This latest book by Claude Jasmin, a celebrated Québec writer, has a strange title. It makes more sense when one finds out that Anita is an Auschwitz survivor and bears a numbered tattoo on her left arm. And the ascribed, mistaken, meaning of the tattoo is what breaks two young hearts bend on discovering the joy of young love.
This book is not a novel, although the title page calls it a roman. It is based on the real-life relationship that Claude Jasmin developed with a young Jewish woman from Poland who landed in Montreal with her father and her aunt, survivors of Nazi camps like her. The young Claude was studying ceramics after dismal results in school. He hopes to become a great artist and fancies himself a part of the developing 1950s bohemian scene in Montreal.
In spite of his pretentions of nonconformity, he is still influenced by his family and milieu’s expectations, their fear of strangers and their deep-seated anti-Semitism. After a well-meaning friend unearths some information about Anita’s past, young Claude cannot accept that his beautiful young angel may not be the pure and ethereal being he made her out to be. He stops seeing her without explanation. She later moves to the Toronto area and their lives never cross path again.
What struck me in this story is the importance of what is not said and not revealed. In spite of the amount of time they spend together, at school, going to movies and plays, enjoying picnics, hanging out with friends in late night cafés, Claude’s questions about her past, her reactions at certain questions or incidents, her partial revelations about her past, are not voiced. He puzzles in silence and seemingly hopes that love will be above the fuller understanding that may come from open dialogue about the elephant in the room. At some point, Claude talks about Anita’s possible future, including having a family, children. She responds that she was told by a doctor, after the war in Paris, that she would never bear children. Claude never finds out why. At other times, he repeatedly tries to get himself invited to her home. He once asks her why, assuming that it has something to do with him, but it is rather about her aunt’s severe trauma from the war years (she is terrified of strangers, still thinks they are in Warsaw) and they never let strangers into the apartment. So, it is also about the negative consequences of unquestioned and hidden assumptions that can poison relationships.
Claude later finds out that the information he was given through was false. He suffers greatly from having trusted this more than the woman he loved. The author talks about how he had kept this story to himself out of shame for many years. One of the epigraphs of the book is a quote from Emile Cioran: “Les sources d’un écrivain, ce sont ses hontes.” Actually the full citation is as follows:
Les sources d’un écrivain, ce sont ses hontes; celui qui n’en découvre pas en soi, ou s’y dérobe, est voué au plagiat ou à la critique.
Syllogismes de l’amertume (1952)
Roughly translated: A writer finds inspiration in his transgressions (I prefer that to shames), and the one who does not find any, or does not admit to it, is bound to plagiarism or critique. I take this to mean that a writer’s work will be the most personal, meaningful, and powerful, if it comes from a place where the writer is most vulnerable, raw and candid. The candid revelations that Claude Jasmin makes in Anita, une fille numérotée certainly have that power.
The cover features a watercolor of Anita by the author.
Jasmin, Claude, Anita, une fille numérotée, Éditions XYZ, Montréal, 2013.