Native Son

Who Killed My Father BY Edouard Louis. New Directions. Hardcover, 128 pages. $15.

The cover of Who Killed My Father

The most striking scene in Who Killed My Father is also its most emblematic. The French novelist Édouard Louis revisits the memory six times in his brief new memoir-cum-polemic, sifting it obsessively as if for hidden information that the scene won’t yield. One evening in 2001, a preadolescent Édouard stages a performance for his parents and a large group of dinner guests. It’s standard proto-queer kid stuff: a now-dated pop song, fussy choreography, backup dancers conscripted from among the guests’ children, and the ringleader self-cast as front woman. The adults watch politely—all except Édouard’s father, who turns away. His withdrawal only heightens the son’s desire to make contact. Though he registers the guests’ growing embarrassment, Édouard doubles down, singing louder, until his father cracks. “I don’t know how long I kept it up, how long I went on insisting, Look, Dad, look. Finally you stood up and said, I’m going outside for a smoke. I had hurt your feelings.”

Who Killed My Father puts on a comparably dogged performance, its sights trained desperately on the parent who is its subject. Louis, who is gay, spent his boyhood alternately terrified and disgusted by his father’s crass masculinity and the proudly philistine world of their working-class village in northern France. After escaping to theater school and then to the École Normale Supérieure in Paris, the writer cut ties with his family and spun their story into literary gold. His universally admired debut, The End of Eddy, published in France in 2014 and translated into English in 2017, details the violence and poverty that drove him from his birthplace: “because I couldn’t be one of them,” it concludes, “I had to reject that whole world.” The break appeared total, though Louis’s second novel, History of Violence, mended it somewhat. After being raped and nearly murdered in his Paris apartment, the protagonist retreats to his sister’s provincial home and the book’s narration is shared between the siblings’ voices.

Louis’s latest book again mines the rift between family and writer while dramatizing his efforts to repair it. Who Killed My Father is written in an intimate but self-consciously artificial second person, as the son dredges up memories for his unresponsive dad. In the small town of Hallencourt, diets are poor, alcoholism rampant, and education suspect. Louis’s parents complain about immigrants and “faggots” more than they do the wealthy. Though just fifty years old, his father can barely walk without assistance after an accident in the same factory that employed his own father and grandfather. New welfare restrictions require that he return to work; he now sweeps the streets of a nearby town. His disability is compounded by diabetes, high cholesterol, and a ventral hernia.

From the beginning, Louis lays confident blame for his father’s condition at the feet of politics—as in, “You belong to the category of humans whom politics has doomed to an early death.” Who Killed My Father presents the deadening stasis from which Louis fled as a symptom of the structural forces of patriarchy and capitalism. Though that stasis itself is rendered vividly, Louis’s analysis remains abstract until the book’s final ten pages, which rehearse a series of humiliations, both material and symbolic, perpetrated by the administrations of Presidents Chirac, Sarkozy, Hollande, and Macron. The title Who Killed My Father bears no question mark because for Louis there’s no mystery: Cuts to health care and housing subsidies, punitive welfare restructuring, weakened labor protections, and tax cuts for the rich are indicted in turn for directly immiserating his family.

Many details in Who Killed My Father will be familiar to readers of Louis’s previous work, as will its governing emotions of shame, cruelty, and revulsion. All three of his books are avowedly autobiographical—“Every word of [Eddy] is true,” Louis insisted to one interviewer—and key scenes from the first recur in Who Killed My Father. An obvious question, then, in light of Eddy’s success: Why write them again?

The most immediate answer may be to clarify allegiances. In Who Killed My Father Louis goes to great lengths to align himself with the formerly disavowed father’s you. “Should I not repeat myself until they listen to us?” he asks, in the middle of a family story first told in Eddy. “To make them listen to us?” The father in Eddy was almost cartoonishly villainous, erratic, and vituperative. In Who Killed My Father the same figure is rewritten with real pathos, fitfully resisting before resigning himself to the environment that devours him.

If the book’s mood is emphatically bleak, Louis’s final paragraphs offer some eleventh-hour optimism. In recent years, his father has begun to ask about Louis’s lover and to condemn racism, and he can now even be counted among his son’s readers. “You’ve become a different person,” Louis writes admiringly. The man who until this moment had seemed confounding, unruly, a thorn in the side of the political establishment, is given the book’s last word—a moving gesture. But that word is incongruously deferential to Louis’s worldview: “You’re right—what we need is a revolution.” The clarity is rousing but rings a bit false, not because it’s wrong but because the reconciliation between writer and father is so suddenly, improbably frictionless.

As I read Who Killed My Father this winter, I also kept an eye on what I hoped might be the first glimmers of revolution in Louis’s country: the gilets jaunes protests, which arose last November in opposition to a proposed gas tax and have since grown into a broader movement. Louis has endorsed the Yellow Vests, telling one interviewer that he can picture his family among their ranks. But the ideological heterogeneity of the protests, which have brought together nativists, anti-racist activists, and previously apolitical members of the French working class, challenges his powerfully binary conception of politics, with its simple division between “those who have everything and those who have nothing.” Like the gilets jaunes, the figure who emerges in Who Killed My Father has his own beliefs and desires, which some of us have only lately begun to hear. Louis is right that he has more to say.

Sam Huber is a writer and graduate student living in New York.