On the occasion of the release of her third novel, Les Enténébrés (“Shadow People”), author and psychoanalyst Sarah Chiche discusses some of the themes that have inspired her in her writing: mad love, the end times, global warming and the weight of history on our individual and collective lives.
Could you describe your novel for us?
I attempted to paint a mural that runs from the late nineteenth century to today, wherein the climate and History are full-fledged characters. It all begins in the height of summer 2015, when a very unusual heatwave swept over Europe. A woman goes to Austria to write an article about the living conditions of refugees fleeing war. She falls in love with a famous musician and begins a passionate relationship, despite also being in a relationship with another man. That’s when she begins living a double life. While investigating the deaths of children in an Austrian psychiatric hospital, this woman’s ghosts begin to resurface. We suddenly find ourselves transported to West Africa at the time of decolonisation, then to France in the 1950s, still buried in the ruins of the Second World War, then to within the midst of a group of musicians born during the Industrial Revolution at the end of the nineteenth century, before finally returning to the present day.
What was the inspiration for this book?
In the book, I draw a parallel between terrestrial ecology and psychological ecology. How can climate change be a catalyst for our individual changes? I think, for example, that it is possible to connect the massive fires that ravaged California, the heatwave that recently consumed Australia, and the fires of passion: each is as destructive as the next. The characters in this novel are marked by a tendency towards excess: excessive sadness, excessive melancholy, excessive suffering and joy. Sometimes they are very poor, and sometimes rather cowardly. But they are nevertheless courageous. They are men, women and children who set out ahead of the pack, risking everything to do so. There is in this novel perhaps the idea that love – including in its most extreme forms – is today, in this often sad, damning, terribly cynical era, one of the last remaining spaces for dissent and freedom.
You visited Austria in 2015, in the midst of the migrant crisis, to see for yourself what was going on there…
When, at the end of the summer of 2015, I learned that Austria was opening its borders to refugees fleeing countries at war, I felt it was essential not to hide behind my screen but to go directly there. Behind these people pouring off trains from all over, walking on the platforms of the central train station in Vienna, haggard, exhausted, wide-eyed, I saw other bodies, other faces. I thought of the Death March at the end of the Second World War, during which the deportees suddenly released from the camps returned to home on foot, in a state of extreme physical disintegration. Some things cannot be invented: they absolutely must be documented.
The heroine of this novel bears your first name, Sarah. Is she a version of you?
This novel is neither autobiography nor auto-fiction, for two reasons. First of all, because to describe it as such would be to disregard the whole intertextual game within it: paintings by Goya, Bruegel, alongside fragments of the film In the Realm of The Senses by Oshima, of Winter Journey by Schubert, of Tristan and Isolde by Wagner, a purposeful pastiche of Thomas Bernhard, and numerous references to European art. Secondly, because talking about a "literary version” of me makes no sense to me, it would imply that there is a “me”, a centre, and I have no centre other than in writing.
Does this novel echo your previous books?
If you want to find resonances between Les Enténébrés and the rest of my work, you have to look at what I wrote about melancholy in Personne(s) and also in Histoire érotique de la psychanalyse ("Erotic History of Psychoanalysis"). I composed the latter essay and the novel as a diptych. Both works can stand on their own, but they have a lot in common, starting with being very ‘Austrian’. They are also both marked by questions about mad love, about refusing timidity, about preferring excess, fire, despite the risk of being burned. It is difficult to be at the height of love. Over the course of a lifetime, one may sometimes behave in a very mediocre way, and yet other times in a very impressive way.
In our times, is it still possible to act?
The question remains of whether we have the right to be happy when there is so much misfortune in the world. We are all distorted, destroyed, shaped by the movements of History. They criss-cross us. Wars and revolutions shape us, and affect our individual behaviours. I believe that we are now faced with extremely serious issues, and that we are moving slowly, irreparably towards an end, but this does not prevent moments of joy, freedom and desire. Whatever happens, and to the very end, it is important to act and to be involved.
Winner of an Institut français Stendhal Residency, Sarah Chiche lived in Austria in 2016.
The Stendhal programme allows French authors or authors living in France to travel to a foreign country and work on a writing project related to that country. Learn about the Stendhal programme
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