4Translation Prix Femina 2023 Sad Tiger, Neige Sinno

4translation bookblast diary neige sinno triste tigre

Beautifully written in purist prose, Sad Tiger is a vivid account of incest and its consequences. But this book is more than a confessional memoir in which the author lifts the lid on shocking facts without any embroidery. It is an exploration about domination and power; about the promise and the impotence of literature and storytelling as a way to grasp and understand what is inconceivable to most ordinary people. Shortlisted for the Prix Goncourt and Prix Femina since publication in August, Sad Tiger has already sold 100,000 copies.

Happy Families: Appearance vs. Reality 
1990s. A seemingly harmonious family leads a bohemian life in the Alps. He is a virile flirtatious man, exuding energy and charm. She is submissive and a bit of a country hippy. From a previous marriage, she has brought with her two girls, age six and four, with names like characters in a Grimm’s fairy tale: Neige (Snow) and Rose. Two more children are born, a boy and a girl. He works on building sites and she does domestic work, their home is a renovated ruin, but they manage to make ends meet. From the age of seven to fourteen, Neige is raped regularly by her stepfather. In 2000, Neige and her mother file a complaint for fear that he might molest the younger children too. He is sentenced to nine years imprisonment after a very public trial during which he admits his guilt — a rare outcome since children are not always believed and there is often suspicion of manipulation by one of the parents.

Sinno writes: “While a great many novels are written from the victim’s point of view, those written from inside the mind’s eye of the tormentor are few and far between, especially when it comes to literary realism. Having said which, child rape is rarely chosen as a subject. Indeed, for all other crimes, we are often set up to be on the side of the criminal. We readily conceive of the thief, the traitor, the killer himself. In our culture rape in itself is not unusual, but to talk about it, visualize it, analyse it is taboo [. . .] When I re-read Nabokov’s Lolita I was disconcerted since I had not expected to find so much in common with my own sordid personal history.

Neige’s stepfather is not a narcissistic, literate pervert like Humbert Humbert. He is “a narcissistic pervert with sadistic tendencies” according to the expert conducting the psychiatric assessment for the trial. Her stepfather’s story is not about seduction. (p33)

She is six years old and he twenty-four at their first encounter. He expresses an oddball theory throughout her childhood in which he firmly believes. “He comes to me with the best intentions in the world. He wants to replace my father, to love me like his own daughter, to give me a stable family life, a good education, a basic albeit real home. I resist him from the very beginning. I don’t want to call him Dad. I already have a Dad. I don’t need his love, his good education, his caresses. I don’t even want him to touch me. I don’t let him come near me. As for him, all that he wants is to love me. He seeks contact. I reject him. So he comes and caresses me at night when I’m less defensive. He realizes that in secret, in the dark, when he touches my body with his fingers and wakes me up, talking quietly without being interrupted, I dare not resist him. Perhaps I sense that this is the only way we could have a loving relationship. So that’s how it is: at night I don’t talk, while during the day I’m sullen and rebut whatever it is that he wants to impose on me, there’s no other way.”

There is something chilling in the almost mundane banality of how his sexual demands become part of the texture of daily life: “I accompany him to work, I give him a blow job and then he prepares my cross-country skis, and I leave with the instructor in the club’s Citroën Méhari. Cars. Tents, a camp site. A chalet that had been lent to him.”

The author’s internal landscape of thoughts and emotions, and her process of questioning and attempted elucidation, not only by revisiting her experience, but also through her study of the literature of incest, helps to convey complex ideas and complicated concepts about a disturbing subject. Her experience, reflections and unique perception of reality have a compelling quality.

What is it about criminals, monsters, that is so fascinating to us?”
Sinno interweaves her personal experience with reflections and other stories about incest and rape from Nabokov, Woolf, Foucault, Sartre, Sade, Christine Angot, Emmanuel Carrère, Primo Levi, Julián Herbert, Camille Kouchner, Annie Ernaux, Virginie Despentes, Dorothy Allison, Margaux Fragoso, Mary Karr, Kathy Acker, Toni Morrison . . . and she turns to Blake’s poem The Tyger, which asks how something as soft as a lamb and as fierce as a tiger could coexist.

She belongs to that community of people who have known “the other world,” that of darkness and evil, who are haunted for always by what was done to them. Living in limbo between night and day is a lonely existence. She is lucid, analytical and does not give in to sensationalism and hyperbole. Her sang-froid is remarkable given what happened.

On his release after nine years inside, her stepfather remarries a woman twenty years his junior, settles in the South of France and establishes a new family. The people in the Alpine village where the horror took place do not deny the facts, but they turn a blind eye to the seriousness of what happened to Neige.

Blowing up the family unit, you have few friends left, because of the shame you bring on to their heads.”

Her ideal is to be like Claude Ponti, the renowned children’s book illustrator and author who was raped as a child by his grandfather. He created his own dreamlike world like a parallel universe in which he could immerse himself. He only spoke out many years later.

Neige settles in Mexico, marries and has a daughter whose gawky fragility reminds her of how she once was, “How can a little girl like that catch the eye of a man?” She does not choose to write as a form of therapy – which she considers to be a dubious motivation – but as a kind of consolation, to be part of that community of people who have known “the other world”, to try to access something greater than herself.

We learn to live knowing that the other world will always be there, around the bend in the road. It is where victim and tormentor are reunited, each in a similar kind of darkness. It is a world in which evil cannot be ignored as it is omnipresent, changing the colour and taste of everything. To ignore or forget it is not an option, since the faster you flee, the faster it comes up behind you. You can hang on at the frontier without going there. Learning to stay on the threshold of this other world, therein lies the challenge, to walk like a high-wire walker aong the tightrope of fate. Stumble but do not fall again. Do not fall.”

According to the British Medical Journal, there was a surge in domestic violence during the coronavirus pandemic. Myriad books of varying quality continue to be published about child abuse and its consequences.

Sad Tiger is unusual in that it addresses such a difficult subject at the extreme end of the spectrum from multiple angles. By presenting the central perspectives of both the perpetrator and the victim, and a wide range of stories about incest and rape, a greater understanding of the psychological and emotional impact is gained however impossible it is to ever fully grasp such monstrousness. Ideally, books such as this encourage discussion, provoke change, and contribute towards confronting not burying the realities of child abuse.

According to Ipsos, one in ten people in France say they are victims of incest and this figure has increased over time as more people have felt emboldened to come forward. The latest statistics provided by the charity Rape Crisis reveal an equally chilling fact, that one in six children in the UK has been sexually abused.

Incest is one of the last great taboos. Patrick Loiseleur, VP of Facing Incest: “Incest is like the elephant in the room that nobody wants to see. It is the most widespread form of sexual violence and the least talked about.” Sad Tiger needs to be published in English translation, however difficult and painful the subject.

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About Georgia de Chamberet 372 Articles
Bilingual editor, rewriter, anthologist, French-to-English translator. Has written for 3am magazine, words without borders, The Independent, The Lady, Banipal, Prospect Magazine, Times Literary Supplement. Currently writes for The BookBlast Diary. Founder (1997) of London-based writing agency BookBlast.