Content Warning: Sexual Violence, Rape
By Alec Joyner
Over the last few years, more and more novels, memoirs, and books of poetry have begun to plumb the depths—the intricate, historically entrenched structures of sexual violence—that extend far beneath the #MeToo hashtag. These books are making a case, implicitly, for the ongoing value of literature, a value that has less to do with authenticity, perhaps, than with sheer complexity and variety. The phrase itself, “Me too,” already evokes the painful paradox of the survivor’s position: plaintively singular and yet defiantly allied, reclaiming individual rights and identity by recognizing oneself as one of too many. But it is a refrain, and, for all the power of an unrelenting, coruscating chorus of capsule testimonials, the same qualities that make social media perfect for momentous displays of solidarity and scale can also homogenize, flatten, reduce. Parul Sehgal, in the New York Times, recently argued that the books being classed as “#MeToo novels,” by contrast, are “remarkably various, and … come laden with confusion, doubt, subtlety”; they “exist as reminders of the kind of touchy ethical explorations the novel makes possible.”
Many of these books seem to accept nuance as their main cultural contribution, and deem it most helpful in negotiating questions of ambiguity—moral and factual “gray areas.” James Lasdun’s Afternoon of a Faun, for instance, focuses on the severe consequences for women of “he said/she said” false equivalency. It opens with a description of “the double nature of the assault” in many cases of sexual violence (3). A character based on the poet and critic Katha Pollitt explains, in a public lecture, that a physical assault is often swiftly followed by an “epistemological” assault. It is the latter of the two, she says—the “brazen denial that anything untoward has taken place”—that often becomes the more lastingly traumatic (3).
The Little Girl on the Ice Floe, by the French actor and activist Adélaïde Bon, and translated by Tina Kover, resembles Lasdun’s novel in illustrating the terrible, enduring power of an epistemological assault. But Bon’s book, which hovers in the space between memoir and fiction, isn’t about ambiguity. In her story, the physical acts of violence that take place are obviously, inarguably much worse than “untoward.” A man sexually assaults Adélaïde when she is nine years old, penetrating her orally and vaginally, in the stairwell of her family’s apartment building in Paris. She tells her parents, who tell the police, and, many years later, the man is convicted of this and dozens of similar crimes.
The secondary assault, in this case, only begins and ends with the rapist’s willful attempts at obfuscation. Over a long middle interval, it takes a more sweeping and insidious form. Bon scathingly describes the epistemological violence committed by the culture itself, even in a “perfect” case of numerous horrific crimes, DNA evidence, and a duly convicted perpetrator. Regardless of the eventual conviction, which itself is anything but guaranteed, an apathetic and paternalistic society lets “rape” remain far from the mind of a very young survivor, and lets the acts she struggles to name fester within her for decades, erasing their own traces, utterly significant but unutterable, unable to signify. Bon insistently acknowledges Adélaïde’s privileges, including her whiteness and family wealth; she points out how much wouldn’t have happened without them. Nonetheless, she asks, what does it say about our world that hers can be considered a best-case scenario?
“Words outline the horizon of our thoughts,” she writes (128). The central subject of The Little Girl on the Ice Floe is the power of language, whether to conceal, confuse, diminish or to clarify, validate, condemn. The book has three parts. The first recounts Adélaïde’s life between the day she is raped and the day, twenty-three years later, when she receives a call informing her that her case has been reopened. The second and third track her navigation of the French legal system, as well as her own psychological turmoil, to arrive as a plaintiff testifying against the perpetrator in court. Revising this summary, however, one could equally say that the first part recounts the period of her life in which language oppresses her, and the other two recount the period in which language turns its tide, enabling her liberation. The story is not really that of her “case,” her rapist’s long-averted apprehension and punishment. It is her journey from telling a therapist that she has “no particular feelings” about the “episode”—not a lie, early in her adult life—to writing a book about it (54).
Adélaïde, the character, can’t quite be said to have written this book, which Europa Editions seems to be marketing in the US as fiction. (MacLehose Press, in the UK, prominently displays the subtitle “A Memoir” on the front cover.) The category shouldn’t particularly matter, especially given that these distinctions are less absolute in French. The book itself doesn’t bother with them, but it does draw deliberate, dramatic attention to discrepancies in how we understand the first versus the third person. An “I” bleeds into the narrative, slowly and irregularly taking “full possession of my past,” but the book begins with Adélaïde as “she,” and the first section performs an atonal symphony of dissociation (140). In addition to the protagonist, there is the girl of the title, “small and lost and frozen,” whom “she” becomes during therapy sessions as she struggles to feel her feelings, let alone to articulate them (62). Delineating the triangle of the retrospective “I,” the inarticulate “she,” and the girl stranded within requires some tricky syntax: “She doesn’t yet know how very much longer that little girl will have to wait for me to come” (62). If such phrases are hard to follow, one can only imagine how hard the mental life they describe would be to live.
Indeed, it would be wrong to criticize this type of tangle on literary grounds. What in another book one might describe as bad writing is not only good but necessary here, evoking the maelstrom of a mind under epistemological assault. Bon makes “jellyfish” a second thematic metaphor, completely separate from the little girl on the ice floe: these are the poisonous “enemy forces” inside Adélaïde, which she doesn’t initially connect to her rape (16). The metaphors are freely and haphazardly mixed, but the jumble is very much the point. For the young Adélaïde, for years, those are the words that come. She has to work backward from inadequate or bewildering phrases and images to understand what actually happened, how she actually feels about it, what she can do and say. In this sense, the book vividly reenacts the violence of a culture whose available patterns of language and understanding do not serve survivors, instead misdirecting their intuitions and deprecating their traumas.
To translate a book such as this must have been a formidable task. Kover had to transpose Bon’s meditations on language not only to a new language but also to a new cultural context, and to reproduce Bon’s reproduction of a long, circuitous journey to articulacy. These challenges may have led her to a literalism that seems at times too cautious. For “imprescriptibilité” she gives “imprescriptibility,” a legal term more obscure in English than in French, conveying little of the intended meaning: that sexual crimes cannot be erased by legal restitution or the passage of time (142). More important, and more regrettable, is the loss of Bon’s play on “méduse,” the French word for jellyfish, in alluding to the mythological Medusa, who was raped by Poseidon and scorned and disfigured by Athena. Channeling Hélène Cixous, Adélaïde triumphantly assumes the Medusa position: “I am what remains of a woman after she has been raped. And writing it renews me” (148). The English-language reader will not recognize this as a climactic reclamation of the “méduses” that Adélaïde has long been trying to banish.
Still, Kover largely succeeds in rendering the subtle balance of Bon’s plainspoken tone, the slow and sinuous escape act of her eloquence. Kover even gets across the book’s rare, vexed moments of humor (e.g., “Her drama teacher feels that she hasn’t found her voice, so she looks for a vocal instructor” ). France and the United States, what’s more, are merely two provinces in the sprawling Western patriarchy, and the legal, social, and psychological territory Bon traverses will be sadly familiar to many Americans.
Familiar or not, readers should read The Little Girl on the Ice Floe for its idiosyncratic enlargement of what can only reductively be called the #MeToo conversation. Rather than adding one more personal narrative to a growing collection, it shows how rape can shatter both person and narrative into chaotic multiplicity. “The words me too shine softly in some of the other faces,” Adélaïde notes, looking down the row of plaintiffs at the trial (118). But Bon’s book makes one do exponential math. What mise en abyme of thinking and feeling selves might lie behind each of those faces? What tortuous paths must all those selves have taken toward coherence, or else toward an incoherence preserved on their own terms? And what selves might lie behind all the faces never granted a day in court? The Little Girl on the Ice Floe offers a painstaking demonstration of the time and will it takes not even to say “Me too,” but simply to say “I.”
Bon, Adélaïde. The Little Girl on the Ice Floe. Translated by Tina Kover. Europa Editions, 2019.