Laurent Gaudé: Observing the Wounds of History

French novelist and playwright Laurent Gaudé was born in 1972 and has written several plays, novels, short stories, and opera libretti.

He was awarded the Prix Goncourt des Lycéens in 2002 for Death of an Ancient King, an epic novel about a fictional African monarch, followed by the Prix Goncourt in 2004 for his novel The Scortas’ Sun, which paints a picture of a family living in the Apulia region of Southern Italy. In his ninth work, Ecoutez nos défaites, recently translated into English under the title Hear Our Defeats, he uses three major historical figures to shine a light on the violence currently gripping the Middle East.

The novel Ecoutez nos défaites was one of the top three best-selling books in France in fall 2016. It has since sold more than 110,000 copies in hardback and another 41,000 in paperback. Through this contemporary saga, the novelist and playwright offers a consideration of history, violence, and the concept of defeat in both intimate and political terms. The story begins in our modern times in the neutral setting of Zurich. Two seemingly opposed characters spend a passionate night together before each going their separate ways. Assem, an agent for French intelligence services, is preparing to begin his final mission locating a former member of the U.S. Special Forces suspected of drug trafficking. Mariam is an Iraqi archeologist trying to save works of art in areas of the Middle East devastated by the Islamic State. Both are struggling with a personal breaking point; Assem is about to finish his career as a “hired killer for the French Republic,” while Mariam is suffering from a serious illness.

Their dual first-person narratives make up the novel’s basis. Transposing cinematic techniques into literature, Laurent Gaudé creates a dialogue between the modern day and three past conflicts — the Second Punic War waged by Hannibal Barca against Rome, the Second Italo-Ethiopian War between Fascist Italy and the empire of Negus Haile Selassie, and the American Civil War fought by the pro- slavery southern states and the army of the pro-Union northern states led by General Ulysses S. Grant. Through these three historical figures, the author offers a different take on the concept of conflict. Speaking when the book was first published, he said “modern warfare has blurred the notions of victories and heroes, which were the pillars of war itself for centuries.”

While the style may be innovative, Hear Our Defeats returns to Laurent Gaudé’s favorite themes of violence, exile, migration, and the permanence of myths. He began writing The Scortas’ Sun as a play by revisiting leading tragic figures. And with the exception of his first novel, Cris, set in the trenches of Verdun during World War I, his books explore far-flung territories such as Africa in Death of an Ancient King, New Orleans ravaged by Hurricane Katrina in Ouragan, and Haiti after the 2010 earthquake in Danser les ombres. Finally, in a reflection of his commitment to migrants, Laurent Gaudé’s latest novel Salina ou les trois exils lends an often-absent voice to those who have fled their homes.

Hear Our Defeats by Laurent Gaudé, translated by Alison Anderson, Europa Editions, 224 pages, 17 dollars.


Article published in the April 2019 issue of France-Amérique