Review: “The Hero”
The Hero, by Hélène Sanguinetti
Translated by Ann Cefola
CHAX Press, 2018, $18
Hélène Sanguinetti’s The Hero is not a book of poetry for the faint of heart. It challenges readers, fracturing the story of the hero to analyze it from every angle. It is up to the reader to search for answers, and expert puzzle master Ann Cefola, who has translated this book from the French, is to thank for bringing this literary kaleidoscope to the English language. The Hero will leave you worn down and breathless. More importantly, it will leave you wanting more.
Despite a strong focus on the masculine, The Hero is decidedly feminist, exposing the cracks in the armor of the hero archetype and the dangers that archetype presents to both the men and women caught up in the concept of faulty heroism. Sanguinetti acknowledges the sensitivity of the men who have been forced into the role of the hero—“He misses his little house, he misses the sound of water in the tank”—but draws attention to the damage they leave in their wake and to their desensitization: “Soldier, you roll a cigarette between two fallen bodies.” Apart from the general destruction caused by heroes, the book exposes the violence enacted upon women—“Now there’s the battle its long claws dug well into their backs the young girls.” The Hero shows us, again and again, how the image of the hero destroys the innocence of men and women: “So far from the person I once was see-sawing under trees, on the pontoon with wheels and senseless jumps […] I left it on the shore kissed and embraced”.
Though Sanguinetti explores the vulnerability of the women in her poetry, she focuses also on female strength in the face of established, limiting gender roles. When a woman is shown to have the same ferocity as men, she is branded as an “unfeminine girl-hero really knocking and shouting […] crazy girl, frenzied when she found out.” Saguinetti’s take on the women in the book is complex. Women described as “pirate women” are also described as “knitters” in the same stanza. Sanguinetti does not devalue more commonly accepted gender identities; she is fighting for the rights of women and men to choose which roles fit them best, without persecution.
One of the most prominent issues that Sanguinetti explores in The Hero is the danger of group mentality. To this end, she adds theatrical elements, creating a chorus when the heroes return home, expressing their triumph over the enemy. At times the language is image-heavy (“Did you kill someone? / Right at the dormer window, at a range of 30 meters, it was more beautiful than all the words in creation”); at other times, it is brutal and blunt (“We won…fucked them up the ass-ass… Hooray!!!”). By combining a multitude of different voices, Sanguinetti shows us that regardless of our individuality, we all are susceptible to the bias and insensitivity inherent in group mentality.
The Hero is a challenging read. It employs unorthodox punctuation, fragmented lines, and a plethora of characters, styles, and voices. But the reward for embracing this challenge is a varied, stripped-bare depiction of what a “hero” really can be. The Hero’s moments of pure honesty shine through like a beacon, offering us an often jarring, always beautiful narrative to face head on.