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un secret

17 september 2008

I have a possibly annoying habit: when I hear about a new art film, I often go out and read the book. Partly this is because, in Arlington Texas, it's not a given that an interesting new movie will appear on a screen I can easily get to. Dallas has an art house or two, but is also a trafficky drive away. Fort Worth gets art films on one screen at the rate of one per weekend, making it anybody's guess whether something like A Secret will ever open Where the West Begins. If I want to know at least something about an intriguing art film, it's frequently quicker for me to dial up InterLibrary Loan, get the book, and read it. Otherwise I might have to wait till Netflix scores the DVD for me.

And so with Philippe Grimbert's Un secret, a novel I just finished while its film adaptation is still stranded at a cinema or two in Manhattan, and may never make it to the provinces. "Fils unique, j'ai longtemps eu un frère," begins Un secret (12) [an only child, I'd had a brother for a long time]. Unathletic child of two sleek, chiseled parents, the narrator – whose name, apparently, is Philippe Grimbert – longs to have an athletic, rough-and-tumble elder brother to mentor and protect him. One day in his Parisian childhood in the late 1950s, rummaging through a storeroom with his mother, the narrator finds an old plush dog that he adopts as a token substitute for that brother. It is a macabre choice.

We learn, in a palimpsest of provisional narratives, that the dog really did belong to the narrator's elder brother. Writing from the perspective of the grown-up Philippe Grimbert, the narrator explores his childhood discovery of the title secret, buried under many layers of denial. He is his mother's only son, it's true. But his father had been married before, and had begotten a son named Simon, a son hale, hearty, and uncomfortably like young Philippe's imaginary evocation of him.

What happened to Simon? Young Philippe knows the official version of how his family survived the war, sheltered by rural friends. He sort of knows that his family is of Jewish origin, though they have long since converted, he'd been told, and Catholicized their name from Grinberg to Grimbert. But he learns of his brother's fate only from his neighbor, the masseuse Louise, who witnessed the terrifying debacle that led to Simon's disappearance into Auschwitz.

Un secret recalls other fictions of a young person's excavation of a hidden Holocaust story. It echoes Bernhard Schlink's Der Vorleser, where a grown man learns the truth about his first lover, who had concealed her past as a concentration-camp guard. Un secret also recalls, though in a much more direct and matter-of-fact way, the magnificent depiction of a quest after unavailable truths in W.G. Sebald's Austerlitz. And there's even a perverse echo here of Sophie's Choice: putting it that way is not close enough to spoil the plot, but readers will see what I mean. At the heart of Un secret is a meditation on why someone might grasp the unthinkable.

The stuffed dog at the center of Un secret is an avatar of several real dogs in the story. At one point, Philippe's father's dog Echo is killed after the father lets him run free of his leash. The father, who has weathered the War and the Holocaust, is devastated. In the book's most telling truth, his son both blames and exonerates him:

Il m'a dit qu'Echo était mort par sa faute. Je me suis entendu lui dire que c'était vrai, qu'il était responsable de cela, mais de cela seulement. (177)

[He told me that it was his fault that Echo was dead. I heard myself telling him that that was true, he was responsible for that, but only for that.]

Like Irène Némirovsky's Suite française, Un secret is in part an attempt to imagine how people can continue to live everyday lives in the face of a great debacle and a great crime. That they continue to live from day to day is never their fault. But the guilt of having lived – and even loved – in the face of the Holocaust can extend down through generations.

Grimbert, Philippe. Un secret. Paris: Bernard Grasset, 2004.