Friday, 25 November 2016

Book Review: The Fig Tree by Françoise Xénakis

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2016 review of a book written
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The character of a person is never static because it continuously adapts to outside influences and (sometimes uncommon) emotional reactions to them. Such changes of attitude and behaviour use to be gradual and therefore often remain unnoticed by oneself and the immediate surroundings even when they are quite fundamental. Harsh living conditions like during an economic crisis, under a terror regime or in a war can accelerate the process and thus turn closest friends or even lovers into complete strangers if they are separated for a while. This is the experience that the two nameless protagonists of The Fig Tree by Françoise Xénakis make. They were a happy couple full of love for each other, but a highly bureaucratic terror regime tore them from each other and kept them apart for three years. During this time he went through the unspeakable horrors of a brutally run forced labour camp and she had to cope with the humiliating routines of red tape.

Françoise Xénakis was born Françoise Gargouïl in Blois, Loir-et-Cher, France, in September 1930. In 1949, she had just begun her studies of law and psychology, she met Iannis Xénakis (1922-2001) whom she married four years later and who was to become world-famous as a classical composer, while she worked as a journalist for different French periodicals and TV. In 1956 their daughter Mâkhi Xénakis, the renowned painter and sculptor, was born. Her first novel, Le Petit Caillou (The Small Pebble), came out in 1963 and was followed by a considerable number of books since. Most notable among her fiction and (auto)biographical works are The Fig Tree (Elle lui dirait dans l’île: 1970), Moi, j'aime pas la mer (1972; As For Me, I Don't Love the Sea), Zut ! on a encore oublié Mme Freud (1984; Blast! We have again forgotten Mrs. Freud), Attends-moi (1993; Wait For Me), Désolée, mais ça ne se fait pas (1995; Sorry, But It Is Not Done), and her autobiographical homage to her husband Regarde, nos chemins se sont fermés (2002; Look, Our Paths Have Closed). Françoise Xénakis lives in Paris, France.

Time and place of The Fig Tree aren’t specified. The protagonists are a man – HE – and a woman – SHE – who have been separated for three years. He was arrested and taken to a remote island where he has been going through the hell of a forced labour camp with inhumane living conditions and brutal guards. His world consists of suffering and death in the quarry, on the beach, and in the camp. Only thinking about what he will tell her when she comes to see him, gives him some relief. Her suffering is different. She has been desperately trying to be allowed to visit him, but bureaucracy is merciless. Always another piece of documentation is missing in the file, first a certificate, then a receipt. For a while she goes to the ministry daily hoping to collect the permission, she gives up on it, though, when it occurs to her that she might be too pestering and thus frustrate all her efforts. So she turns to stopping the postman every morning to ask whether there is mail for her. And she begins to make a patchwork blanket from her old clothes to give him. She has no particular talent for needlework, but she wishes to do what women in her corner have been doing for their imprisoned men since times immemorial. At last, the yearned for letter arrives. Worries that she will say all the wrong things fill her although she has been imagining their encounter and what she will tell him on the island for so long. And indeed, sitting face to face they are both at a loss and retreat to banal talk. She wants him to hold on to life and their love. He wants her to stop loving him because he is a broken man without future.

Although in The Fig Tree the author never refers to German occupation and Nazi concentration camps, it’s obvious that her novella is largely inspired by both. Without doubt, she also draws largely from her own experience and from what she must have heard as a young teenager in France during World War II as well as from what her husband may have told her about his flight from Greece after he had been sentenced to death. Of course, she abstracts and generalises because others have lived similar stories at many times and in many places. The story shows how people withdraw to thinking about the past and the future, when they can’t bear the present. The patchwork blanket certainly represents the colourful past of the couple, each patch standing for a dear memory that they have in common. The future centres on what “she would tell him on the island” as is the original French title of the slim book. The writing style – at least in the original French version – is unusual for a novel and reminds me of modern poetry that uses something that may be best described as “staccato” of words and incomplete sentences structured by blanks, i.e. spaces and paragraphs, rather than punctuation. The idea behind it may have been to produce a more realistic stream of consciousness, but for me it made it a little difficult to follow the plot.

Despite all, I experienced The Fig Tree by Françoise Xénakis as a very powerful and impressive read that lingers on in the mind until long after having finished it. Maybe this is because the author uses many, often subtle symbols that require some attention and time to understand their meaning. On the days following the read I had more than once an illumination concerning one of them, always out of the blue. And I loved that! This particular quality together with the timeless setting probably accounts for the book having been translated into English and made into a film. It’s a pity that the novella is now quite forgotten, notably outside France. The English edition would definitely deserve being reprinted after almost fifty years.

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  1. What a wonderful review! It is great when we have those illuminations in the days following reading.

    1. I'm glad that you enjoyed my review - just a pity that you may not easily get a chance to read the novella unless you speak French.
      Thanks for your comment!


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