The Age, 15th May 2002
A bewildered fall into violence
Early in Anne Provoost's novel Falling, the protagonist, Lucas Beigne, has the sense that 'Everyone knows everything and [he] knows nothing'. This realisation happens late in the chronology of the narrative, despite its position in the book. Lucas' stream-of-consciousness account of the events of his summer vacation takes the form of a flashback describing what has led up to him watching Caitlin, missing one foot, returning home in an ambulance.
His ignorance of history, both that of his society and that of his family, leads Lucas into the state of bewildered paralysis where we find him in the opening pages. In recounting the tragic outcome of her character's innocence of the past, Provoost suggests the dangers that generally go along with ignoring history.
The title, Falling, suggests the concept of a person behaving irrationally in the face of an irresistible force of nature, in a way they are unable to control. Lucas 'falls into' his association with the neofascists in the town in the same unpremeditated way he 'falls for' Caitlin romantically. Watching a tree fall when it has been sawn through, he is fascinated by the 'slow movement' and the way the top 'bounced up again a few times in a wave motion, as if resisting its fall'. And his own fall from grace is confirmed by his cutting of the tree in the Cercle.
Lucas, as narrator, begins by expressing regret for his lost innocence. 'I can no longer wake up innocent, as I was that morning.' He 'was the only one around who didn't know what had happened' between his grandfather and Soeur Beate. This question of what controversial actions his grandfather had taken lies at the centre of the first half of the narrative. Even the hairdresser assumes that Lucas knows his own family history, but it has been kept from him by his mother in a misguided attempt to protect him.
When Lucas fails to press his mother for answers to the questions that arise in the mind of the reader we begin to suspect that he is wilfully ignorant rather than benignly innocent. However, his attempts to unearth the truth of the enigma surrounding his grandfather (from Caitlin, Benoit, Alex, Nadine, the woman pulling thistles, the boxes of newspaper cuttings) consistently draw a blank until he determines 'I don't have to know', and resolves 'not to ask anybody any question about [his] grandfather'. Ironically, it is the neofascist Alex who reproves him with the jibe that he seems to be 'someone who pretends the past does not exist'.
From the beginning there is a mystery surrounding the antagonism between Soeur Beate and Lucas' grandfather. This antagonism is transferred across the generations to affect the relationship between Lucas and Caitlin. We learn that Felix Stockx was, at the very least, an apologist for the Holocaust but we cannot tell what Lucas feels about it. His mother exhorts him: 'Don't become like your grandfather', but he does take up his grandfather's position, at least for a while, and that is where the tragedy lies. He is associated with his grandfather through some central motifs. His habit of dragging the desk under the skylight in order to stand on it and watch the convent is borrowed from his grandfather, but it is the chainsaw with its dangerous power that more significantly links the two generations.
Lucas' first action with the chainsaw is one of thoughtless vandalism; he saws through the workbench in his grandfather's smithy. When his mother assumes that this has been done by the 'Arab' thieves who have robbed the house, Lucas does not correct her.
His efforts to carry through his grandfather's wishes and fell the selfseeded pine trees that block the view to the valley become a point of difference between himself and Caitlin. They are also a gesture of exchange with her; she invites him to take up where his grandfather left off and continue to supply firewood to the convent. In order to please Caitlin in this, it is necessary for him to regain the chainsaw, and this leads to his meeting with Benoit.
The sinister Benoit is a personification of fascism. He is wellgroomed, polite, articulate, sentimental about 'vulnerable' women and children and yet advocates physical violence. Seductively attentive to Lucas in his manipulation, he draws him into his sphere of influence by small stages through a series of obligating 'favours' such as the buying of the starting pistol, the loan of the real gun, the repair of the chainsaw. But the favours are supported by threats: 'You don't really have much choice. It's either that, or leave your saw behind for good.'
Benoit's arguments rest on the anxieties people have about losing control over their social environment as well as on the fear of difference and change. He invokes 'oldfashioned values we've held for centuries and which are now under threat' to justify racial hatred. He uses Lucas' confused emotions about his grandfather to involve him in the action that implicates him irrevocably in the struggle between racial groupings in the town - the attack on the linden tree in the Cercle.
The accounts of what happened to the Jews harboured in the convent during the Nazi occupation are juxtaposed with the incidents and comments regarding 'Arabs' in the contemporary setting. In the perception of many in Montourin the Arabs are 'a swarm of flies', mysterious and dangerous and 'they all looked like each other, those Arabs'. In this way Provoost has linked the xenophobia and negative stereotyping that underpin racism of any kind, regardless of its object. Caitlin has not been given a Jewish name in order to protect her 'in case history repeats itself'. It is an ironic twist of history that in this setting the victims of racism are Arab guest workers. Through the description of Lucas' descent into conspiracy and terrorist action, the text dramatises how those who feel 'weak and vulnerable', as he does, fantasise about becoming 'strong and untouchable' through violence. It serves as a parable, warning of the dangers of social inequality of all kinds.