The Safe House

Christophe Boltanski, trans. from the French by Laura Marris. Univ. of Chicago, $24 (240p) ISBN 978-0-226-44919-7
As a child, Boltanski lived with his grandparents in what the French call a hôtel particulier, a nobleman’s mansion divided into apartments. But it was particular in the English-language sense as well: individual, specific, utterly nongeneric. Fittingly, Boltanski tells the story in a most particular way in this novel that, according to the translator’s note, “exists in a borderland between truth and fiction.” The book moves through the large apartment room by room. This Perec-esque approach lets him jump in time—sometimes one of the children sleeping on the floor around his grandparents’ bed is his father, sometimes it’s him—but it’s the same room. It allows him to cover events he wasn’t alive for, particularly the way his Jewish grandfather survived WWII by hiding in plain sight. The family functioned as a unit led by Boltanski’s fierce grandmother, who, undaunted by Nazis and polio, hid her husband, homeschooled Boltanski’s father and uncles, and wrote prolifically. Despite (or because of?—Boltanski leaves that for the reader to decide) barely leaving the family home, two of her sons became prominent scholars, and the youngest is the artist Christian Boltanski. Boltanski describes his family as afraid “of everything, of nothing, of others, of ourselves,” but what comes through in this short, smart, funny book is bravery and toughness, especially that of his grandmother, who in a world of imaginary and real terrors kept the family safe and together. (Oct.)
Reviewed on: 08/28/2017
Release date: 10/23/2017
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