Winner of France’s Renaudot Prize, this autobiographical Bildungsroman is a first-person narrative of a young man from a Belgian village who begins as a seminarian and ends as a disillusioned anarchist. Under the direction of his widowed mother and the village priest, he enters the seminary in Louvain, where his study of the changing values revealed in ecclesiastic history makes him a skeptic. Desiring to serve God in a practical way, he emigrates to Brazil, hoping to do some kind of lay missionary work. Beginning with a Catholic-sponsored labor movement, he gradually becomes embroiled in the pro-Castro revolutionary activities of the mid-60’s. Naive about his religion, he is equally naive about politics. Circumstances and acquaintances, rather than examined principles, shape his actions. He is ultimately arrested, cruelly tortured, and deported to Paris.

The leftist habits acquired in South America translate in Paris into participation in student protests and revolutionary antics. He writes a book on guerrilla warfare, but because the young Paris revolutionaries have infected him with anarchism, his leftist organization finds fault with the book and expels him. At 28, aged much beyond his years by homo- and heterosexual promiscuity, physical torture, and the loss of self-identity caused by revolutionary activity, he returns to his village home, left vacant at the death of his mother. There he simply lies down and dies. “My soul had learned everything,” he concludes. “It had come to know that God was dead, that revolution crushed the men who made it, that love was impossible. It had paid the highest price to depart.”

Nothing palliates the gloomy vision except the motif of plants and gardening. The narrator begins and ends surrounded by the jungle of houseplants cultivated by his mother. Gardens and gardening—representing peace, growth, and fertility—provide refreshing contrast to the garbage and pollution linked with the war and inhumanity that dominate this sparse but vivid novel.

As engaging as the narrative is, the concluding statement is melodramatic. The narrator has not learned everything; in fact, he has learned very little. The transit from religion to revolution to anarchism to suicidal disillusionment has been smooth and inevitable because no obstacles of discipline, thoughtfully embraced principles, or profound commitment to other individuals have hampered the way. A knowledge that God is dead can be poignant only if one has had a vital knowledge of God alive. Perhaps love is impossible for those who seek it in bisexual orgies during Brazilian carnival; yet, millions have found it elsewhere. The tumid concluding statement may evoke pity for a victim of his own naive good intentions, but it cannot be taken seriously as a verdict on the human condition.


[A Weed for Burning, by Conrad Detrez, Translated by Lydia Davis; Harcourt Brace Jovanovich; San Diego]