Title – Un Secret (Memory)
Author – Philippe Grimbert (translation by Polly McLean)
Genre – Non-fiction
“Why would he pay his respects at the tombstone? He carried his dead inside him: those who had been dearest to him had no graves, their names marked no stone.”
Originally written in French and published as Un Secret, “Memory” is Philippe Grimbert’s autobiographical account of his family history amidst the Nazi occupation of France. The author’s parents jumped to their deaths from a balcony of their building apartment. Twenty years later, Grimbert wrote this novel about the memories and secrets that dominated their lives and drove them to the final leap.
The author’s father was a wrestler, and mother a swimmer. Born of athlete parents in post-War Paris, young Grimbert always fell short of their expectations – he was never inclined towards sports and was quite a sickly child in his younger days. The family owned a sportswear shop. His parents were quiet and withdrawn mostly, preferring to spend time working out (perhaps at an obsessive level). Next door to the Grimbert’s lived Louise, a massage therapist, who his parents visited frequently due to the high levels of their exercise routines. Young Grimbert invented for himself an imaginary brother – someone much stronger and smarter, someone he could never be, someone his parents would have approved of. On his fifteenth birthday, a conversation with an old family friend reveals that the imaginary sibling had a real predecessor – a half brother killed in the concentration camps of the Holocaust. And the family’s secrets come tumbling out – an illicit love affair, missing spouses, a lost child, devastatingly broken families, betrayals that date back to the War and continue to haunt them all these years later.
There are twists and turns throughout the narrative that are chilling to the core and give the reader goosebumps every step on the way. Who were the author’s parents before they came to be known as his parents? Are there any other family members he should know about? Why was all this hidden for years? That distant look in his parents eyes – was that because they disapproved of him? Or were they remembering someone else? Is Grimbert even their family name? The author sets off on a search to draw out the cold truths, resulting in this hauntingly brilliant narrative. How experiences of war shape survivors, how unspoken feelings distort future generations, the extent parents go through to protect their children, not realizing that lies may cause further damage. The book is narrated in the form of a novel, and the writing is stunning – beautifully woven history and storytelling. Every sentence has a lot of soul and depth to it and stays with you long after finishing the book.
Rating – 5/5