Saturday, April 28, 2012

There but for the grace of God: Jean-Claude Izzo's A Sun for the Dying

Reading Jean-Claude Izzo’s “A Sun for the Dying” in tandem with George Orwell’s “Down and Out in London and Paris” gave me a double dose of insight into the plight of the homeless people I see every day on my way to and from work. In this time of mortgage foreclosures, crushing student loan debt, and an extraordinarily difficult job market, it also made me think of how close so many people are to the edge.

Izzo’s novel shows how a person’s bad decisions, coupled with family’s and associates’ equally bad behavior and a stroke or two of bad fortune, can leave someone homeless, penniless, and in ill health, with no chance of climbing back to the upper middle class from which he came. Orwell’s nonfiction account of his own temporary experience with homelessness and poverty in Paris and London during the 1930s contains many similar elements.

If the title alone of “A Sun for the Dying” weren’t enough to clue you in, by the time you read the prologue, which recounts the last few hours of Titi, a homeless man, on a wintry Paris metro platform, you know the story is not going to lift up your spirits. For Rico, Izzo’s chief protagonist, Titi’s death is a turning point. The two depended on each other not only to share any slight windfalls either might encounter but also, at least as important, to buck up each other’s spirits. Their companionship has provided each with a reason to keep going. Though Rico was the stronger of the two, once Titi, his best and only friend, is gone, he spirals downward even more rapidly.

Though Rico wasn’t a likeable character for me, he’s not an unusual person. As the narrative progresses, we learn that not too long before Titi’s death he had a good job, a beautiful wife, a son, a really nice house, and a similarly upscale social circle. But nothing and no one stays the same. A chain of events ends with Rico losing everything he has and ending up homeless on the streets of Paris.

You might think that a person in Rico’s position should go to his family, if he has one, for support and a place to stay while he gets back on his feet. Indeed, Rico’s father is alive and clearly well able to offer his son a helping hand. But he’s not a likeable character, either. He’s been out of Rico’s life for many years and, on reencountering his son, seems completely uninterested in his condition or in reestablishing any sort of relationship, let alone helping him out.

You might also think that France’s socialized institutions would provide Rico with support. Not in Izzo’s book; whatever services or organizations there are in France that help the poor are largely absent from the story.

Orwell, whose real-life descent into living on the edge was precipitated by a theft, describes exactly how it feels. From chapter 3: “You discover, for instance, the secrecy attaching to poverty. At a sudden stroke you have been reduced to an income of six francs a day. But of course you dare not admit it – you have got to pretend that you are living quite as usual. From the start it tangles you in a net of lies, and even with the lies you can hardly manage it.” He continues to describe the precariousness of life on the edge, how just staying alive consumes him, and how any deviation from his strict centime-pinching regimen throws his entire life off. Eighty years later, his description of a homeless person’s daily life on another continent is as vivid and about as accurate, I don’t doubt, as it was then.

Izzo doesn’t attempt to propose any solutions for homelessness in his gritty novel, which simply tells a realistic and very depressing story. Though Orwell does present some reasoned suggestions in his book, for me, his most effective message was understanding, compassion, and a sense that there, but for the grace of God, could go any of us. As he says in his concluding chapter: “I can point to one or two things that I have definitely learned by being hard up. I shall never again think that all tramps are drunken scoundrels, nor expect a beggar to be grateful when I give him a penny, nor be surprised if men out of work lack energy….That is a beginning."