With seven books and two albums as notable entries in a curriculum that also includes the practice of dance and theater along with a past of left-wing political activism, Lola Lafon has been accustomed for years to granting interviews where she reviews her colorful background over and over again. biographical. Birthplace, Paris. Date, 1974. Daughter of a French father and Russian-Polish mother. Both university professors of Literature, communists, assigned first to Bulgaria and then to Romania, countries where the author grew up until she was 12 years old before returning to France steeped in a confluence of cultures and languages. When repeating this account of her resume, one fact was almost always missing that Lafon did not usually elaborate on: in addition to all those identities, she is of Ashkenazi Jewish descent. “My older sister told me: you talk about a lot of things in interviews, but you never mention that,” recalls the author, with long blonde hair that frames her face with bangs, a tiny silver ball that shines on her nose and a surname inherited from his gentile father that does not immediately reveal his origins. “As a writer, you say to yourself: how interesting, something I never talk about.”
When you listen to this song, recently published in Spanish by AdN with a translation by María Teresa Gallego Urrutia (the Catalan version, Quan escoltis aquesta cançó, is translated by Mercè Ubach and edited by Més Llibres), it proposes a kind of reckoning with that forgetting possibly not entirely unconscious. The book emerged a couple of years ago at the initiative of the French publisher Stock as part of the collection Ma Nuit au Musée (my night at the museum), through which 15 writers, from Kamel Daoud to Andrea Marcolongo, have paraded to recount their nighttime experiences at a museum of your choice. For his project, on August 18, 2021, Lafon voluntarily locked himself in the Anne Frank house-museum in Amsterdam. In addition to the obvious connection with the German girl, his story will eventually reveal other unpredictable ramifications. Born from a commission, Lafon emphasizes that, even before receiving it, this was always a story she was destined to tell. “I knew at one point that it was the opportunity to talk about my relationship with that which had eluded me and to evoke the figure of my grandmother,” she recalls.
Although it was born from a commission, Lafon emphasizes that this is a story that was destined to tell”
The sun shines through the windows of the busy brasserie near the writer’s house where the interview takes place. It is mid-afternoon and in the streets of this charmingly decadent neighborhood in the north of Paris—one of those areas of street stalls and huddled conversations destined to be absorbed by the centrifuge of gentrification—an electrifying bustle flies overhead. Perfectly integrated into the whirlwind, Lafon expresses herself quickly, almost all the time in French, with some single phrases in English, clarifying while sipping a glass of sparkling water whose bubbles sizzle under the flashes of light. Her grandmother, the Polish Ida Goldman, a survivor of the Shoah who emigrated to France and “a character passionate about culture, about reading, even though she couldn’t read.” And Anne Frank, the wise girl frozen in a flake for eternity, forever a teenager. The girl everyone knows, the person no one knows anything about.
Lola Lafon, photographed in the interior gardens of the apartment block where she lives in Paris. Samuel Aranda
Written as an essay, When You Listen to This Song – a multi-award-winning hit in France that has taken its author “on tour for a whole year” – intersperses chapters where the horror of anti-Semitism is stratified at successive levels of time and personal closeness: the own experience (after the covid, says Lafon, the “conspiratorial” perception of Jews has resurfaced in France), the family memory and the transcription of the story by Frank, a universal best seller whom this book seeks to restore in his quality of notable writer. “The moment I understood that this story was for me was when I knew that she had rewritten her texts and that she was actually an author, not just the girl who wrote her diary,” says Lafon, who reviews the banality with the one in which Hollywood and Broadway sifted the message of the famous diary to facilitate digestion for a public reluctant to face barbarism. The author, who also refrains from pornography of suffering, nevertheless insists on giving her character a deep dignity. “She was obsessed with the idea of never speaking in her place, of not imagining what she would have thought,” she emphasizes. “Identification is something that I completely distance myself from.”
In the 10 hours she spent imprisoned in the 40-square-meter annex where the Franks and four others hid for more than two years between 1942 and 1944, Lafon not only encountered the bright-eyed girl whose posters still They hang on the walls, but, and perhaps that is what is truly remarkable, with an icon so worn, with a superficial layer so solidified, that its interior had become almost impenetrable. “Heroization causes the person to be erased. It is as if what one has done was absent, and only the photo remained,” she reflects. Starting from that image fixed in the collective retina, the story of When you listen to this song is transported through the author’s memory until it reaches a surprising last chapter, an unexpected turn with which Lafon manages to weave the link between the general and the particular, between what happens in one part of the world and another, before, after and in all times, through the remembrance of another victim of a genocide whom she knew in her youth.
Heroization causes the person to be erased and only the photo remains.
Although it seems risky to venture to literary recreate a figure like Anne Frank, it is not the first time that Lafon places a real girl at the epicenter of his narrative. In Mercy, Mary, Patty (La Caja Books, 2019) he fictionalized the 1974 kidnapping of Patricia Hearst, granddaughter of legendary media mogul William Randolph Hearst. And before, in The Little Communist Who Never Smiled (Anagrama, 2015), surely her best-known novel, she returned to the Romania of her childhood to fictionalize an interaction with the legendary Nadia Comaneci, the athlete whose captivating magic—that’s what commentators said at the time—faded at some point on her path from girl to woman. “I think there is something intense about adolescence, it is a time of silence, where one of them is heard badly, she is heard badly,” she considers. “There is something that explodes and is not heard, and that can be tragic.”
As a fictional character, Cléo, the protagonist of Zozobrar (AdN, 2021), her latest novel, also fits the profile of the young and misunderstood girl that dominates Lafon’s imagination. An aspiring dancer, from humble origins, the girl ends up involved in a sinister foundation that recruits schoolgirls for sexual purposes, with methods that are identifiable with those of the predator Jeffrey Epstein and his acolyte, Ghislaine Maxwell. Abuse, consent and guilt thus run through a work full of the contradictions of a reality that refuses to be vacuum packed, without cross contamination, published in the midst of the Me Too wave in France, months after Vanessa Springora fueled the debate of consent with her book of the same name about the relationship she had at the age of 14 with the writer Gabriel Matzneff, then 49. “I have the impression that things are changing and these issues have become a topic that is talked about.” speaks. Before, when an attack occurred, people would joke, or say that nothing had happened, or that you were crazy…,” she points out. “That’s why I was very impressed by what is happening in Spain, seeing those soccer players who displayed a sign saying: ‘We are all Jenni.’ It is necessary for men to speak.”
Adolescence is a time of silence. “Something explodes and is not heard, and that can be tragic”
A review of Lola Lafon’s bibliography allows us to explore some of the central themes of our time. It’s not that she dedicates herself to responding to current events (she does that in her columns in the newspaper Libération), but that in a way she anticipates them. “I already wrote about a rape 19 years ago,” she recalls about her first book, An Ungovernable Fever (Anagrama, 2005), where she discovered some of the ins and outs of the squatter movement, in which she herself participated for years. “Now it is different, I could no longer join a group just like that, but I am still obviously a feminist and committed,” she says, and then declares her concern “about the growth of the extreme right in France and Europe.” If in An Ungovernable Fever her inner self shined through political militancy, and in Zozobrar and The Little Communist… it resonated through her passion for dance and body expression, in When You Listen to This Song that voice speaks from the first-person experience. “I am a little everywhere in my books, but here I am the one who unquestionably enters the museum, the one who cannot enter the room (of Anne Frank); It is something that I experienced physically.”
A professional author somewhat against her will, Lafon navigated her youth as far away from the system as she could. “She told me that she didn’t want to have a job that would impose a need on me and prevent me from living,” she explains. “She told me: it is better to adapt my life and earn fair money, although I always wrote.” She also had the music, materialized in an album that she herself has defined as “electro-Balkan folk-rock,” published in 2006 with the band Leva, as well as a second solo album five years later. “Now the music is still present, but especially on stage. “I love doing musical readings, I love everything that has to do with rhythm and the theatrical experience,” she concedes. In November, she will take to the stage with a performance of her own, and she is also pending the publication of a comic in collaboration with the cartoonist Pénélope Bagieu. She will continue to dress new female characters in lights and shadows, “which are not abundant in literature,” and will continue to fill the pages of her diary with doodles. “I started writing it when I was nine years old, inspired by Anne Frank. And although I think it is not interesting enough to read, it is my own place,” she reveals, to conclude: “I like that idea of having my own place where nothing matters.”
Dreaming about the muses
In 2018, the Stock publishing house launched the Ma Nuit au Musée project, a collection of books in which, to date, 15 guest authors have spent a sleepless night surrounded by works of art and other objects and then narrated their impressions. in the form of a novel or essay. The project, organized in collaboration with the Picasso Museum in Paris, has resulted in half a dozen titles inspired by the work of the Malaga native, as well as other proposals beyond France: Leila Slimani traveled to Venice to spend a white night in the Punta della Dogana; Diane Mazloum came to the National Museum of Beirut, and two authors, the French Léonor de Récondo and the Spanish-Cuban Zoé Valdés, agreed in choosing Spain as a destination for their artistic-literary experiments. The first set up shop for a few hours in the Museo del Greco in Toledo and the second did the same in the Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid, and from these experiences emerged the titles La leçon de ténèbres (the lesson of darkness) and Les muses ne dorment pas (the muses do not sleep).
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