No doubt you have to have been a child yourself to appreciate the weight, the seriousness of this word when it is pronounced by a member of the same corporation: “The child”. This is the incipit of Hugo Lindenberg’s first novel, and the word comes up as many times as is necessary to show how far it is from his fellow man: “The child is against the light.” He will soon have a first name, his name is Baptiste. The meeting takes place on a beach in Normandy where the narrator spends his summers with his grandmother. He watches over her. He is 10 years old. Until Baptiste, he never had a friend: “Nothing is more foreign to me than a boy my age.” The opening scene evokes that ofEustache and Hilda, from the Englishman LP Hartley, when the young Eustace watches a sea anemone devour a shrimp without doing anything to save it. We think about it because real books about what it’s like to be a child are a special, rare and precious library.
The two children ofOne day it will be empty slaughter a stranded jellyfish. Baptiste says: “You have to burst it to see what it’s like in it.” And he, our friend the narrator whose life has just changed because a boy his age has just invited himself there, thinks to himself that he would like so much to know what Baptiste is made of. “With what magical fluid her veins are traversed to give this matt glow to her whole being.” Children who do not seem to know boredom or stagnant time, who know how to undress and run to get in the water, who have the right clothes, who are light, natural, the narrator is not of those. The world is divided. There are the families harmoniously distributed on the sand. There is Baptiste’s mother, an enchantment summed up by a perfume and bracelets.
And then there is the narrator’s grandmother on her folding chair, who knits and never bathes. She has an accent, and an inappropriate form of politeness, “His shtetl manners” suddenly shame his grandson. Because she saw fit to offer Baptiste’s mother “A bowl of chopped liver concocted in honor of our budding friendship”. Make no mistake: “I loved chopped liver as I loved my grandmother: in the privacy of the home. Offered for all to see, both of them embarrassed me terribly. “ The worst happens with the return of the mad aunt. In the apartment they occupy in a chic old villa, the aunt has a small room stinking with tobacco. When the grandmother and the aunt, mother and daughter, therefore, go down to the beach, “Two fat figures decked out in ill-fitting swimsuits”, it would be necessary to be able to hide them from the sight of Baptiste.
For the couple formed by the grandmother and the grandson to be so united, a drama has to have happened there. He prowls the narrative in the state of unspoken, perhaps lies. It has given birth to dislikes, monsters, superstitions, and games that cannot be shared. But from a too sensitive child, he made this valiant observer who fills us.
Hugo Lindenberg One day it will be empty
Bourgois, 176 pp., € 16.50 (ebook: € 10.99).