by Jérôme Ferrari
Jérôme Ferrari's ace 2012 Prix Goncourt winner Le sermon sur la chute de Rome [The Sermon on the Fall of Rome] is such a brisk, invigorating affair from almost every imaginable point of view that it's easy to overlook how distressing the novel is in terms of the moral that can be drawn from its various crisscrossing storylines. Still, with chapter titles borrowed from Augustine's sermons on the fall of Rome and la fin du monde theme evoked in the form of passing references to the French traumas suffered at the hands of "barbarians" at Dien Bien Phu, in the Algerian war, and in the loss of the country's colonies in the African interior not to mention the agony of the German occupation of France during World War II, it's probably no surprise that man's inhumanity to man is one of Ferrari's most pressing concerns. For our purposes, suffice it to say that Matthieu Antonetti and Libero Pintus are longtime friends who, following the philosophical siren call of Leibniz, decide to drop out of grad school and take over a struggling hometown bar in a village in their native Corsica. For a time drink, the ladies, and the good life lead the two to fancy that they've fashioned the Leibnizian slacker version of "le meilleur des mondes possibles" ["the best of all possible worlds"] (99), but as convincingly as these salad days are portrayed do concepts like "la bonté de Dieu" ["the goodness of God"] (Ibid.) really have anything to do with the chimerical nature of human happiness given the back story of Antonetti's family history and the long arm of destiny? I won't touch on any of Ferrari's answers except to say that the narrator provides an optimistic reply to the question by extolling the often unfathomable ways in which "l'amitié est un mystère" ["friendship is a mystery"] (75) and, indeed, can even serve as a form of salvation, and furnishes an altogether more pessimistic reply when advising us that Matthieu and Libero rather than God "étaient les seuls démiurges" ["were the soul demiurges"] of their world and that "le démiurge n'est pas Dieu le créateur" ["the demiurge isn't God the Creator"] but actually man himself. Man rather than God, according to this way of thinking, is the architect of his own destruction, but whether that actually exonerates a god who is oblivious of "sa création" ["his creation"] after having built him up "pierre après pierre" ["stone by stone"] (99) is perhaps a matter for someone else of a more philosophical bent to take up in my stead. For me, the first great book of the new year--reminiscent of Bolaño for the warm, occasionally humorous, very down to earth prose and of both Bolaño and Sebald for the scandalized observation that "les cadavres oubliés" ["the forgotten corpses"] of days gone by "ne sont plus que l'humus fertile du monde nouveau" ["are nothing more than the fertile humus of the new world"] (129).