'Down with the Poor' by Shumona Sinha. A fearless novel exploring France’s Kafkaesque asylum system

Henriette Korthals Altes for the Times Literary Supplement


Shumona Sinha, born and raised in Kolkata, chose to write in French when she moved to France more than twenty years ago. The title of her second novel, Down with the Poor!, first published in 2011 and now elegantly translated by Teresa Lavender Fagan, nods to Baudelaire’s poem of the same name. It sets an iconoclastic tone for the novel’s pitiless self-examination of a woman arrested for assaulting a refugee.

Like Sinha, the narrator is a Bengali working as an interpreter for the French refugees’ office and moonlighting as a writer. In a reversal of fortune she finds herself in the seat of those she interviews for her day job when she is arrested and interrogated by the ominously named Monsieur K. The narrator exposes the Kafkaesque nature of both the police and the asylum system. Monsieur K. holds out a mirror to her: he is as cruel as she has to be with the refugees, summoning her to impossible self-justification, questioning all her answers and shaming her to the core. Why, he asks, is she incapable of empathy for her fellow refugees? Does her literary ambition and her love of French culture justify her revulsion towards them? Is it reprehensible scorn or a coping mechanism?

As the interrogation unfolds the narrator untangles the complex emotional journey that has led her to her violent act. As an interpreter she listens to refugees regurgitating similar narratives day in, day out, built of the clichés and lies fed to them by people traffickers. Despite requests from human rights lawyers she refuses to patch up and embellish the refugees’ life stories. Translating places her in a double bind, and ultimately puts her in the position of traitor to her fellow countrypeople.


Read the full article on TLS (Times Literary Supplement)