What happens to the jurors of the prestigious Pulitzer-Fiction Prize? Those who once elected The old Man and the Sea, Took no mockingbird, The Executioner’s Song Where American Pastoralhere they are enthusiastic for The one who watches, the self-righteous story of Louise Erdrich. Could it be because it ticks all the boxes of the “woke” that is sweeping America? For this story featuring Indians in 1953-1954, as Louise Erlich is herself of Chippewa origin, the “Native Americans” will not be able to accuse her of cultural appropriation, as they did for the chiefs. work by Tony Hillerman… Pulitzer, box 1: ok.
The notes of the author and the translator, in the preliminary, are nevertheless enticing. Sarah Gurcel evokes the difficult translation of the term termination, “policy of assimilation”, “rupture” or even “terminal solution”: the word immediately plunges the reader into a terrible war of vocabulary and into social and political issues (Pulitzer , case 2: okay).
Louise Erdrich promises first-hand information: a paragraph about her grandfather Patrice Gourneau, who “slept very little” (Pulitzer, square 3: ok). The theme: Despoiled and “terminated” Indians, according to the law of terminationthe House Competitor Resolution 108 of August 1, 1953, consulted after the vote on the law by Congress, after the end of the legal battle, since only these muffled conflicts remain, moreover Archille and Biboon, the heroic grandfathers, companions of Sitting Bull fight, are gone, Little Big Horn was a long time ago (1876), and we are not yet shooting the Feds at Wounded Knee (1973).
Add to these two contextual notes the first image – that of a man grabbing his thermos flask – and the first hue of Native culture (“In the beginning, after the Great Deluge, it was a muskrat who managed to recreate the Earth”), and is expected to watch just as much as the title promises. A little metalliterary can’t hurt (Pulitzer, case 4: ok).
Entrance to the bear cave…
The novel begins, it is midnight, it is the end of one day and the beginning of another. It is the border, just as much that of hours, times and States, as of genres. Structural finesse? One cannot help seeing there, the finished work, the abortion or the incompleteness of two stories. The first, centered on Thomas Wazhashk, known as “muskrat”, night watchman of a clock factory and president of the Tribal Council of the Chippewas of Turtle Mountain, heard by Senator Arthur V. Watkins on 2 and 3 March 1954. The second, centered on Patrice, also known as Pixie, “the elf”, employed in the said factory and whose sister, Véra, also known as Agony, suddenly disappeared after leaving the reserve for Minneapolis. Two threads, one for fictionalized reality and the other for realized fiction, all a priori for a good historical novel.
These two sons join, of course, and the uncle and the niece will both be present when the Puerto Rican nationalists open fire in the hemicycle of Congress on March 1, 1954. Lolita Lebrón, who is written “Long live the free people of Puerto Rico!” » is holding a Luger, she is the Latin American equivalent of Pixie. The conjunction of struggles matches the conjunction of stories. Nothing new, but it works.
This is without counting on the unifying theme of the work. The two main characters (and more broadly all the Indians of the Turtle Mountain reservation) are united by the rivalry-complementarity that exists between their name, their first name and their nickname. Between their Anglophone and Indian surname, the identity of the inhabitants of the reserve floats, and the true unity of the novel is there, it is this “identity that meant that he was followed in the shops and that he was forbidden access to certain restaurants and cinemas, in short, that what constituted him, for good or bad, was only one more item on the list of what a white man can acquire. » Everything needed for the novel to be a modern western: we have a good horse and the horse’s point of view, we have a hibernating bear and the entrance of the heroine – independent and strong, of course – in the cave of the bear, then the dog bound and abused by the whites, and the premonitory dreams and mystical crises under the moon.
Joy of the philo-linguist reader
As for the Americans, whether they have a fixed name or whether they are anonymous, they correspond to a type. We can have fun with the parody of American tastes from time to time: how not to laugh at the description of the Pixie dancing in an aquarium, dressed in the costume of Babe, a blue ox, mascot of a sleazy bar run by equally dodgy men? But the clichés are multiplying. The Caucasian White, the White in love with the modern Pocahontas, the friendly Indian boxer…
Only great originality in the type, the kidnappers of Véra have the kindness – for the happy ending (Pulitzer, box 5: ok) – to free their sex slave once that one is exhausted… Like the identity of the characters, the interest begins to float between the two narrative threads, unbalanced in terms of importance and time during the first part of the novel, reunited during the second, in which only manage to hang the transcripts of the congressional hearings. Déjà vu. The (forked) language of the White man, against the original, native language: the novel is covered with words in Chippewa. The philo-linguist reader will be delighted to learn that “the word baashkizige – “ejaculation” – also refers to the firing of a firearm. The word biinda’oojigan – condom – also means “gun holster”. And like the young girl who learns it, he will be able « deposit[er] all this in his fascinated notebook”.
But if he doesn’t have too many illusions, he’ll come out of this reading like a bad lesson. He will learn nothing about the Indian condition. As in the rose water novels of the Whites, the Americans and the French, the heroine and the handsome Indian boxer will make love on a tree trunk in the middle of the snow – as in The Motorcycle by Pieyre de Mandiargues – and it’s orgasm on the first try. And as in an Edgar Poe poem, a snowy owl taps at the window, we understand that it is the Nevermorewhich Poe’s “raven” was at least kind enough to articulate.
To rediscover the pleasure of the western, I took over the volumes of Lonesome Dovethe wonderful series of Larry McMurtry – screenwriter also from the Secret of Brodeback Mountain. And if you absolutely want to know what this part of the North West of the United States (Minnesota, North Dakota…) looks like under the snow, review Fargo, the film of the Coen brothers. In two images, they show you more than Louise Erdrich in 543 pages.
Louise Erdrich The one who watches Albin Michel, 24 euros.
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“He who watches”: a novel more burden than Fargo