Between the measured words of Michel Quint’s recently published first book, In Our Strange Gardens, is silence. I imagine that silence as a head bowed in deference to a father whose memory taunts his son into reaching beyond all memories to a new understanding of the past, over and over again.
Quint opens with a dedication to his father, in part, because his father, a Resistance fighter and a former prisoner of war, “made sure [he] learned German, because they knew how foolish it is to see history in terms of black and white.” Deriving truth from experience—real, received, or remembered—requires an eye trained for nuance and a faith that goodness resides within the least likely of people. So Quint learns as he learns about his father’s past from his uncle and retells the story to us. Every act of heroism is drenched in innocent blood.
The central metaphors of this story—gardens and clowns—challenge the reader to rethink ideas of innocence and responsibility, dignity and disgrace. France during World War II is Eden—a site of innocence and the brutal loss of innocence. If war ravages its occupants, they also cast off their innocence with as much brutality as their enemy has attempted to strip them of it. Such circumstances clearly call dignity into question. Who has any? How does one regain dignity? Quint’s tightly-woven book with its myriad surprises offers a surprising resolution to this dilemma.
Quint juxtaposes memory and truth to show how they depend on each other. Remembering is a constant recontextualizing of truth and therefore, a constant reconstruction of fact. “The fact is,” he says, the cause of his “neurosis” was that his father was a clown. We discover later that the cause of his “neurosis” was his father’s unnamable compulsion to act the clown.
As an adolescent, Quint is ashamed of his father, a grammar school math teacher, for literally acting the clown, sometimes preferring to perform for strangers to spending time with his family. The reader shares the young man’s mortification as the teacher fumbles through his clown act. We, like the adolescent boy, wonder what the point might be of escaping the family for the sake of a few laughs and a few drinks. The aunt and uncle likewise embarrass the boy with their open displays of affection at the dinner table. We share his embarrassment. The boy is trapped in a mediocre world in which his father is called a holy fool.
In the second part of the story, the narrator leads us with him from childhood to adulthood when he learns about his father’s role in the French Resistance. His father’s experiences during World War II are the keys that unlock the boy’s understanding and thus enable him to respect his father and, eventually, honor his memory.
Quint says, “As I got older, I grew dimly aware that he performed his act as a duty, a rite of atonement….He knew very well he was a lousy clown, but he wasn’t ashamed of it—he actually took pleasure in his own pathetic antics. My father was a man of gentle obstinacy, driven by an inner compulsion.
“But I didn’t know it for certain until later. When he decided it was time for me to know.”
Quint learns his father’s lesson: a clown embodies humility by causing us to laugh at our foibles and limitations. He celebrates our lack of control over destiny when he falls on his face and gets up again unharmed. The clown inverts our sense of dignity to achieve it. Laughing at a clown is a form of redemption. We depend on them in the way the elder Quint and his fellow prisoners in the earth pit depend on their Nazi jailer—another clown—for survival.
The young man reaps the fruit of his father’s—and his uncle and aunt’s—“strange and terrible gardens, ravaged, bloody, and cruel.” In telling the story of their experiences to the boy, Gaston, the uncle, “wasn’t putting on an act, his words weren’t attempting merely to reflect inhuman moments and things; he was spreading out his life itself before me and humbly offering me all he had….”
The garden, like the Biblical one, is primal. Instinct and intellect do battle as Quint’s father and his peers struggle to defeat the evil the Nazis and the Vichy government represent. They survive by allowing themselves to be surprised by the generosity of spirit of an unsympathetic housewife and a German soldier. History is not black and white.
Gaston frees Quint from the curse of adolescence; the young man is no longer a boy who perceives the people around him as losers. Life is no longer strangely inconsequential to him as he discovers heroism embodied in the most ordinary of people.
The only character with which Quint has not made peace by the end of his story is his sister, Francoise, whom he describes as a “guardian of bits of string”—family memorabilia—and one who always “looked too good for this world….” Francoise, who weeps and prays on cue, provides a glimpse of hell. Her apparently dignified, formulaic responses to her world reflect a refusal to engage the people around her in a meaningful way. Her life is removed, restrained, and, ultimately, as valueless as her bits of string.
The adult Quint honors his father by taking on his role as a clown and thereby “honoring humanity” at a war criminal’s trial. He has learned to love his father for a modest, unassuming celebrant of human dignity, a face representing all who perished during World War II.
Quint takes on that face at the trial and through the text. By giving us the story, he beckons his readers to act the clown, too.
- Sandy Carlson