by Hadrien Laroche
translated by Jan Steyn and Caite Dolan-Leach
Dalkey Archive Press, 130 pages
reviewed by Jamie Fisher
Orphans starts with an advisory warning from the translators. Orphan, they explain, has a slightly different meaning in French: orphelin describes not only a child who has lost her parents, but a child who has lost only one parent.
The explanation is necessary, but also somewhat inadequate. Looking back along our linguistic family tree, orphan shrinks and dilates to cover so much more. In Latin an orbus is “bereft”; in Old English ierfa, an “heir,” with close ties to “suffering” and “trouble”; in Old Church Slavonic, a rabu (think robot) is a “slave” or “servant.” When we work our way back to Proto-Indo-European, orbho means “bereft of father,” but also “deprived of free status.” Orphan begins to sound simultaneously like someone who has lost his parents and someone who is inescapably tied to them.
In Orphans, Hadrien Laroche explores all of these extended definitions. The narrator visits or discusses three orphelins: fatherless Hannah née Bloch; motherless Helianthe née Bouttetruie; and the self-orphaning Henri né Berg, who “disinherits” his living parents but finds himself unable to escape their influence. All three are tormented less by the absence of a parent than by the surviving parent’s insistent presence.
In a book that revolves around parentage, it seems appropriate to address questions of intellectual filiation. Laroche was the final doctoral student of Derrida, father of deconstruction, the man who declared, “We think only in signs.” Laroche’s narrator describes himself as interested in constructing systems of symbology. The three stories are mostly this—drafts for three worlds, lightly plotted.
Hannah, an old woman when we meet her, lost her father in the Holocaust and finds herself unable to escape her mother’s influence. She comes to a final estrangement with her mother over her widow’s vision of life, narrowed by death and predicated on a claustrophobic family loyalty that never quite allows her children to move beyond their father’s death. “Kamikaze mother!” Hannah rails to our narrator. “A mother who produces daughters who no longer have any reason to live, who lack life and are close to turning back towards death, such a mother is no good for society.”
Helianthe’s damnation comes down the paternal line. After she and her husband purchase a chalet, the renovations recommended by her architect-father begin to consume their lives. His design—“badly understood, badly drawn, and deliberately vicious”—begins to feel like a critique of God, slightly veiled. “By destroying with one hand what the other hand built,” Laroche writes, “he disrupted his own work.”
The collapsing house that Helianthe “inherits” from her father is also equated to her faltering body, suffering from a pathologically idiosyncratic “orphan disease.” The section concludes with Helianthe dramatically ripping up the plans her father had drawn for the chalet: “In front of a destroyed wall face, Helianthe née Bouttretruie whispered that she could never give life. She was only good for ‘passing on death.’”
In Henri’s story, both parents demonstrate how our families cast us in roles, reenacting old cultural forms with a disappointingly mechanical ease. His father expects him to inherit the family business; his mother spends her days making elaborate family albums “constructed entirely from images of celebrities lifted from various magazines and newspapers”: “To the right of a snapshot of a pained-looking Georges Perec in skis at Villard-de-Lans, she had inscribed the name of her brother.” All of this enrages Henri, who decides to “disinherit” his family. When he destroys the automatic signature machine “enthroned” on his father’s desk, it is intended as a triumphant rebellion against his mechanical parents.
Laroche’s novel is not entirely a triptych. The fourth orphan, hidden in plain sight, is the narrator himself. He wanders from home to home, an oblique house-guest deciphering his hosts’ personal systems of symbology “in order to pass the time, without understanding why I did it.” As the narrator writes of Hannah, “The world of signs that she inhabited was coherent… Like everyone, she lived in a singular space, full of signs and symbols, which were blindingly obvious to whoever came along, and which she, however, had no need to know how to read.”
Passages suggest that he is, like Helianthe’s illness, a kind of “orphan disease”: “One day, out of the blue, the orphan disease takes shelter under a man or woman’s roof…, grafting itself onto the foreign body.” By the novel’s end, as the narrator paces alone in the forest, Laroche suggests that by grafting himself onto his hosts’ stories, he has achieved liberation from the confines of his own house, and the body it symbolizes: “In a certain sense, I was never at home. Now I knew myself to be definitively outside the house. So much the better.” As the last light of a window is “definitively” extinguished, “from my feet to my head, I felt a needle-like cold penetrate me deliciously, bracingly, decisively. Then, coming around the bend, beneath the moon, I saw that extraordinary rock face”—one of many plays on Laroche’s own surname, the rock.
For a novel in which the narrator exists mainly as a framing device for observing the lives of others, Orphans is remarkably uninterested in understanding other people. Laroche has created—if we can divest the word of certain prejudices—a very self-interested book. The novel brims with excited self-references that play on Laroche’s name; they can feel absurd, but also sweet, a riff on the reason many of us read—to recognize ourselves in someone else. By the end we haven’t gotten anywhere, but in Laroche’s hands, this doesn’t feel like defeat. His book ultimately amounts to a claim that fiction is a form of self-transcendence that brings you, triumphantly, back to yourself. As he has said in interviews, somewhat gnomically: “If there is a lesson in Orphans, it’s this: we all have to become sons, or daughters, we can’t escape that. Or the child of our own lives, though that’s not a given. Or rather, we can become the child of our own works; that’s possible.”
Much of Laroche’s work is predicated on his own individuality. The novel’s jacket tells us that Derrida considered Laroche “one of the most talented and original thinkers of his generation.” Laroche’s talent is easily identified, but his originality can be difficult to pick out. Even Laroche’s obsession with the possibility of originality feels borrowed from his teacher’s work. Derrida used a typewriter to distinguish between event (singularity) and machine (repetition); Laroche’s destruction of the automatic signature-machine feels more like an encore than a further development of Derrida’s themes. He’s very much his father’s child.
As a result, Orphans feels dispiritingly familiar, even dutiful—a graduate student’s citations of the dominant literature. Like a Dutch Golden Age painter, tucking memento mori skulls behind every fruit bowl, Laroche arranges all his post-modern appurtenances clearly. In a novel dominated by observation and collection, even minor characters seem to have obsessions designed to support Laroche’s thesis: tape-recording every phone conversation, or compiling boxfuls of strangers’ photographs. It would have been interesting to see how Henri could have disowned his mother if she enjoyed less conveniently symbolic hobbies—meat tenderizing, perhaps, or roller derby.
Some of the same qualities that may have made Laroche an excellent student undermine his fiction. He seldom resists the temptation to annotate his own work. After Henri destroys the automatic signature-machine—“the imprint of his father’s signature was separated in two, dismantled, pulverized” —Laroche adds helpfully, “He had even in a sense committed patricide.” Periodically he summarizes his conclusions: “Changes, inheritance decisions, modifications, blank slate, invention, rebirth, the literal destruction of ancestors: it can’t be any other way.”
Laroche’s symbolism is theoretically tidy, but in often vital combat with his joyful sensuality.
At his best he is a fascinating and original creature: a symbolist, but also a poet of viscera. Call it sensual symbolism. At its best, Laroche recalls Marianne Moore’s deservedly repeated line about poetry: “imagined gardens with real toads in them.”
He feels most assured when at his most specific and sensuous, particularly in “Hannah née Bloch.” Consider his symbolism involving hands, both abstract and delicately physical:
The mother often repeated that her family was like the fingers of a hand. The expression made sense in this particular circumstance: three children, mother and father, which makes five. One couldn’t separate the members of the family without dying… The meaning behind the adage repeated by this one-hundred-year-old woman was that no one could leave without killing the rest of the family, and in particular the mother, whose hands were after all quite beautiful, veined, and long-fingered. Or, equally worrying, one couldn’t leave the others without dying.
Here the consequences of his symbology feel naturally true, but less than fully obvious. And often his language is as alluring as it is off-putting; he isn’t afraid to equate “the severed finger” to “the separated and thus liberated child,” or to open the book with a vision of Hannah in the shower, sudsing her sunken navel.
A cooperation between symbolism and sensuality can be difficult to achieve. Laroche intends to shock us freshly with all the old brutalities of ancestry and inheritance, but he ends up supplementing his point with violence that feels ancillary to the narrative: out of nowhere he will describe the spontaneous erection of a hanged man, or the putrid fly-laced vinegar that Hannah uses as a facial cosmetic. It’s too much toad, with no garden to maintain it. Here and elsewhere, Laroche seems undisciplined, using repulsion as a substitute for the moral outrage he really wants to cultivate.
And he is, primarily, interested in outrage. I was astonished by an interview in which Laroche claimed, “my books are humorous. You can hear the laughter that accompanies every tragic moment!” It’s true that the novel can be funny but the dominant mode is indignation rather than uproariousness, often at his artistry’s expense.
Orphans is Laroche’s first published novel, and the first part of Laroche’s “Man Orphaned of His Humanity” trilogy to reach English speakers. (His biography of Jean Genet was translated earlier.) What will propel readers through the next two books is less likely to be Laroche’s familiar arguments than his sensuality—Orphans’s heady sentence-by-sentence beauty, skillfully rendered by translators Jan Steyn and Caite Dolan-Leach. He describes idleness as “an aristocracy of will,” sentimentality as “the endlessly beating heart growing fat inside each of us, this sticky schmaltz in glazed red.”
That’s a masterful line, capable of repelling even as it attracts. I thought again of Hannah née Bloch, whose mother saved her children by briefly scattering them— “to the house of a neighbor born to Catholic parents, to a cousin’s house on the other side of the river, or to the back of a shop of an aunt who sold spices on the Avenue Alsace-Lorraine: cinnamon, cumin, saffron, vanilla.” It’s the cinnamon that saves us, every time.
Jamie Fisher is a freelance writer, Chinese-English translator, and budding manuscript conservationist working out of Philadelphia. She graduated recently from the University of Pennsylvania, where her majors were Linguistics and East Asian Languages & Civilizations. She can be reached at [email protected].