Astragal (1965) opens with a leap into the sky, from one kind of prison to another – but our protagonist doesn’t know it yet.
The novel is narrated by 19-year-old Anne, who has been serving a seven-year sentence in a juvenile reformatory. We meet her just at the moment when she is leaping over the prison wall, in the hopes of breaking free from jail and meeting her female lover afterwards. Unluckily for Anne, however, on her escape, she fractures her ankle (or, more precisely, her astragalus, the French word for the talus bone). Crawling on the roadside, she is picked up by a fellow thug, Julien, who takes her to a provisory hiding place.
Unable to walk and afraid of meeting with the police if taken to the hospital, Anne finds herself trapped in another kind of physical confinement: she is left to the mercy of strangers – and, particularly, of Julien, who moves her from one place to the next, “from a bed to a car seat, from a car seat to a bed, to be put down, lugged around at will by friendly men and strangers.”
We follow her, as Anne spends her days confined in different hiding places, mostly yearning for love, for freedom, and, in the meantime, for Julien to come and make love to her – a kind of obsession that gradually evolves as another form of imprisonment.
As her ankle injury heals, Anne starts to make a living as a prostitute in Paris. Although relatively free to roam the streets, our protagonist meets with another kind of prison: constantly fearing that the police might find her out at any moment, Anne develops a form of paranoia when walking outside. “I am frightened and leery of everybody. The thought of getting caught never leaves me: I learn to look it in the face, I tame it, I never chase it away.” Internally, she is always struggling to live outside the norms; always on the run from some kind of authority.
The writing style has a certain cinematic quality, as if the narrator were a movie editor, building momentum and moving between past and present in flashbacks, shortcuts, and poetic interior monologues. Julien wanders in and out of the story, in a montage of cuttings and repetitions – almost as if he were a flashback, a magnetic field, or the ghost of an obsession, a prison Anne is unable to escape. I cannot help but see the two of them as partners in crime in some strange combination of Bonnie and Clyde and Pierrot le Fou. The cinematic quality of the book is clear from the first paragraph, where we have a sense of opening-up to new possibilities, connected with the physical act of jumping from a barrier: “The sky had lifted at least thirty feet.”
While I started the book with the feeling that perhaps I was too old for a story so soaked in teenage angst and 60’s counter-culture as this one, I was gradually seduced by Anne’s voice: rough, defiant, mistrustful, intimate, our Anne inevitably draws us in with her compelling, rebellious character. The more she tries to move on, the more she is drawn back to some new form of imprisonment: be that an injury, an obsession, desire, love, fear, money, a job, or the law, the world outside the prison can only new chains to our protagonist. We can either see her as a character caught in a vicious cycle, as in a kind of hall of mirrors with no real escape route; or, as a woman who, aware of the mirrors all around, deliberately struggles to be able to choose one kind of imprisonment over another.
“The life which pulsed in me, the very recent memories of jumping and running about, the love remembered from the morning, kept me within the bounds of reality.” – Astragal, Albertine Sarrazin
“My name, here, is the name of my fracture … an astragalus, did the doctor say?” – Astragal, Albertine Sarrazin
“The thing that passes and crackles from his body to mine, what is it, where does it come from?” – Astragal, Albertine Sarrazin
“At the other end of me my ankle was pounding heavily, bursting into incandescent waves at each beat of my heart: I had a new heart in my leg, still irregular, responding inordinately to the other.” – Astragal, Albertine Sarrazin
“Circuits had been formed, cadences: in my ankle, suddenly, something would wake up hissing, like water spurting from a broken pipe, more springs would start gushing, then they would all run together and flow insidiously through the length of my body. Or else, the pain would gather into a ball above my heel, slowly twisting and winding itself up; when the ball was finished—I now could tell the exact moment—it would burst with a sensation of light; and the flashes would shoot through my foot and explode, in stars that quickly went out, in the ends of my toes.”
About the book
- New Directions, 2013, tr. Patsy Southgate, 192 p. Goodreads
- Serpent’s Tail, 2014, tr. Patsy Southgate, 192 p. Goodreads
- Original: L’Astragale, 1965
- My rating: 4 stars
- I read this book for The #1965Club (April, 22nd – 28th, 2019), hosted by Karen and Simon
- Astragal was made into a film twice: in 1968, directed by Guy Casaril (IMDb); and in 2015, directed by Brigitte Sy (IMDb).