Rating 5 stars
Jacqueline Harpman’s I Who Have Never Known Men is filed under Sci-Fi at my local library. I’m not entirely sure why. There’s a vague hint that the characters, who are incarcerated in an underground bunker for the first part of the novel, are no longer on Earth. It felt more dystopian than Sci-Fi to me, more akin to The Handmaid’s Tale, futuristic and speculative.
The novel was first published in French in 1995. An English translation followed in 1997. Vintage has reissued Ros Schwartz’s translation this year with an excellent introduction to the novel by Sophie Mackintosh. She, too, suggests that it’s a Sci-Fi work, but also relates it to Herland. Mackintosh’s intro draws out the key strands of the story and makes a case for the significance of Harpman’s book far better than I can. We are agreed that it’s a masterpiece.
Jacqueline Harpman was Jewish. Her family fled their native Belgium when the Nazi regime invaded. Harpman was ten years old. She grew up in exile at a time when Jews were being murdered in their thousands in the Nazi extermination camps. All of this must have influenced her decision to write this thoughtful, thought-provoking work which deals with the incarceration and dehumanisation of women and men for no known purpose.
Harpman returned to Belgium and worked as a psychologist. Her practice is evident in this novel, which explores the nature of being human and whether attempts to strip groups of people of their humanity can ever succeed. Her novel suggests that there are innate things about being human that will always surface, no matter the isolation and denial of humanity that might be imposed.
The narrator of the novel is a blank canvas. She has only ever known the captivity she describes. The women she shares the underground bunker with remember a different way of living, before something terrible happens that leaves them incarcerated underground. At the start of the novel she tells us that she lives in a perpetual present, that she has no memories. Her core emotion is rage. This could be seen as the effect of trauma so bad that you can neither bear to recall the past nor contemplate an unchanging future, you can only live in and deal with the present moment. As the novel unfolds, the narrator confirms this when she describes her earliest memory of the incarceration.
My own mother wasn’t with us and we had no notion what had become of the others. We assumed they were probably all dead. I have raked through my memories of that time, I thought I saw them swaying and groaning, crying and shivering with terror. None of them looked at me and I hated them. I thought it was unfair, and then I understood that, alone and terrified, anger was my only weapon against the horror.
Anyone who has a relationship with counselling knows that memories are fundamental to our sense of who we are. Our emotional connection to our memories influences how we experience the present. The narrator has no emotional connections to her past and few if any to the older women she lives among.
When we meet the narrator, she has developed a recent past for herself. She recounts it across the span of the novel. We meet her at the end of her life. She is alone. She is beginning to realise that she is human, that she always has been. What follows is an exploration of how she reached this realisation.
The narrator describes her early existence in the incarcerated community. We learn that she was a child when the incarceration happened, too young to remember life before it, and that she sees herself as being different to the other women. She listens to them talking about their previous lives and is frustrated by their lack of interest in explaining a way of being that the narrator is never going to experience. As time goes on, the narrator begins to inhabit her inner life to the exclusion of the women around her. Fixated on a younger guard, she conjures in her mind different scenarios in which they are alone together. Because she only knows incarceration, she can only imagine interrogation as the route to being in his company. The thought of his touch is enough to bring her to orgasm, although she doesn’t know that this is what she experiences. Her recollections of these fantasies, which become increasingly elaborate in order to achieve the explosion of pleasure she craves, begin to resemble memories.
A byproduct of this daydreaming is her realisation that, by withholding her reveries from the other women, she puts herself on an equal footing with them. She rejects the conventions the women carry with them from their previous lives, such as age being the basis for respect and obedience from others.
The narrator begins to question the reason they have been incarcerated and kept alive. She wants to know their purpose to whoever is feeding and clothing them and keeping them in good health. She tries to talk to one of the other women about it, but is met with an attitude of unquestioning acceptance grounded in the futility of trying to know the unknowable. It made me think of the way many people approach politics, refusing to engage with it because they don’t see the point. The other woman uses a series of depressing statements.
… the one thing we are certain of is that they don’t want us to know anything … We came to the conclusion that they left you here because any decision can be analysed, and that their lack of decision indicated the only thing they wanted us to know, which is that we must know nothing … There’s no point rebelling. We must just wait until we die.
The connection the narrator makes with this other woman, Anthea, draws her into her community and out of her head. She and Anthea plot a psychological rebellion against the guards and they gradually allow the other women in on the secret. It becomes a distraction from their quotidian existence and strengthens their feeling that they might have some power over their situation after all.
During the narrator’s inert rebellion, she learns to count her heartbeats, becoming a human clock, and is able to prove to the others that their captors don’t keep them on a standard 24-hour circadian rhythm. It is during one of the mealtimes that punctuate their days irregularly that the most irregular thing of all happens. A siren goes off, the guards drop everything, leaving the bunker and vanishing completely.
For this group of women, happenstance dictates that a set of keys is left in the lock for the hatch where the food is passed to them and they are able to free themselves from their prison. Emerging onto a desolate planet that they can’t be sure is Earth, they can’t fathom how the guards have disappeared so quickly. There is nobody else around. Over the years that follow, they move across the planet, discovering that theirs wasn’t the only bunker but that they almost certainly were the only prisoners fortunate enough to escape. And yet their apparent fortune is in doubt because, although they are now free to roam, they have no purpose and their only future is death. Theirs is a strange community.
One of the things that struck me about this dystopia, that made it authentic, was the distance that existed between the women’s knowledge of the things that make up a civilisation and their ability to replicate those things. It’s something my husband and I have talked about, that fear that our reliance on the conveniences that surround us will make us incapable of surviving in a future where those conveniences are taken from us, for whatever reason – climate crisis, political crisis, economic crisis. I’m the optimist in these conversations, convinced that we will eventually work out how to survive because humanity has done it once already. There’s a passage in the novel that echoes what I think. It talks about how the women become upset when they find caches of the guards’ boots but none of the sandals the women have worn while captive.
We found as much salt and soap as we needed, but not a single sandal, which upset us, until Denise said we should have thought of it years ago and taken the leather boots to cut sandals from the legs.
‘We’re not very resourceful, are we!’ said Greta ruefully.
‘We come from a world where it wasn’t necessary, everything was ready made and we never asked how things were produced,’ replied Francis.
This passage says to me that our lack of practicality in the face of an instant access culture masks an atavistic knowledge of how things work. In our own future dystopia, we might get there slowly, but we will eventually rebuild society. Hopefully on more collaborative, less exploitative grounds. It’s reinforced elsewhere in the book by the narrator developing skills in carpentry and other women in brick manufacture and building construction, and in the way they know how to dismantle useless objects and repurpose them.
Slowly, inevitably, the women die off and the narrator is left alone, a nomad wandering this strange landscape. She begins to follow her own thoughts, no longer persuaded by the older women to see things from a perspective influenced by their past experience. The others had always believed that the guards knew what was going on and were instructed not to let their prisoners know. The narrator has a realisation, one often borne out in the real world where soldiers obey orders blindly without knowing what is at the root of those orders, that the guards knew as little as their prisoners. Each bunker she encounters is identical to all the others in its construction, its layout and its contents.
What if they were as much in the dark as we were? What if they were forced to do a job that they weren’t permitted to understand? What if by putting the same things in all the bunkers, those in charge wanted to keep all information from them as well as from us?
To think that the guards knew nothing was a new idea, and to me nothing seemed more precious.
She begins to see the guards as fellow victims of a bigger cruel game. Eventually she finds something that confirms her belief – a rusted and broken bus full of the skeletal corpses of guards sitting in the bus seats as though death had struck instantly. Her description made me think of the deaths in Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of the Second World War, of people killed and incinerated instantly, a photographic shadow all that they left behind.
Her final destination brings her the luxuries and conveniences the other women had told her about. She discovers a different kind of bunker, one intended for an astronautical engineer, containing the best foods, furniture, a bed, a bath and, most importantly, books. Here she teaches herself to read and write. Here she tries again to understand her purpose. Here she eventually faces death, never to know whether another human being will ever find her words.
It’s a sad ending, and a sad book, but a beautiful one nonetheless that reflects on the meaning of human life. I’m so glad that I’ve read it. I’d like to read more of her works. Orlanda sounds intriguing.