the train into the suburbs

It took a month to get back into the rhythm of working on my long-form on suicides in France. Partly because I’ve had a mountain of work at the school of international affairs. Partly because this is a topic I find myself avoiding once I’m out of the correct frame of mind. I’m reminded of what suicide hotline volunteer Fabienne Leonhart said about needing a “solid psychological state”. I certainly didn’t sense it was wise to get into the thick of it while warring through papers and finals, in despair over the long Parisian winter.

April hasn’t been a complete loss, however. I touched base with blogger and train conductor Cédric Gentil (more on my project blog) and on his recommendation, I picked up a new read called Suite à un accident grave de voyageur by Éric Fottorino, a well-known French journalist and former editor of Le Monde. “It’s about his encounters with suicides on the RER A, which runs just behind his house,” said Gentil, who himself operates the RER A. “I cannot recommend it highly enough.”

Here’s my two cents on the book:

Suite à un accident grave de voyageur by Éric Fottorino

« Suite à un accident grave de voyageur »

By: Éric Fottorino
Collection Blanche, Gallimard
Published : 28-02-2013

At 63 pages, Suite à un accident grave de voyageur is a slim but incredibly dense read. The title takes after the detached and euphemistic announcement issued by French transport authorities when a suicide attempt has occurred on the tracks: “Following the serious accident of a passenger…”. The book begins with Fottorino’s shocking discovery that three suicide attempts occurred on the RER A within a month. The RER A is a subway line linking Paris into the suburbs and carries one the world’s highest volume of passengers at 1.2 million a day. As a resident in the suburbs of Yvelines, Fottorino takes the train to Paris nearly everyday and lives close enough to the station that he can hear the rumble of the tracks and the muffled blare of announcements.

En septembre 2012, à quelques jours de distance, trois personnes se sont jetées sur les voies du RER, derrière chez moi, dans les Yvelines. Un vieillard, une mère de famille, un homme qui n’a pu être identifié. À la violence de leur mort a répondu le silence. Il ne s’est rien passé. Nul n’a désigné la souffrance par son nom. Une voix neutre a seulement résonné dans les haut-parleurs de la gare : “Suite à un accident grave de voyageur…” Nos vies ont pris un peu de retard. À cause de trois détresses qui n’ont jamais existé.

(my amateur translation) In September 2012, within days of each other, three people threw themselves onto the tracks of the RER behind my house in the Yvelines. An old man, a mother, and an unidentified man. In response to the violence of their death was silence. Nothing happened. Nothing called out suffering by its name. Only a neutral voice resonating from the speakers of the train station : “Following the serious accident of a passenger…” Our lives took a brief delay. As a result of three incidents of distress that never existed.

A strong bout of curiosity driven by what I suspect was a mix of good journalistic sense and literary compassion sent him on an investigation into the identities of these suicides, spurring a thoughtful essay on what their deaths and collective indifference towards them are saying about modern French society. It is a deeply localised perspective, and seems less intended for the general franco-français than the Parisian urbanite who is already well-acquainted with metaphors of the subway and the city. It is, to some extent, navel-gazing, and I’m not sure if the publishing equivalent of Gallimard in the anglophone world would have taken on a book like this. A highbrow indie mag like n+1, perhaps.

Yet the introspection is well done. What follows is a poetic, despairing exposition of what Fottorino describes as modern isolation and the unwillingness to acknowledge suffering for what it is. Gentil was one of the people contacted by Fottorino in the research for his book, but the prevailing voice is Fottorino’s. His words have an expressive authority, and with his sober and compassionate tone, the result is a beautiful and pained meditation on society’s reaction towards these suicides.

For example, Fottorino laments the clinical neutrality and austere word-limit devoted to suicides in French newspapers. After all, if a person chooses to end his life publicly, perhaps the least we can do is acknowledge him beyond the number of trains he delayed and the number of hours he threw off schedule?

Inconnus jusqu’au bout, ils sont des etc. Personne n’a cherché à les retenir, à s’en souvenir…certains ont sûrement voulu secouer la société qui rejette les plus vulnérables. Il me semble percevoir autre chose. Ces solitaires nous renvoient à notre solitude. La plus profonde des solitudes. Celle qui naît d’un accord tacite, d’une conspiration du silence…  

(translation) Unknown till the end, they are the et ceteras. Nobody tries to retain them, to remember them… They surely wanted to shake up the society that rejects the most vulnerable. But there is something else. These solitary individuals are returning us to our own solitude. The most profound of solitudes. That which is born of a tacit agreement, of a conspiracy of silence…

Fottorino obviously has strong literary ambitions and a lot of muscle to exercise it with. For a non-native French speaker, his writing often strained beyond my grasp. For French readers, I suspect his acrobatics could cut both ways: literary snob and/or compassionate genius. In line with his distaste for the clinical narrative around suicides, Fottorino does away with the usual association between grief and austerity. Instead, the text is rich, almost laboured, with metaphor, turns-of-phrase and many clever literary devices. It is an exhibition of prowess and it hints at a writer’s self-indulgence at the expense – or the benefit – of the sobering quality of the subject.

At the same time, and as Fottorino would probably argue, his treatment is perhaps necessary. In the way that French newspapers have dealt with suicides in the métro, Fottorino has done the opposite. The book is, I imagine, his antidote. It could be read as an apology for the media industry, the disaffectedness of society, and at the same time as a sort of homage to those who are entangled in a person’s final departure. And it is a pretty good one. There are poignant and beautifully constructed passages that capture that grotesque tensing when a suicidal interacts with the living:

Les conducteurs sont alors pris en otage. Leur machine se fait machination. Une personne veut mourir. Une autre ne veut surtout pas tuer. Elle tue pourtant, malgré elle. 

(translation) The conductors are thus taken hostage. Their machine becomes part of the machination. A person wants to die. Another especially does not want to kill him. He kills nonetheless, despite himself.

Fottorino comes back to the big picture in the final pages, concluding with strong sentiments on social suffering, a theme that is increasingly batted around in French media and academia. He takes to task not only modern society’s indifference to suicides, but the institutional inability of investigating the correlation between structural problems and individual despair.

Les mots parlent malgré eux. France et souffrance, France sous-France. Le suicide interroge les fondements de notre condition humaine. Notre société du chiffre triomphant et des records insignificants ne sait pas relier chômage et suicide, précarité et suicide, harcèlement et suicide, perte de l’estime de soi et acte désespéré

(translation) The words speak despite the [silence of society]. France and suffering. France and under-France. Suicide is interrogating the fundaments of the human condition. Our society of the triomphant numbers and insignificant records does not know how to linkunemployment and suicide, precarity and suicide, harassment and suicide, the loss of self-esteem and the act of desperation. 

With its heavy criticism of modern isolation and French society, Suite à un accident grave de voyageur may be less ideal for the suicidal than for the living. I’m not sure what sort of comfort can be taken from the book for someone in the dark woods, except for the fact that it is beautifully written and a worthy attempt at returning some dignity to lost and lonely lives. Ultimately, it doesn’t get into the frame of understanding the suicidal as much as Al Alvarez’s The Savage God does, but it offers a satisfying philosophical and literary exploration into the archness of modern society.

So it doesn’t go into the suburbs of depression, it stays with the journey of the living: train conductors, the people on board, the people who miss their trains, the ones who bitch about that brief delay in their lives, the ones who mourn that permanent loss of a stranger’s life. And perhaps it is what is needed to break the silence.

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