On Black Forest by Valérie Mréjen

Ian J. Battaglia

Translated by Katie Shireen Assef. Los Angeles, CA: Phoneme Media/Deep Vellum Publishing, 2019. 80 pages. $16.00.

“[T]here are few things that arouse in us greater distaste than to see a human being caught up in [death], at least if we are to judge by the efforts we make to keep corpses out of sight,” writes Karl Ove Knausgård in the opening of his monumental series, My Struggle. There is nothing more assured in life than the knowledge it will one day come to an end. Many works of literature attempt to come to terms with this implicit understanding, often building up to a climactic passing, or showcasing the grief from the aftermath, as is with Knausgård. In Black ForestValérie Mréjen’s novel originally published in French in 2012 but now translated to English by Katie Shireen Assef—death takes center stage, or perhaps, center frame. However, unlike Knausgård’s attempt to eulogize a single life (his father’s), Mréjen has created an elegy for grief itself.

In this short novel, Mréjen shows us death and grief from every angle. A woman stabbed for being at the scene of a crime. Traffic accidents that end in disaster. A man who “decides he is old enough” as he secures the noose. Perhaps most significantly, it showcases those tangential to tragedy, the crying lovers to whom the police speak, the friends in somber vigil,  and the daughter trying to imagine what could have been. The narrative itself is loose. We start close, on one family in particular. This is the nearest thing to a through line in the novel: the story of a daughter coming to terms with the death of her mother, and imagining an afternoon spent with her in modern Paris, twenty-five years after her passing. We check in with this daughter at a few stages in her life, from a teen learning of her mother’s passing, to a young girl desperate to avoid disappointing her.

This imagined day together, mother and daughter reunited beyond death or logic, takes up the bulk of the novel. It’s a lovely and poignant exercise, the thoughts of the daughter that will never reach her mother. She imagines her struck by the gaudy baubles for sale in shop windows, amazed by the public behaviors of people on the street. After an imagined meal at a café, she says, “We would leave this charming place, and probably for the best since, truth be told, I don’t know what she would have ordered. We rarely went out to cafés or, rather, it was so long ago I have no memory of her taste.”

Interspersed with this narrative are other stories of death, snapshots into the moment of, just before, or just after their passing. These are written with a cool and distant hand. Some are stark in their brutality, and others strike an almost humorous note with their absurdity. However, regardless of the particulars that brought about their end, Mréjen treats each character the same, never tipping her hand or inflecting their demise. In this way, it’s up to the reader to draw any conclusions about the character or meaning in their passing.

At times, the effect is near ridiculous, more akin to a Final Destination film than a somber meditation on death. However, these bizarre deaths are outnumbered by more sensitive, empathetic passings. Perhaps it was this balance Mréjen had in mind when she noted, “the mind sometimes invests too much in certain memories, willfully fixating on this or that remark until its surplus value accrues enormously, while other phrases spoken in kinder tones depreciate and are in time forgotten.”

There are many such lovely musings, delicately translated by Assef. “It’s bleeding, but it’s beating,” writes Mréjen on the heart of those in grief. She notes, “You almost never wondered what your most sinister day would look like or when it would take place.” However, the novel struggles with some awkward writing that adds confusion to an otherwise sharp book. It feels strange to be addressed so directly as “you,” referring to the reader, in the work. Additionally, the writing jumps between tenses, which doesn’t sit well. It serves a purpose, largely to separate the mother and daughter imagined-future narrative from the past-tense deaths, but is odd all the same.

None of the characters is named, not even the mother and daughter. Assef, in her translator’s note, describes the distance Mréjen takes to her subjects as a sort of care, the detachment out of respect for those passed, even if fictionally. Perhaps so, but this also creates confusion, leading me to reread the opening pages a few times until I caught my bearings.

The language of the cinema pervades the novel, as Mréjen’s work as a filmmaker has clearly influenced her writing style. A few times, she makes the link explicit, stating, “in the very next shot.” Even when she does not spell it out, it’s easy to see the connection. Many of these moments of death are sparse, like a cutaway in a film, before returning to one of the longer, more meditative sections. The text also refers back to several works of film, such as the films of Ernst Lubitsch, the HBO series Six Feet Under (in one of the particularly bizarre deaths), and Depardon’s Faits divers.

Black Forest is a sparse and elegiac novel. Its unrelenting focus on a subject we’d often prefer not to think about makes it a sort of memento mori. Through the scale and disparate passings presented, Mréjen reminds us that while for all of us the moment will come when we pass, death can be a unifying moment rather than just an alienating one. That those who succeed us will do whatever they can and push on. That wherever death might find us, there is also life.

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