Jacqueline Harpman
Translated by Ros Schwartz

Avon, Eos/HarperCollins / 206 pages / 1997


What is the deepest fear? Is it to be alone? Is it to be isolated in a crowd? Or is it to be persecuted without ever learning the reason why? What if this were your existence? Could you survive, and how would you know if you had? These are questions that haunt the heart of French literature and frame the endowment that is I Who Have Never Known Men.

Darker than any terror Stephen King can throw at you. More chilling than any faceless slasher stumbling across the screen. The world of the women in the bunker is the gnawing, maddening horror of the unexplainable. And, for the Child, the youngest amongst them, it is the numbing punishment of never knowing any other existence. For them all, it is the loss of choice, the loss of life, though their bodies live on.

For the 40 caged women, there are no answers. Although male guards patrol at all times, they do not speak or attempt any connection with the prisoners. The entire world of the women is the confines of the cage and the inside of the bunker. Allowed no privacy, no physical contact, not even the ability to end their suffering, they suffer with no hint of where, when, or why they remain locked away. Confinement or punishment, whatever the purpose, it is a nightmare with unspecified threats and no possibility of waking. Until the moment when everything the women have known undergoes a drastic alteration that only transforms the nature of their imprisonment. They venture out into a new isolation. The Child, a shell bearing thoughts but no emotions, refuses to give up the search for the pieces that will explain and grant her wholeness. It is a journey with little chance of success.

I Who Have Never Known Men is, itself, a journey through fear and loss. Seldom has a work of fiction so accurately laid human fears bare. It is a grim and harrowing read that remains in the mind to haunt the reader’s thoughts long after the slim volume is stored on a shelf with other literary treasures.

It is also perhaps the most profoundly sad novel in memory.

But if you allow the personal toll to dissuade you from reading Harpman’s momentous and heart-breakingly beautiful work, there will be a void in your own humanity that no other experience could ever fill. Nothing strikes me as more foolish than the desire to cry. Who is more ridiculous than the person who takes the warning against a tearjerker as a delightful opportunity to weep? There is nothing of this in I Who Have Never Known Men. It is a sorrow borne of enlightenment, not manipulation.

This is the first of Jacqueline Harpman’s novels to be translated from the French into English. Until the others are likewise translated, I can’t help feeling it is our loss.