One evening in 2012, the French writer Edouard Louis was heading back to his apartment from a meal with friends when a man approached him in the street. Introducing himself as Reda, the man persuaded Louis to take him home, where the pair spent several hours having sex and sharing stories of their lives. Curled up in his lover’s arms, Reda spoke of his father’s migration from Algeria and struggle to assimilate into French society. Then, after a dispute provoked by Reda’s attempt to steal a mobile phone, Reda pulled out a gun, threatened to kill Louis, strangled him with a scarf and raped him. It was Christmas Day; Louis was twenty years old.
At the time of the attack Louis had written but not yet published The End of Eddy, an account of his early years that would go on to win him literary celebrity in France for its unflinching depiction of violence and homophobia in his impoverished hometown of Hallencourt. History of Violence, like its predecessor, is billed as a novel but uses real names and describes actual events. A painful and astonishing book, it tells the story of that night and its aftermath with ruthless poise and clinical precision.
Louis defies trauma’s tendency to warp memory and emotion by recording every detail of what happened and how it felt. The book opens with Louis recalling the hours after the attack, when he sat in a hospital waiting room longing for the future to arrive and assuage his agony: ‘In a week you’ll say, It’s been a whole week since it happened, keep going, and in a year you’ll say, It’s been a whole year since it happened.’ In prose that’s as elegant and robust as wrought ironwork, the narrative loops and spirals around its central scene, tracing Louis’s attempt to rebuild his life. With a mounting sense of dread, the reader is made to wait almost two-thirds of the book’s length for a description of the attack itself, which is presented as a kind of grim farce, the whole thing unfolding with an ‘air of slapstick’ in a ‘stumbling, accidental, hesitating way’. Reda seems ‘embarrassed’ by what he is doing and Louis notices ‘the fear in his eyes … he looked stunned by his fall and by this brutal turn of events’.
History of Violence is, among other things, an investigation into the uses and abuses of storytelling. At first, Louis can’t stop recounting his ordeal to friends and acquaintances; he even harbours a ‘fantasy of utter shamelessness and self-exposure’ in which he approaches strangers in the street and forces them to hear his tale from beginning to end. But when he reports the crime to the authorities he finds his story, to which he had clung like a drowning man to a buoy, being torn from his hands. Stripped of nuance and inflected with racist assumptions about North Africans, the police’s version of events is one in which ‘I no longer recognised the outlines of my own experience’. The book attempts to reclaim that story, preserving its complexity from the simplifications of official discourse.
One such complexity involves the question of victimhood and the many different forms it can take. Louis comes to believe that Reda was driven, in part, by his own double victimhood: as a gay man in a conservative Muslim culture and as the son of a migrant from a country colonised by Louis’s own. With almost superhuman compassion and moral courage, Louis traces the origins of Reda’s suffering by reconstructing his father’s story, from violence and poverty in Algeria to racism and failure in France. There is a terrible poignancy in the maxim which, in Louis’s imagination, guides Reda’s father, because it describes the desperate hope the book itself embodies: ‘The past is the one thing we can change.’