Who Killed My Father, by French writer Édouard Louis (lyrically translated by Lorin Stein), is a brief, poetic telling of the myriad ways societal contempt, homophobia, and poverty can kill a man.
Following Louis' autobiographical novel, The End of Eddy, this book is a deeply personal meditation: a gay man speaking to a father mired in toxic masculinity, whose absence is louder than his presence, but who ultimately finds love and understanding — even respect — for that same son.
The communication gap between father and son fosters its own form of violence — "father is never allowed to tell his own story, while the son longs for a response that he will never receive." To bridge this gap, Louis writes his father's memoir, addressing his father in the second person.
"[S]houldn't I repeat myself when talking about your life since nobody wants to hear stories about lives like yours? Should I not repeat myself until they listen to us? To make them listen to us? Should I not cry out?"
By rendering his father seen and heard, Louis lights a slice of working class France invisible to the public, and most certainly to tourists. Father lives in a northern town that is "gray and ugly," not too far from the sea — but he never visits the sea. At the end of his life, crippled by a horrific industrial accident, father is housebound, suffering from countless health conditions — a bad back, diabetes, high cholesterol, inability to breathe, his "chest emptied of air as though it had sprung a leak. Even talking required ... too great an effort." Father doesn't drive anymore and his belly "has been torn apart by its own weight, its own mass."
Louis contrasts his early wish that father would be away when school was over, that his car would be gone. And yet, even as a boy, Louis could acknowledge his father's humanity. Father embraces Louis' half brother, the son from mother's former marriage — "There are no half brothers in this house, none of my kids is a half." Father defends Louis to the police, and when he's had too much to drink, tells Louis that no matter what, he loves him.
From an adult point of view, Louis recounts his father's traumatic upbringing. Louis' grandfather "drank a lot" and beat his grandmother, walking out when Louis' father was five. Louis' father was much happier after the man of the family disappeared — along with his violence — and his "masculine insanity."
Louis' clear-sighted awareness of this masculine insanity allows him to paint a sympathetic portrait. He finds photos of father dressed as a woman, a cheerleader, "stuffed cotton wadding in a bra" and sees that father looks happy. He watches his father's eyes glisten at an opera on TV, and wonders how it feels, given that men aren't supposed to cry.
Masculine pride proves to be father's downfall — from "constructing a masculine body," to resisting the school system and dropping out, foreclosing a possible future. "Your manhood condemned you to poverty, to lack of money," Louis writes. "Hatred of homosexuality=poverty."
Louis elucidates his father's fears, his phobia of water, his desperate attempts to run away from his past, ultimately returning to the factory where his whole family worked before him. As Louis reaches adulthood, having "fled" the village for Paris, he meets men in bars who ask how he gets along with his family. "I would always tell them I hated my father. It wasn't true, I knew I loved you.... Is it normal to be ashamed of loving?"
Louis denies knowing his father, and yet the telling of his father's story belies that assertion. It is his father's denial of who his son is that tainted Louis' boyhood. "[W]hen I look back on the past and our life together, what I remember most is what I didn't tell you. My memories are of what didn't take place."
There is a universality to this story — the child's longing for acceptance contrasted with the mature son's painful journey to understand why his father behaved as he did. Early on, Louis provides the key, repeating this paragraph to give it heft and emphasis:
"One day I wrote in a notebook, thinking of you: To write the story of his life would mean writing the story of my absence."
Ultimately, Louis recognizes the role the state played in his father's death. In 2006, Jacques Chirac and his health minister "announced that dozens of medications would no longer be covered by the state." And in 2007, Nicolas Sarkozy led a campaign against "les assistés, those who, according to him, are stealing money from French society because they don't work."
More than "who" killed my father, is "what" killed my father. Ironically, Louis answers that question in the first chapter:
"When asked to define what 'racism' means to her, the American scholar Ruth Gilmore has said that racism is the exposure of certain populations to premature death.
The same definition holds with regard to male privilege, to hatred of homosexuality or trans people, to domination by class — to social and political oppression of all kinds."
Capturing the macro and micro culprits in Who Killed My Father, Louis serves as both raconteur and son, expressing deep and considered empathy for a man whose absence looms large.