- Making Space: Tactical Maneuvers in Hélène Cixous’s Un vrai jardin
Hélène Cixous’s often overlooked novella Un vrai jardin (1971) recounts an anonymous boy’s experience with war and trauma, set entirely within the confines of an unnamed city’s public garden. At first, this garden seems to be an idyllic and innocuous place, where children play under the watchful eyes of their nursemaids and the garden guards. Readers are further lulled into a sense of tranquility when the boy himself initially characterizes the garden as a safe space, removed from the bombings that threaten the city outside the garden’s walls. These initial descriptions of the scene will prove deceptive, however, as the story unfolds from the boy’s perspective. He describes his orphaned status, and his exclusion from both society as a whole and from the social groups inside the garden; he recounts how he plays alone and appears to be ignored by the other children in the garden and despised by the adults. The story and the boy come to a violent end when bombs finally do fall inside the garden and kill him, in a conclusion that is perhaps more traumatizing for readers than for the young boy himself. Indeed, the boy seems to welcome the opportunity death affords him to physically unite with the garden.
Much like the space that Cixous creates within the text, the boy’s life is scarred and shaped by war. The garden ends in ruins, as the bombardment physically tears it apart; the boy too will die a victim of wartime bombing, his blood commingling with the garden’s sandy ground. Before his death, however, the boy is shown to disrupt the disciplinary order inside the garden space, as he consciously navigates, confronts, and rebels against the normative forces that organize life inside the garden. He tangles repeatedly with adult authority figures, embodied by the nursemaids and the garden’s guards, who frequently mock and harass him. He continuously rejects and is rejected by his peers, and therefore comes to identify more fully with the garden and the earth itself than with his fellow humans. Because Cixous presents this conflict and the boy’s progressive identification with the garden from his [End Page 439] own perspective, through his fractured internal monologue, readers are inclined to sympathize with him and identify with his plight. Evoking pity for the poor orphaned boy living in the margins of a war-torn society, Un vrai jardin forces readers to confront implicit questions about the mechanisms of social exclusion, and how those mechanisms function in a time of conflict.
Despite the sympathy readers feel for the boy, he is also an erratic narrator; he has impaired eyesight, and gives no indication of the passage of time within or outside the garden space. Cixous’s use of an unreliable first-person narrative voice impels readers to construct the narrative of the boy and the society he inhabits on their own terms, rather than rely fully on the boy’s words – just as the boy tactically navigates the social taxonomy of the garden in order to establish his own identity. The doubling of identification processes mirrors the mise en abyme of space within the text: the garden functions as a microcosm of the fictional city, while the anonymous city itself serves as a textual allegory for the broader human experience of life in a warzone. Though the text concludes with the destruction of these carefully crafted spaces and the social strata they contain, the tale is less a conventional war story than an experiment in auto-identification. By creating a protagonist who chooses to identify with the garden when humanity rejects him, Cixous highlights the inevitable incompleteness of authoritarian control over any group or space; by focusing on the exclusionary social practices that occur in daily life and are frequently exacerbated during wartime, she underscores the potential for marginalized subjects to make use of times of conflict in order to renegotiate their place in society. As the boy unites with the garden, so too does the reader fuse with the space of Cixous’s narrative: in Un vrai jardin...