I Who Have Never Known Men

Jacqueline Harpman was a Belgian author who wrote numerous novels between 1958 and 2006, only two of which have been translated into English: Orlando, which won the Prix Medicis in 1996, and I Who Have Never Known Men, published one year earlier, and translated by Ros Schwartz under the title The Mistress of Silence for Harvill Press in 1997. It has now been reissued with a new introduction by Sophie Macintosh, perhaps hoping to capitalise on the growing feminist dystopia market. Yet, though I Who Have Never Known Men is clearly open to a feminist reading, the questions it raises reverberate even wider, forcing the reader to ask what it means to be human.

The novel is narrated by the youngest of a group of forty woman incarcerated in a bunker for reasons none of them understand. “No one has the slightest idea what’s behind all this,” the narrator is told by one of the older women. There is a vague sense of some catastrophe which has led to their imprisonment but they “don’t even know if there was a war,” or how they arrived at the bunker in the first place; even their initial time in the bunker is described as “the hazy period in the early days of our captivity.” Their time in the bunker is regulated by guards who use whips to control the behaviour of the women – who are now so institutionalised that they are rarely subject to any violence – enforcing such rules as “we weren’t permitted to touch one another.”

The narrator is different from the other woman not only because she is the youngest (in fact they speculate that she is “almost certainly here by accident”) but because she retains a more active mind. Perhaps this is partly because she has, in other ways, been prevented from becoming a woman. She tells us:

“The others had been adult for a long time whereas I appeared to be prepubescent. But my development stopped there: I started to get hair under my arms and on my pubes, my breasts grew a little, and then everything came to a halt. I never had a period,”

Extracting knowledge from the other women, however, is difficult as they no longer see beyond what is necessary, and do not understand what the narrator later calls “the pleasure of knowing”. When she asks one of the women about “men and love” she is mystified:

“She couldn’t understand why someone would want knowledge that would be of no use to them.”

She begins to explore her sexuality by fantasizing about one of the younger guards, to the point where she is able to orgasm without physical stimulation – “an immense sensation swept through me, an overwhelming eruption” – but this is part of a wider attempt to gain control over her environment. At the same time she begins to count her heartbeat so that she can measure time.

At this point, however – about a third of the way into the novel – everything suddenly changes. There is a “terrifyingly loud noise” and within minutes the guards have disappeared:

“For the first time since we women had been imprisoned, we were alone in the bunker.”

The siren occurs at the same time the hatch to the cell is open and so the women are suddenly freed and able to leave the bunker, venturing outside to face a landscape so barren and desolate that they wonder if they are still on Earth:

“…all we could see was the stony plain where nothing moved except the scant grass gently swaying in the breeze.”

The rest of the novel follows the women’s journey across this landscape – “while we didn’t know where to go, we didn’t have any better reason for staying” – and what they discover, while the narrator contends with the knowledge that, as the youngest, she will likely be the last to die.

In these desperate circumstances, Harpman frequently raises the question of what it means to be human. In their captivity, the narrator comments:

“We have been deprived of everything that made us human, but we organise ourselves, I suppose in order to survive, or because, when you’re human, you can’t help it.”

Later, the decision to leave the bunker is taken as a result of a plea to the women’s humanity:

“We can’t settle here and live from the bunker like parasites. We must remain human beings.”

Despite this the narrator worries that her own life has left her less than human: “I must be lacking in certain experiences that make a person fully human.” Interestingly, it is only when she decides to write down her story (as she tells us at the beginning) that she feels her life, however limited, has the same value as that of any other person:

“After all, if I was a human being, my story was as important as that of King Lear or of Prince Hamlet that William Shakespeare had taken the trouble to relate in detail.”

In I Who Have Never Known Men Harpman creates circumstances which are both hopeless and incomprehensible. Even when the women are released they quickly realise, “we’d merely moved to a new prison.” It is only the resolutely human qualities of the narrator which give the reader any hope, and it is in the clash between the two that the novel’s power lies. A deservedly rediscovered classic.


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5 Responses to “I Who Have Never Known Men”

  1. JacquiWine Says:

    I always think that the best Sci-Fi or dystopian fiction can prompt us to reflect on both the darker and lighter aspects of humanity and human behaviour, It certainly sounds as if that’s the case here. As you say, there seems to be an appetite for this kind of story these days, probably prompted by the wave of interest in The Handmaid’s Tale. Maybe this should be on the current US president’s reading list, if there is such a thing!

  2. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    Sounds fascinating Grant, and most definitely ripe for rediscovery. There are any number of people who could do with reminding about what it means to be a human being…

  3. Books of the Year 2019 | 1streading's Blog Says:

    […] made that claim for My Friends, I must admit that Jacqueline Harpman’s I Who Have Never Known Men (translated by Ros Schwarz) is probably bleaker. Set in some future time on an uncertain planet, […]

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