Jérôme Bonnetto grew up in Nice where he studied maths and then literature. He’s been living in Prague for the last fifteen years. He recently published Le Silence des carpes (The Silence of the Carps) with Les Editions Inculte, a novel which draws the reader into a small Czech town in an attempt to track down a woman who disappeared behind the Iron Curtain.
You were born and raised in the south of France: do you think this has had any bearing on the way you write or the subjects you explore? Do you feel like a southern French author or is that category meaningless to you?
I’m wary of categories. I’m too scared of finding my works on a library shelf under the label “Books from the south of France written by right-handed, insomniac authors allergic to gribiche sauce”. I was born in Nice, I spent thirty years in the south, including my most formative years as a child. I learned to walk, talk, read and kiss girls on the sea front. That must have some bearing on the way I see the world and the way I write, but in what ways? I’d be hard pressed to answer that question in any precise way. To tell you the truth, I’d prefer that to stay blurred.
You’ve also lived in Prague: has this made you feel more bi-cultural or do you still feel very French as a writer?
I know you’re asking this question without malice, but I’m ill-at-ease with the whole algebra of identity. I’m French and I’ve been living for fourteen years in the Czech Republic. But my family originally came from small, forgotten Sicilian islands, large, magnificent rocks peopled only by goats and fishermen. Life there was tough and so many people moved to Tunisia, in the nineteenth century in particular. The Bonnetto family stayed there for a century, up to the independence of the country in 1956. My parents were still young children when they disembarked in Marseille with their triple cultural baggage: Italian, French and Tunisian. My grandfather was never able to pronounce the French R. He used to roll his Rs for miles. You know, I had to pay for that. In 2008, France refused to renew my passport under the pretext that my parents and grandparents weren’t born in France. I had to prove I was French. In those days, there was a debate over national identity and the Hortefeux laws terrorised everyone. You had to gather a pile of papers and testify in front of a judge. I found myself without a nationality for several months, a Kafkaesque experience I will never forget. It was a clear sign that for some people, I was only a second-rate Frenchman. Since then, I prefer to be falsely naive about the question. I see identity as a kind of abstract painting with sharply contrasted colours and some that blend and others that have been watered down. From the outside, I’m clearly a French author, but from my perspective, things are more complicated. If I had to define myself, I’d say I’m an author who happens to write in French. It’s a label that seems sufficiently open and accurate to me.
Your two latest books stand in sharp contrast to one another. La Certitude des pierres (The Certainty of Stones) is very dark and tragic whereas Le Silence des carpes (The Silence of Carps) is for the most part upbeat and comic. Does this generic swing signal a turn to a more light-hearted perspective or do you intend to continue writing comedies and tragedies in alternation?
It’s true that after the tragic in camera atmosphere of The Certainty of Stones, I felt the need to write something lighter, something more relaxed and open. The clockwork of The Certainty of Stones was extremely taut so I wanted The Silence of Carps to be playful, sprawling. I wanted to be able to wander around, digress, make room for time and laughter. It’s part of a natural pendulum swing. As well as comedy, I wanted to aim for something with feel good qualities, a genre with well-established—perhaps too well-established—conventions by now. It made me want to remove the silliness from the genre without condescending to it either. During the writing of the first draft, I would tell people I was writing an “almost feel good because you can’t play the reader for a fool”. And then we were all hit by COVID. It confirmed my suspicion that I had chosen the right genre to work in and that it would help me to get through that rotten period if I was engaged with a certain zaniness.
In the writing of the book, I found the motivations of the real reader of feel good books who was thumbing his nose at me. All that helped me to come up with the right critical distance. But I have no global strategy when it comes to alternating comedy and tragedy. Each time I write, I try to lean on a different genre. I systematically veer away from what I already know what to do. So it wouldn’t enter my mind to write another feel good book just after Carps. I have to feel I’m learning as I write and genre is an excellent aid in that quest. I can deviate from expectations, take liberties, play truant. I never feel I’m imprisoned because deep down I have no real respect for the parameters of genre. I’m interested in how literature is built by transcending genre. In that respect, I admire Kubrick’s approach. Look at 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Shining or Barry Lindon: he took a genre, learnt from it, exposed its clockwork, bent its rules and created a masterpiece which became the new touchstone of the genre. I have the impression of following in the master’s footsteps, right up to the second-last step. Unfortunately, things get tougher after that…
Is there a teasing allusion to Milan Kundera in your Silence of the Carps, notably when the narrator says that there are five types of human being according to the way they eat their cake in a restaurant? Has Kundera had a major influence on your work and has your relationship to him deepened since your departure for the Czech Republic?
Yes, I had some fun slipping in a few nods to him here and there. Kundera also appears in the inn in Les belles pertes (The Beautiful Losses) as the seasoned inn-keeper who knows how to separate quarrelsome guests. But as you can see, these examples are mostly anecdotal. Come to think of it, I’m not sure what kind of cake eater Milan Kundera is: my guess is that he’s in the third category with the sophisticated perverts who wait for others to finish their cake first before he starts taking a morsel of his own. But that needs to be checked … I’ve read and reread Kundera a lot, less lately, but in all I’ve spent hundreds of hours alone with his work. There must be some residue of that in my books.
In Prague, the author’s star doesn’t shine as brightly as in France where he is mostly worshipped. There are deep-seated reasons for this that would lead us into an over-long discussion. But there’s definitely a gulf between Kundera’s reception in France and the way the Czech people see him, and this gap will probably take decades to fill. Let me give you one telling example. People from the Czech Republic don’t even know texts like Slowness or Identity because they haven’t even been translated into Czech, while French readers haven’t read the highly critical, nine-hundred-page biography of the author by Jan Novak on Kundera’s years in Czechoslovakia.
This has probably influenced the way I see Kundera. So, while I still view his work as paramount, a major cultural landmark on many levels, surpassing my writing, I find that certain aspects of his work (politics set aside) seem to have dated a little too quickly. It’s actually quite paradoxical because everything in his work tends towards universality. Despite this, I find his writing has difficulty entering the twenty-first century. The nature of the erotic in his work, the relationship between the sexes, these seem a little old-fashioned to me now. As well as this, his sometimes didactic use of characters as puppets to demonstrate a truth seems less seductive to me than it used to in my younger years. We also know, since Life is Elsewhere, what he thinks of poetry, lyricism and metaphors in general–this is one of the stumbling blocks for Czech readers who know the politico-erotic verse of Kundera’s juvenalia, even if Kundera repudiated it entirely.
In Carps, I opted to unleash my metaphors, more out of a taste for the grotesque than for their lyrical qualities, but I’m convinced that kind of language would make him frown. His conception of laughter is very different. This being said, I still admire the musical construction of Kundera’s novels as much as I used to. I often think of it. And you can find residues of that inheritance in my texts. To conclude, my relationship to Kundera is “complicated”, in a way that amorous entanglements are complicated. It couldn’t really be any different. If you really had to find tutelary spirits for Carps, you should really look towards Ota Pavel and even more to Bohumil Hrabal. Apart from its theatrical and musical function, the story of the fishermen for instance is a sort of double homage to these two wonderful writers: their writing represents best what I would like to transmit about Czech culture.
What aspects of Kundera’s eroticism and his view of the relationship between the two genders do you find outdated?
I’m sure there’s a whole raft of studies and serious-minded theses on eroticism in Kundera’s work because the question draws in other themes that are dear to the author: identity, laughter, slowness, to name but a few. I’m not an expert on the question. It’s more of an impression I got from reading him, so everything I say should be taken with a grain of salt. But it seems to me that Kundera conceives of amorous and sexual bonds in a way that feels a little normative. Gender roles are very distinctly delineated and you find this dialectic in every phase of couple-formation: conquest, sex, and incomprehension. I’m not sure that everyone has a place in Kundera’s view of eroticism. I may be mistaken, but I wouldn’t be surprised if some people accuse him of misogyny. My view is that things evolve. It’s important not to misrepresent him of course, but I think that some aspects of his work will stand the test of time better than others, that’s all I’m saying.
Can you tell us a little about your upcoming literary projects?
It’s a bit hard to say at this stage as I’m running two hares at once (despite the fact that I’m having trouble setting time aside to write) which is usually the best way to catch neither. The project that has advanced the most is the story of a family that lives on a vaguely Mediterranean island. It’s a bit of an odd family as its members neither age nor die. Something that allows them to cross through time and meet a few people on the way …
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