on The Safe House, a novel by Christophe Boltanski, translated by Laura Marris (University of Chicago Press)

In Paris, the term hôtel particulier describes a grand residence with an interior courtyard, often owned by nobility from the countryside who would stay there while visiting the city. Many of these “townhouses” were constructed in the 1600’s. In 1935, Christophe Boltanski’s grandfather, Étienne, moved his wife, his firstborn son, and his mother to rented rooms in a hôtel particulier on Rue de Grenelle in the Seventh Arrondissement. Étienne had just been promoted to a hospital chief of staff, and his wife, Myriam, was also a physician.

Boltanski_Hotel.jpgIn Christophe Boltanski’s The Safe House, the rooms of their living space provide the armature for an engrossing narrative streaked with the dreads, routine strangeness, desperate attachments, issues of identity, challenges of displacement, strategies of survival, and ultimately, hunger for living that typified the Boltanski family. This is a story about history – familial, personal, tribal, national. More specifically, the telling is vivified by the impulses that history evokes, one of which is to reanimate history itself – which perhaps is why Boltanski calls this book a “novel.” His attuned Anglophone translator, Laura Marris, says the work “exists in a borderland between truth and fiction, the kind of space where definitions of genre sometimes force a divide.”

Because the Boltanskis, an unconventional and non-practicing Jewish family, faced the life-choking restrictions and fatal round-ups ordered by their French leaders and carried out by their neighbors in the early 1940’s, The Safe House inevitably will be labeled as a next-generation Holocaust narrative. But speaking about the past, especially the traumatic years of the Occupation, is something family members rarely did: "Photos are forbidden in the Rue de Grenelle because they show what no longer exists." Christophe Boltanski is a journalist by trade and reinvented the past through interviews, archives, and travel to places like Odessa, the birthplace of his great-grandparents who emigrated to France.

BoltanskiColor.jpgBorn in 1962, Christophe came to live with his grandparents in the mid-1970s. His aunt Anne, just four years older than he, lived there, too, as well as his uncles Jean-Élie and Christian. They all serve the matriarch, grandmother Myriam: stricken by polio in the 1930’s but undeterred and rebellious, political activist, a novelist and essayist who wrote under the name Annie Lauran. The seventh child of conservative Catholic parents, Myriam was given away to a wealthy childless widow and inherited her lands and aging estate. “There were always two sides to her,” he writes. “Both landowner and card-carrying Communist, excluded and elected, adopted and advantaged, handicapped and globe-trotting, powerless and omnipotent, grandmother and Big Bad Wolf.”

This is the opening paragraph of the chapter titled “Staircase”:

“She wove between obstacles, following a fixed choreography. Always with Anne and Jean-Élie by her side, held by the vise of their arms, in the pincer of their bodies. The repetitive nature of her gestures, their slowness, my aunt and uncle’s gravity as they helped her walk, gave each of her movements a solemn air, like a procession. Despite her limping gait, she resembled a queen, parading around her rooms at the appointed hour, in the company of her court. Her entrance was announced by creaking doors, sounds of furniture moving, and the irregular clacking of her heels on the parquet. It took tremendous energy to get from one floor to another. She groped along the staircase with her birdlike claws, gripping the metal bannister that hugged the rounded wall, counteracting her paralyzed legs with the strength of her arms and her fists, raising her pelvis to lift a foot, placing it on the step, pressing on it as if it were a wooden pillar, making her second leg pivot, throwing it forward, her face tight, leaning all her weight on her children, and slowly beginning to climb with the fearful majesty of the disabled.”

BoltanskiCover.jpegLater he says of her, “She floundered, not like a wounded animal, but like a fawn caught in a snare.” The compelling descriptiveness of The Safe House is modulated with anecdote and fact, and a nimble shifting between time periods that accumulate into yet another secret, the one carried by the narrator himself, a perpetual disquietude rising from his own griefs. In 1942, grandfather Étienne went into hiding in his own house for 20 months, scrambling into a hiding place at the slightest alarm; he and Myriam divorced for show and remarried after the war. Christophe is hiding as well within his narrative of the house. The book was published in France in 2015 with the title La cache, the hiding place.

Revealing the hiding place to the world, noting the outdated furnishings and collected objects ("luxury mixed with want"), relating the idiosyncrasies of their meals – all of this entails risk because of an endemic threat hiding in the present moment. The enduring threat, unstated but evoked through story and memory, also supplies the motivation to speak out. This is the tension in the artfully tense and apt phrasing, the groping for an original form. Boltanski’s father, Luc, wished to escape from Rue de Grenelle and was an FLN sympathizer during the Algerian war; he and Boltanski’s mother also went into hiding and Christophe was born soon after. The shadow of the hunter falls upon the son.

After the death of his great-grandmother, Christophe’s grandparents traveled by car to Odessa – but at the last moment, Étienne refused to enter the city. Boltanski writes, “There’s one last explanation for grand-papa’s refusal to see Odessa: the fear of not feeling at home in the very place where his parents were born and raised. Feeling like a stranger there. Discovering that he wasn’t different from others but from his own people. Understanding the full measure of what had been passed down to him … And the vertigo of being alive, thanks only to exile and chance. Because of being, understandably, from elsewhere. To know that those who stayed were murdered. In Ellis Island, Georges Perec wrote that he could have been “Australian, Argentinian, English, or Swedish, but in the practically unlimited array of possibilities, one thing was explicitly forbidden: I could not be born in my ancestors’ country, in Lubartow or Warsaw, or grow up there within a tradition, a language, a community.”

The Safe House earned Boltanski the Prix Femina for 2015. Deftly weaving its complexities, Boltanski has captured that sense of the vertigo of being alive.

[Published October 23, 2017. 233 pages, $24.00 hardcover]