In His Own Image

Jérôme Ferrari, Translated by Alison Anderson

January 5, 2022 
The following is from Jérôme Ferrari's newly-translated novel, In His Own Image. Ferrari is a writer and translator born in 1968 in Paris. His novel, The Sermon on the Fall of Rome, won the Goncourt Prize. He teaches philosophy at the French School of Abu Dhabi. Alison Anderson's translations for Europa Editions include novels by Sélim Nassib, Amélie Nothomb, and Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt. She is also the translator of The Elegance of the Hedgehog, The Life of Elves, and A Single Rose by Muriel Barbery.

Antonia’s godfather initially thought she was interested in her origins, and he offered to guide her along the tangled pathways of her genealogy: women who were widowed too young, who remarried, siblings with different parents, the inevitable unwed mothers, and subtly consanguine unions, all of which contributed to make this family tree dark and confusing to the neophyte. He made a considerable effort, sometimes in vain, to identify unknown individuals and determine their degree of kinship, but Antonia showed no more than polite interest. This was not the enigma that captivated her. She did not seem to care whether she belonged to the family that had left its trace on the glossy paper. The enigma was in the existence of the trace itself: the light reflected by bodies now grown old or long turned to dust had been captured and preserved through a process whose miraculous aspect could not be exhausted by simple technical explanations. Antonia studied a portrait of her mother at the age of ten, standing in front of the house in the shadow of the laurel tree and next to a tiny, ancient relative who, appropriately, was grimacing for all she was worth; then she recognized her godfather, at the same age, among other pupils gathered in the village schoolyard for the class photo, and the house, the schoolyard, even the laurel tree, did not seem to have changed, but the ancient relative was dead, her mother and godfather had not been children for a long time now, and their vanished childhood had nevertheless deposited on the film a trace of its reality as tangible and immediate as a footprint in clay, and to Antonia it seemed that all these familiar places, and from these places the immensity of the entire world, were filling with silent forms, as if all the moments of the past were surviving simultaneously, not in eternity, but in an inconceivable permanence of the present. Yet Antonia knew very well that all adults had once been children, she knew that the dead had been alive and that the past, no matter how distant, began as the present; therefore how could proof that such commonplaces are true be enigmatic or deeply moving? It was pointless to try to find an intelligent or profound answer to this question; the photographs opposed any quest for depth with the impenetrability of their surface.

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Clearly this new passion of his goddaughter-niece’s was anything but a whim. As it happened, he was proven right, but his certainty was in no way a product of wisdom. In truth, his trust in Antonia was blind; everything she did or said seemed admirable to him, and if she did get caught out now and again, he always assumed that deep down it was for some secret, noble reason. Ever since he had carried her to the baptismal font that Sunday morning in the summer of 1965, at a time when his own relationship with God did not exist and he had a terrible hangover after a night spent at one of the bars in town, he had felt an infallible bond with her, a bond of blood and spirit. He loved her as if she had actually become his daughter, through the grace of a sacrament to which, at the time, he did not attach any importance, and this love—until an unexpected and imperious call caused him to collapse on his own road to Damascus—was the only love he could truly feel without restrictions or limits. His sister reproached him for it, predicting that he would turn Antonia into an unbearable spoiled brat, and she did not like the fact that once again he had to stand out by giving her a gift as outrageously lavish as a camera. She liked it even less when Antonia, in the weeks that followed her birthday, far from getting bored with her new toy, began to constantly threaten family members and unwary visitors with her lens. It became necessary to invoke the permanent confiscation of her camera to get her to resign herself to photographing animals, flowers, landscapes, and buildings, all things that yielded with docile indifference to her voracious appetite. Antonia despaired. She was not interested in animals or flowers, only human beings, and now on top of it all she had begun screwing up her pictures. Despite the fact that she kept a scrupulous record in a notebook of all her apertures and shutter speeds, all the images she produced were blurry, too dark, or horribly overexposed. Whenever she went to collect her prints, she came away disheartened. She was making no progress, and it was costing such a fortune that her parents had to agree to let her set up her own darkroom in the cellar. She learned to develop her negatives herself, amid the acid effluvia of developers and the rosé wine her father bought wholesale from the cooperative before bottling it himself. She eventually managed to master her erratic exposure times and focus correctly. But even then she was not satisfied. She had to concede that most of the moments captured hardly deserved to be miraculously torn from their empty transience. Only when the month of August 1979 came along did she, almost inadvertently, take the first picture she judged worthy of keeping.

Pascal B. and his friends invited Antonia, Madeleine, and Laetitia O., along with a few other village girls they had dangerously ceased to regard as children, to go down to the town for ice cream. They parked their cars along the port. The cafés were set out in a row along a street that led to the beach and that had to be crossed to reach the seaside café terrace where Antonia, camera in hand, sat down with the girls. The boys stayed on the other side of the street, sitting at a table out on the sidewalk, except for Pascal B., who was leaning against the wall by the door with a cup of coffee in his hand. He was wearing an outfit that consisted of a white tunic and trousers, with colorful Indian-inspired embroidery, and woven moccasins, also white. He was nineteen back then, and Antonia found him irresistible. She studied the group for a long time through her viewfinder, focused carefully, and waited for a troublesome waiter crossing the street to vanish inside the bar. Just as she pressed the shutter release, some passersby she hadn’t seen approaching suddenly appeared from the left in her viewfinder. Tourists, a man and a woman in their forties, with their two children. They were heading toward the beach, barefoot, wearing only their swimming things, their towels thrown over their shoulders, unaware that, through the unforgivably casual gesture of their intrusion, they had ruined Antonia’s meticulous composition. But when she developed the print, Antonia discovered to her astonishment that it was perfect— thus learning that she should never despair of the prodigal nature of chance: the print shows the boys all glaring with disapproval and disgust toward the left of the image, where the carefree tourists are striding along beneath the shop sign of the bar. Pascal B. has also turned toward them, but his gaze expresses a great deal more than mere disapproval or disgust. The tourists are going along their way, smiling as if the extraordinarily hostile world around them did not exist. It is impossible to determine whether their blindness is the result of innocence or scorn. The photograph does not show, although it clearly signals the possibility, that only a second later, in turning abruptly to his wife, the man will bump into Pascal B., who will spill his coffee and stare for a split second, stunned and incredulous, at the brown spots now staining his elegant white outfit. The guilty man opened his mouth, perhaps to offer a pointless apology, but Pascal B. did not leave him the time to speak: he gave him a headbutt. The tourist raised his hands to his nose then fell to his knees on the sidewalk. The woman rushed toward him, shouting at Pascal B., who shoved her roughly against the wall. He went over to the man on the ground and kicked him in the ribs, a first time, then again, showering him with insults. The tourist curled up where he lay, trying to protect himself as best he could. In the bar, no one lifted a finger to help him. The terrified children began screaming and crying. The woman, her shoulder and back now grazed and bleeding, took them in her arms, crying, too. Antonia and the girls went closer to have a look. Everyone was looking. Suddenly Pascal B.’s anger subsided. He stood there breathing heavily, his gaze vacant, then he turned on his heels and went into the bar. The man stood up, his face covered in blood, and continued on his way with his wife and children. Antonia heard laughter.


Excerpted from In His Own Image by Jérôme Ferrari, translated by Alison Anderson. Used with permission of Europa Editions. Copyright © 2022.

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