When Prisoner of Love was first published in France in 1986, Le Matin declared that “Genet was assuredly one of the greatest French prose poets of this century, reaching the same heights as Proust and Céline. Un Captif amoureux has all the sacred fire and poetry of his earlier works.” Yet today several bibliographies do not list the book, and even readers familiar with Genet are sometimes unaware of its existence. I was amused to see that when the French theatrical Compagnie Lara adapted Captif into a play and performed it in April 2002 as part of the Prague Writers’ Festival (dedicated to Genet), the performance was mentioned in the British press as “a new production of Genet’s last play.”
In fact, Genet’s last play, The Screens, about the Algerian revolution, was written on the eve of Algeria’s independence from France in 1961. Three years later, following the death of his companion of some nine years, the high-wire artist Abdallah Bentaga, Genet (having, it is said, destroyed his manuscripts) left France. His relationship with his homeland had never been simple. Born in 1910 and abandoned as an infant to the assistance publique, he had, by the age of 15, been jailed for petty theft. At 19 he was sent to Syria as a volunteer for the Foreign Legion, which he deserted seven years later, setting off on a “vagabondage” across Europe, toward France and jail once more. Genet’s extraordinary 1940s saw him in and out of prison while producing the great narratives that won him the admiration and solidarity of Cocteau, Sartre and André Breton: The Thief’s Journal, Miracle of the Rose, Our Lady of the Flowers, Funeral Rites and Querelle of Brest. In the 1950s he created the plays that are his great bequest to European postwar theater: The Balcony, The Maids and The Blacks, followed in 1961 by The Screens.
“Obviously,” Genet said in an interview in the early 1980s, “I am drawn to peoples in revolt…because I myself have the need to call the whole of society into question.” But if all of Genet’s preceding work subverted the values and arrangements of society, The Screens was the first to engage with a specific revolt. Perhaps it was this that then drew other “transgressors” to appeal to him. And Genet responded. He wrote an hommage for the young revolutionary Daniel Cohn-Bendit in 1968, smuggled himself across the Canadian border to speak at Stony Brook, New York, on behalf of the Black Panthers in March 1970 and, in the autumn of that year, fetched up in the Palestinian bases in Jordan. He was to stay till the end of May ’71 and then–intermittently–till the end of 1972. His involvement with the Palestinians is the story of Prisoner of Love.
But Genet did not, as it were, go home and start writing. Another ten years were to pass before he started work on the new book. During this time, he was to say in an interview for Australian radio, “I no longer have the need to write…I have nothing further to say.” Then, in September 1982, Genet (at the request of his Palestinian friend Leila Shahid) visited Beirut and found himself in the middle of the Israeli invasion of the city. He was, it seems, one of the first foreigners to enter the Palestinian refugee camp of Shatila after the Lebanese Christian Phalange, with the compliance of the Israeli command, tortured and murdered hundreds of its inhabitants. There, pushing open doors wedged shut by dead bodies, Genet memorized the features, the position, the clothing, the wounds of each corpse, till three soldiers from the Lebanese army drove him at gunpoint to their officer: “‘Have you just been there?’ [the officer] pointed to Shatila. ‘Yes.’–‘And did you see?’–‘Yes.’–‘Are you going to write about it?’–‘Yes.'”