The idea for my most recent novel, Ezekiel, was inspired by a very close French friend. We were in a café in Montpellier. In passing, I realized I’d never asked her about her father. I knew about her mother, but not her father. She started to explain how her father walked back from a gulag after surviving a concentration camp and a POW camp. He survived by pretending to be a nurse, and by playing music at the Nazi orgies. She was the first child born after his return. I sat in awe, criticizing myself inside for having never asked her about her father’s life before. We’d known each other for nearly a decade at the time.
I was shocked yet again by this recurring idea – we think we know a person’s story only to find out we have no idea who the person sitting in front of us is.
I told her someone needs to tell his story, thinking she should write a memoir. That was when she said, “You should write it.”
“I don’t write non-fiction,” I said.
“Write it as a novel then.”
Silence. I stared out the window at the people and cars floating by, perplexed. What do I know about concentration camps? Where do I get off writing a story about Jews? I’m Irish. Then I thought of Leopold Bloom and it sounded even more bizarre. This was a story set in the south of France, in Provence? I grew up near Dublin. What the hell did I know about Provence?
I looked back at her. She was smiling. “But I haven’t written anything in three years.”
I’d stopped writing when our little girl was born. I wasn’t going to stay up all hours any more, writing, like I’d done after our boys were born. I used to stay in work after my magazine job was finished to write my novels. I’d get home to Brooklyn at ten and eleven o’clock at night, only to start the whole process again the next day. Of course, this was madness. Writing after a day of work was a battle in ever diminishing returns, never mind the fact I hardly got to see my family.
“It’ll be a good book, John.”
“But I’ve never written an historical novel. I know nothing about the Holocaust.”
When I got back to our house a couple of hours later there was a slim book waiting for me in the post box, Time for Outrage by Stephane Hessel. It’s a book by a French concentration camp survivor and Resistance fighter. He also happened to be, along with Eleanor Roosevelt, one of the people who crafted The Universal Declaration of Human Rights. I’d ordered it months before and it’d never arrived. And here it was. Defiance to totalitarianism, spiritual abnegation, predatory capitalism. The two stories became one. All of a sudden my friend’s father had become a resistance fighter like Hessel. Instead of a nurse he became a homeopath.
I started ordering more books, too many books, reading about the Holocaust, histories, memoirs, first-person accounts. In the car waiting for writers and artists at the airport. Before I got out of bed. When I went to bed. On our holiday to see family in Florida I stayed in our room with a history over a thousand pages long while everyone else was getting ice cream or swimming or laughing outside. I’d be shaking my head from side to side on the beach, in the living room, in bed, muttering things like, “How could they?” “Monsters.” “How could the church have helped them?”
Many years on, Ezekiel is out in the world. And still, the question circles around in my head, where do I get off, an Irishman, writing a story about a Holocaust survivor from the south of France? I suppose a better question to ask now is who am I going to get to translate it into French, so my friend can finally read it. She doesn’t speak a word of English.
(c) John Fanning
“An extraordinary debut.” — award-winning Australian author John Clanchy
“A novel of exquisite shocks and steady control, a beautiful paradox of a book, unsettling and strange and wonderfully readable.” — award-winning Irish author Frank McGuinness
Follow Ezekiel Yusuf Moran, a 99-year old homeopath, synesthete and French Résistance fighter as, over a week, he recounts his life story to his grandson, Daniel. Ezekiel draws an affecting and inspiring picture of life in Provencal France before, during and after World War II. He engages us with a spiritualism hard to identify in our present day secular worldview. As the week passes, the intimate narrative of his life unfolds, his childhood and coming of age in Provence, his lost love, his survival of Auschwitz and his odyssey around the world searching for meaning until he finally finds purpose. What is it Ezekiel finds that finally gives his life meaning again? And what can we learn from this “strange and wonderfully readable book”?
Similar to Marilynne Robinson’s character Reverend Ames in GILEAD, or the spiritual realism of novels by Carlos Castaneda and Ben Okri, Ezekiel reminds us that past pain doesn’t always have to be prologue to future sorrows. Read it now.
Order your copy online here.
Ezekiel will be launched at the Dublin Book Festival, on Saturday the 27th of November in The Winter Garden of Smock Alley Theatre at 12:30.
You can read more about John and his work here.