« Petit éloge des fantômes » by Nathacha Appanah (Folio, Gallimard, 2016, 98 pages) is a collection of 7 short stories. It’s not about ghosts and cemeteries, black cats or haunted houses. It’s about the haunting dramas in the lives of ordinary people – the loss of loved ones, broken dreams, and the difficulty to cope with reality.
« De temps en temps encore, le téléphone sonne et quand je décroche, personne ne répond.» The opening words of « Les jonquilles » evoke the theme of estrangement. At first, the 35-year-old lecturer in history used to worry about when her lover would be coming home. Now she no longer answers the phone.
She had desired a lasting relationship, but he seemed increasingly lost in a world of his own. She had expected him to be communicative, but he had remained oddly aloof. And, one day, he left without a word. She realises that he is gone for good, yet she is unable to face the truth, as the following shows : « Je ne sais pas pourquoi, à chaque fois, il y a un ancien moi qui se réveille et se persuade de découvrir quelque chose que tu aurais laissé derrière toi.» (page 76).
She finds it hard to believe that the man she loved is no longer around. She had felt « un bonheur inattendu, simple et sans prétention » (p 89). She was « comme une enfant à nouveau » (p 79). That a relationship can change so abruptly shocks her. She remembers little details and the fond moments of togetherness from the lost chapter of her life. She visualizes the yellow, sweet-smelling flowers stretching before her eyes like « un tapis d’or » (p 79). The author uses the beautiful moments of the past to throw into sharp relief her present miserable situation. It may also be one way for her to find some balance in her chaotic world.
The man sneaks out of her life « sans laisser des traces » (p 86). Ironically, hundreds of questions stay behind to torture her. Who was he? Where did he come from? Where did she go wrong? Why do dreams break? Why are our expectations not fulfilled? Even in his absence, he’s « un fantôme, cette enveloppe vaporeuse qui vient qui effleure qui part » (p 82). She’ll need time to adjust to the reality of the situation, but for the moment, tension runs high, sustaining our interest in the narrative. Her life has come to a standstill. The feeling of rejection dismays her. We’re left to work out her psychological and emotional states. This makes the writing interesting.
« Le sommeil », likewise, is about the difficulty to adjust to an altered situation. A woman can’t believe that her husband isn’t in her life anymore. She wakes up always at the same time, just before 2 a.m. in the morning « les poils herissés sur tout le corps, le coeur battant à tout rompre » (p 60). We see her depressive moods in her talking to André’s cup of tea, her weeping, and her failure to report for duty.
It’s 15 years now since she has been consulting a doctor. He recommends relaxation and perhaps a psychologist. She’s convinced that nothing is wrong with her; it’s just that she can’t sleep properly. The doctor knows something she doesn’t: more than anything else, she needs company, comfort and human warmth. She thinks the husband is not really gone. She can’t reconcile herself to her loss. The doctor wishes he had the courage to reveal to her « ce qu’elle a effacé de sa mémoire mais qui le réveille toutes les nuits à la même heure, comme un fantôme qui n’aurait pas terminé son travail » (p 63).
« La vague » has a woman coming to terms with her trauma. On her way to see her psychologist, she finds Lili, her sister, reflected in a shop-window, standing in the middle of the road. The woman knows that her mind is playing her a trick: Lili can’t be here because she died 10 years ago in Sri Lanka – a wave took her away. The woman starts running, fearing that « les pensées, les souvenirs et toutes ces choses brouillées ne fondent sur moi comme des oiseaux de proie » (p 90).
The psychologist doesn’t want her to think of the deadly wave anymore. He wants her to be cured of her « fantôme » (« appendice » he calls it, p 91). She hates him for this. Along with the tragic event, loving memories of her sister are still alive in her mind. Why should she forget? Realisation dawns on her that she no longer needs to see the psychologist. « Pourquoi devrais-je arrêter ce réchauffement du corps, cet afflux de sang au cerveau, ce boum boum du cœur, ce fourmillement agréable dans les doigts… ? » (p 97).
In her case, she has reached the stage where she can accept a situation as it is. She feels she cannot « refuser cette vie-là, que les autres appellent délire, fantômes, hallucinations » (p 97). She leaves the office of the psychologist in high spirits and goes out in the light of the day, perfectly at ease with the idea that her sister is close by. Effacing someone you loved out of your life isn’t possible. But it’s possible to adapt to reality. This woman has understood that you’ve to accept flowers with their thorns. Far from a « fantôme » in her life, Lili remains a dear sister as she was when alive. Maybe she has matured emotionally and this has played its part in helping her to gain control over herself no matter what has happened in the past. Her successful adjustment to her crisis brings home the point that we can be greater than our personal disasters.
In a personal note, the author mentions that her aim in writing the stories was to « apprivoiser (ou réapprivoiser) tous nos fantômes (…) Une façon de les regarder en face, de leur faire une place dans nos vies et, enfin, d’avancer. »