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Le Sermon sur la chute de Rome. Jérôme Ferrari. Review.

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Le Sermon sur la chute de Rome. Jérôme Ferrari. Actes Sud. 2001.

Le Sermon won the 2012 French ‘Booker’, the Prix Goncourt. The author, Jérôme Ferrari, is a lycée philosophy teacher. Born In Paris but installed in Corsica  he spread popular debates in the cafés philosophies in Bastia. He has translated from Corsican and written on Schopenhaur. He has also taught philosophy in a secondary school in Algeria. Ferrai’s previous novel, Où j’ai laissé Mon âme (2010), touched on French torture in Algeria during the war of national liberation.

The title of the novel evokes Saint Augustine’s Sermon on the Fall of Rome. The sack of the City by Alaric and the Goths in 410 was the occasion for Augustine’s greatest attempt to offer a Christian explanation for this event, to defend his faith against the charge that it had contributed to Rome’s defeat. The Sermon heads its seven sections with epigraphs from this, the City of God and ends by imagining the Saint’s final preaching. They evoke the God’s eternal kingdom and the promise of Salvation in the face of the destruction of the works of humankind. His message? All empires are mortal.

So far, so much philosophy. But far from being overwhelmed by serious intent Le Sermon is a novel, of interlinked, and gracefully recounted, stories. A Corsican bar is the pivot of a tale that begins with its own “malédiction divine sur l’Égypte”.

These curses come in succession. Bored with the repetitive hunting clientele, and thieving staff, the owner, Marie-Angèle, decides to let out the bistro. A succession of owners follows. In events that will have an echo with anybody familiar with pubs and bars across Europe, the new lease-holders try to relaunch the business. One re-opens as El Commandate bar with a Che Guevara neon-sign. After a blaze of techno-music and partying, he leaves – debts unpaid. Another, Bernard Gratas, is abandoned by wife and family and left to drink himself into the gutter.

Matthieu and Libero, childhood friends from the village, graduates in philosophy at Paris, take over. They set up with a new batch of staff – young attractive women –and generously employ Gratas to do the washing up. They offer a limited and affordable range of ‘terroir’ fare. It succeeds. This, Matheiu wistfully thinks, is a world dreamt of by Leibniz, a universe ruled by God’s good will, “le meilleur des mondes possibles”.

And, for a while, it is.

The Sermon local details, the tourist ‘season’, Corsican chasseurs, a memorable castration of a young boar-pig, an economy dominated the tourist season, and the fraught, and intimate, tie with France. But there is little of what would expect about the Island’s mafias, or, reference to the inability of younger characters to understand the lingua corsa, or to the movement for independence.

The history of Mathieu’s grandfather, Marcel Antonneti, interwoven in the chapters, revovles around 20th century French wars and the Empire. It is of a constantly darker hue. From the Second World War, life as an administrator in French Africa, reigning over “insectes, de Nègres, de plantes sauvages et de fauves” (wild beasts) and death, back to Corsica and the collapse of the French Empire Marcels’ life is a “vide” (void). The other characters, like Aurélie, Matheiu’s sister, have their own set backs to contemplate.

Matheiu and Libro’s dream of a, more limited, empire of happiness, ends too. The conclusion of Le Sermon, announced early on as ““une nuit de pillage et de sang (pillage and blood), indicates that there is no “demiurge” around to forgive the sins of the world.

Yet the impression these events leave does not washed way the lightness, the “sinuosity (as French reviewers have called it) of Ferrari’s prose, nor the happiness it, briefly, conveys. There is something of the Julian Barnes (much admired in France) in the novel, a graceful way of dealing with serious things. It is to be hoped that Le Sermon will find an English speaking audience as soon as possible.

English Language Wikipedia on  Jérôme Ferrari here.

Written by Andrew Coates

May 10, 2013 at 11:06 am

2 Responses

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  1. […] Ferarri este castigatorul premiului Goncourt pe 2012, pentru cartea sa Predica despre caderea Romei. Este un roman cu o proza densa, provocator, tragic si-n acelasi timp luminos ca un nafragiu pictat […]

    • Good to see that Romanians appreciate reviews of the latest French novels….

      Andrew Coates

      May 31, 2013 at 11:56 am

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