The Factory of Facts

Charles Taylor reviews 'The Factory of Facts' by Luc Sante.

Published January 27, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

Luc Sante takes the title of his memoir from the Russian filmmaker Dziga Vertov. He should have swiped it from Elvis Costello, whose song "Man Out of Time" would have been the perfect title for this book. Sante, who came to America from Belgium with his parents in 1959 at the age of 5, tells the story of living with the constant shadow of another home and thus never feeling totally in his own skin.

Measured by the self-absorption that has become standard in literary memoirs (many of them from writers who, like Sante, seem too young to be writing their life stories), "The Factory of Facts" may seem barely a memoir at all. Sober and self-effacing, Sante's book is a remarkable feat of memory in which he aims to call up not so much the details of his life as the details of the places he grew up in. If you've ever had the experience of rooting around in the attic or basement of your parents' home and coming across some once-familiar household item you haven't thought of in years, then you may experience the most evocative passages of "The Factory of Facts" as startlingly resonant.

As described by Sante, Belgium is the essence of what most Americans mean when they call something "European": a place of habit and custom not quite having come into the modern world (Sante credits his early childhood there as allowing him easy identification with the 19th century). It's likely that growing up speaking patois in a country that widely lacked things like refrigerators and television sets well into the '50s would have made Sante feel out of place even if his family had emigrated elsewhere in Europe. Coming to America was an even bigger shock.

In order to tell this story, Sante has to go into long sections on Belgian history and culture, and I admit to finding myself tuning out during these. He's very engaging when he tells family stories (especially his parents' experiences during the war) and stories about himself (most charmingly, how seeing French pop singer Françoise Hardy in the 1966 film "Grand Prix" made him fall for "the glamour of the modern world"; who could blame him?). This passage, late in the book, sums up his dilemma: "In order to speak of my childhood I have to translate. It as if I were writing about someone else. The words don't fit, because they are in English, and languages are not equivalent to one another ... I am playing ventriloquist, and that eight-year-old, now made of wood and with a hinged jaw, is sitting on my knee, mouthing the phrases I am fashioning for him. It's not that the boy couldn't understand those phrases. It is that in order to do so, he would have to translate, and that would mean engaging an electrical circuit in his brain, bypassing his heart."

Sante is not a memoirist you cozy up to. His sensibility has the slightly distanced formality he identifies as a Belgian trait. But I came to appreciate the undertones in his approach: the tender respect he accords his parents and the sense of a life lived as if he had to make ocean journeys back and forth between his two selves.

By Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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