Europe in the twenty-first century.

Review by Aneesa Abbas Higgins 

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