‘I Who Have Never Known Men’, a Haunting Memoir of Sorts

I Who Have Never Known Men is the first book by Belgian author Jacqueline Harpman (1929-2012) to be translated into English (2018). Originally published in French in 1995 under the title Moi qui n’ai pas connu les hommes, this is an incredibly profound dystopian science-fiction novel that I was utterly impressed by. Having been so engrossed by Harpman’s work here, this review is an attempt to capture its greatness, which is partly philosophical in nature, without revealing too much. At one point, the main character describes a scene before her as ‘incredibly strange, sinister and moving’, and that is exactly how I would describe the experience of reading this book.

Our narrator is someone who, as the title would suggest, has never known men. At the novel’s start she is a young girl, aged roughly fourteen or fifteen, and is being held against her will along with thirty-nine other women in a cage in some sort of underground bunker, as they has been for some time, for reasons entirely unknown to them. Having entered the bunker as a small child, considerably younger than her counterparts, it is immediately assumed that she has been placed with her fellow prisoners by accident. She is unnamed, and completely unmarked by the telltale signs of a life lived before the bunker, with its straw mattresses, ever-silent guards, and strict no-touching rule. Simply referred to as ‘the child’ by the other women, our narrator talks us through her time in the bunker in a memoir of sorts. The older women often engage in nostalgic retellings of what their lives consisted of before they were taken: their lovers, their jobs, the missed luxury of a hot bath at the end of a long day. But the child has no memories of her life before, and she is instantly set apart by her ignorance of a world all but forgotten. She is othered. Despite this difference, not one of these forty women knows where they are, why they are there, or for how long they have been there. As she enters adolescence, the child develops a fascination with knowing the importance of men, a frequent topic of discussion among the older women, and of love and what it means to make it, despite the absolute certainty they all share that she shall never know men or that kind of intimacy. Soon, she sets her sights on a young guard – visibly the youngest of them all and who must be closest to her in age – willing that he lay his eyes on her, for she must know men.

There is a complete lack of a sense of time within the bunker that is incredibly vivid. I actually found it somewhat disorienting to attempt to understand the timings to which the women were subjected, as they apparently don’t adhere to the standard and familiar twenty-four-hour clock. The women don’t know how old they are, or even what they look like, and estimations of the child’s age serve as a marker of how long they have been relegated to this underground prison, at the mercy of guards who rarely do them the favour of even acknowledging their existence.

I’d been a little girl when I arrived, now I was a woman, a virgin for ever, but an adult… I’d been their clock, watching me, the women watched their own time tick by.

I Who Have Never Known Men by Jacqueline Harpman.

As she begins to concoct her own sense of time, tuning into the rhythms of her own body, a ‘major event’ takes place and the women are suddenly free – free of their cage, of the guards and their whips, of the incomprehensible rules that have bound them for so long. From this moment on, the child will prove to be integral to their journey forward. Harpman’s ability to write as our narrator is an impressive one, for she truly knows nothing of the things both the women and us, as the reader, do and this is always apparent. She is unable to read or write, and has some rudimentary knowledge of mathematics thanks to the older women, but the seemingly small, unimportant things that most people take for granted are often of no merit to her, for they are completely unrecognisable and therefore insignificant. Things like privacy, the ability to recognise everyday objects such as books and cupboards, are totally unfamiliar and Harpman does well at capturing her sheer lack of knowledge, and the ways in which this sets her apart.

Perhaps that’s why I’m so different from the others. I must be lacking in certain experiences that make a person fully human.

I Who Have Never Known Men by Jacqueline Harpman.

This absolute lack of knowledge and experience fuels much of her pondering, as well as ours as the reader. While the questions surrounding their imprisonment and how it came to be are prominent and persistent, new questions begin to emerge for the child about her origins, as well as her intended fate. The subject of men is one that occupies her mind frequently, but it is not the only one. As the group traverses the landscape beyond the prison that once held them, they will encounter scenes that do little more than horrify and confuse them, producing new threads of even more pressing questions. These sorts of surprises are not all that characterise their journey; there are also pockets of profound sadness, loss and grief, and a disturbing and encroaching sense of waning freedom. By the novel’s end, I truly did despair both with and for these women, but especially for our fierce but unnamed child.

The concepts of absurdity and love are central here. The child is fully aware of the absurdity of her situation, to be raised practically as some sort of experiment, and the ways in which this distinguishes her from the women with which she lives and travels. Despite the absurdity in that she knows nothing of men, nor to sleep in an actual home on a reasonable bed, her innate human ability to give and receive (but also simply experience) love reminds both her and the reader that these absurdities do not make her a total alien, or starkly less human.

This novel is a short one, sitting at just under 200 pages, but it’s perfectly-paced, never too slow or too fast. The tone of the novel is often matter-of-fact, though always ambiguous, and the purpose of the child’s words on these pages becomes clearer over time, ultimately making for a very somber and somewhat sobering read. The child is unlike any other narrator I’ve experienced before: she is undeniably human, but it’s important to note that her experiences (or lack thereof) set her apart not only from the other women but from those of us that exist beyond the realm of fiction. I think she is a character that will stay with me for at least a short while and I would assume that she has done the same for many others.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

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