Author: Jean-Louis Tripp
Publish Date: May 2022
Catalog ID: ISBN: 978-2203228641
Author website: https://www.facebook.com/jeanlouis.tripp.bd/
by Annemarie Jutel
Jean-Louis Tripp’s Le petit frère (“Little Brother”) is the heart-rending story of grief, guilt, anger, and finally of conciliation over the death of a younger sibling. “Merci à ma Maman” (“Thanks to my mother”) writes Tripp in his acknowledgements, “and forgive me for making you return to such painful memories.”
Le petit frère is indeed a return to painful memories of intense grief, but also, fleetingly, of joy. Flashback to summer 1976: Finistère. The place name means, literally, the end of the earth; it is the extreme Western point on the map of France, where Brittany pokes out into the Atlantic. It is a place of fantasy and of mystery, said to be forgotten by time, where the native Bretons claim a Celtic past, the black and white hermine a symbol of morality, intelligence and innocence.
That innocence is forever broken for Tripp and his family on their trip through Finistère. They have hired horse and cart to follow the coast, explore the brambles and dunes, with newly divorced mother, adolescent brother, and young aunty and uncle on board. Eighteen year-old Jean-Louis drives one of the carts, his mum follows on her bike, and his for-the-moment irritating younger brother Gilles, lips stained with blackberry juice, sings joyfully with an atonal energy at his side. Shushed one too many times, he proclaims: “I am sick of this cart. I’m going to walk!”
Jean-Louis tries to slow him down:
“You’re on the side of traffic. Put your foot on the step first, and look to make sure there aren’t any cars.”
“I AM looking!” (p. 14)
p. 14 Translation: I AM looking!!!
These will be Gilles’ last words. He is run over on the little road that connects, and halfway between Loqueffret and St Herbot, on the map today as RD14. The driver not only fails to stop, he doesn’t alert emergency services about the critical accident. Gilles dies a few hours later.
The next 300-odd pages of this graphic memoir will make a reader weep as they endure the emotion of the event; nothing, of course, compared to Tripps’ emotional effort as he carefully reconstructed the family memories of the event to be able to finally put his brother to rest almost fifty years later.
It is not the characters in Tripps’ drawing which distinguish his work, it is emotion of the setting. From the moment of Gilles’ death, the backgrounds go musty, speckled, scratched, blurred, filtered, dark and faded. The severe and sepia-tinted drawings are as intensly weighty as the event itself. Interspersed in the chronic of the 1970s are pictures of Maman in 2020, captured on a laptop screen, filling in the blanks of Jean-Louis’ own memories. Now-wrinkled but still sepia, Maman’s eyes spill, decades later as she explains the bits that Jean-Louis has forgotten or never knew.
“Oh yes. He broke the news exactly like that. As if I would forget!!!” (p. 74)
Tripp’s careful reconstruction involves not only his mother and his own memories, but those of his siblings. The book ends a period of protective silence during which time the surviving family have hoped to repress their feelings in order to stay safe.
P. 218 Translation: I would have liked to have talked about it/But I felt it was impossible/I felt as if talking about Gilles would awaken an emotional tsunami. And, I should say, I had a hard time dealing with my parents’ pain/So I didn’t say anything either
The family are all overwhelmed by guilt, Jean-Louis for letting go of his brother’s hand (and shushing him for his singing), Maman for being on the bike instead of in the cart, and even his half-sister, not yet born at the time of his death, for not being sad in a household where sadness reigned, where life was overshadowed by the death of the brother she never knew.
But, where one weeps the hardest is when the next youngest brother, fourteen at the time of his brother’s death, Dominic, confides in Jean-Louis:
“That day, he was such a pain. Agitated. Worked up.
And, I said to myself….
You know how, when you are a kid, and you’re grumpy with someone…
I said to myself….
“If only he’d piss off! If only he’d die!”
And that same evening… he was dead…” (pp. 304-306)
p. 306 Translation: “If only he’d piss off! /If only he’d die!…”/and that same evening/he was dead
Through this miserable, painful reconstruction of what happened and what everyone felt and remembered, the book ends in colour and in cautious smiles. They may have finally buried their brother.
This is not a book to take lightly. It is weighty, and powerful. But it arrives at a worthy destination and brings its readers with it. At the same time as one imagines it a therapeutic avenue for the author, it is also a gift to its readers, reminding them of the importance of family, of pain, and of words. Through the tears that it draws, both on paper, and from our eyes, it also speaks of love.
About the reviewer: Annemarie Jutel is a sociologist of diagnosis and author of the books “Putting a Name to it: Diagnosis in Contemporary Society (JHUP)” and “Diagnosis: Truths and Tales (TUP)”