“He who watches”, by Louise Erdrich: a deceptive freedom

“He who watches” (The Night Watchman), by Louise Erdrich, translated from English (United States) by Sarah Durcel, Albin Michel, “Terres d’Amérique”, 560 p., €24, digital €16.

A 5 cent piece is what his father used to give him. When Louise Erdrich was little, in the country of the Chippewa Indians (in the prairie, near the Canadian border), she received one every time she wrote a story. Today, she is to Native Americans what Toni Morrison (1931-2019) was to African Americans. Not only a masterful voice covered, apart from the Nobel, with all possible prizes – notably the National Book Award for In the silence of the wind (Albin Michel, 2013). But a writer who knew how to bring a whole world – the Chippewa represent the third largest indigenous group in the United States, behind the Cherokee and the Navajo – into the temple of an American literature that cared nothing about war.

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Erdrich has been publishing for just forty years – since his first short stories, such as “The World’s Greatest Fisherman” (“The best fisherman in the world”, Nelson Algren Prize 1982, in The red convertible, Albin Michel, 2012). Born in 1954 to a father of German origin and a Chippewa Indian mother, she spent her childhood in North Dakota. That’s where all his characters come from. They are not descended from the Indians of westerns or natives feathered that please tourists, but small people, composing with the reality that surrounds them, fighting bitterly for their rights, their lands, their beliefs, their rites and their memory.

Unexpected energy

Recently, Erdrich had hinted that she would no longer write. That she had said it all. But, flipping through a packet of letters written in the middle of the 20the century by her grandfather, then chief of the Turtle Mountain tribe (North Dakota), this born storyteller has returned to service. The subject touched her: she felt called. Thus was born The one who watches, his seventeenth novel, winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 2021.

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It is this same kind of unexpected energy that sets the two protagonists, Thomas and Patrice, in motion here. Thomas Wazhashk is a night watchman at a clockwork stone factory, which employs many women from Turtle Mountain. « Wazhashk », in Chippewa, it is the muskrat, this rodent “hydrophilic, modest and hardworking” who, in Indian mythology, manages to recreate the Earth after the Great Flood. This surname suits him well. By sheer force, Thomas learned to read – he has time at night. When he discovers that Congress is proposing a law supposed to “emancipate” the Indians, he understands that the federal government simply wants the “let go”. Sign the end of the reserve. aid they receive. Of their protected status as Indians. In short, “finish them”, as the Americans say… What, protests Thomas? “We survived smallpox, the repeating rifle, the Hotchkiss machine gun and tuberculosis. To the flu of 1918 and four or five murderous wars on American soil, and it is to a series of dull words that we will finally succumb? » Like the writer’s grandfather, Thomas decides to go to Washington to oppose this villainous text. We are in 1953.

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“He who watches”, by Louise Erdrich: a deceptive freedom