Nager Sans Se Mouiller by Carlos Salem

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I was given this book by Emma: a live, face-to-face handing over of a book, which by itself is a wonderful experience that adds to the joy of reading. This book is a translation from Spanish (Matar y Guardar la Ropa) and, unfortunately, is not available in English.

It’s part of the Babel Noir collection, a series published by Actes Sud. I’m always drawn to the books of Actes Sud: they feature a lot of foreign writers, and I like their covers, the quality of their papers and the legibility of their typeface. But back to the book.

What the reader repeatedly faces throughout the book is how often he/she is taken by surprise about some revelations through simple but quite smart technical maneuvers by Salem. For example, the opening couple of pages present to us a less-than-average Juan, our narrator, taking the elevator of some fancy building together with a cigar-smoking gentleman, a woman and her daughter. He ridicules his curbed posture and realizes what little impression he must make on the woman; a self-derision of 4 pages that ends with the woman and her daughter leaving the elevator leaving me with a dumbfounded look on my face when our unremarkable Juan draws a gun clad with a silencer and shoots our cigar-smoking gentleman right in the forehead. Of course, because it came as a complete surprise to me (not having read the synopsis), I had to re-read the shooting paragraph because I assumed that it was the gentleman who ought to have shot our Juan Perez Perez.

As by now you might suspect, JPP aka Number 3, is a hitman working for a mysterious Enterprise, whose agents are similarly identified by their numbers, receiving targets to be liquidated from the equally mysterious Number 2. Undoubtedly, the reader will be tempted to compared and judge the story against other spy novels but Salem spares us this. Though JPP undertakes trainings, learns manuals and goes through specific procedures before delivering the packages, the codename for liquidating the targets, Salem belittles their significance while going through their technical details. On the one hand, he evades the trap of cheap parody while being humorous and preserving the plausibility of the situation. He employs the same technique with the flashbacks that JPP reveals to us during his apprenticeship under the older Number 3, who dispenses hitman wisdom and tactics to the young JPP while coming up with his own self-proclaimed axioms such as: “Beware of girls with small breasts”.

Humor is omnipresent throughout the book, and a naughty humor at that that made me crack up every couple of pages. For our JPP is sent by the Enterprise, not to deliver a package but to keep an eye on one, to a nudist colony with his 10-year old son and 15-year old daughter. Circumstances have it that he finds his tent adjacent to his ex-wife and her lover, the incorruptible judge Beltran. I’m it surprised by how easily Salem is capable of spinning jokes around this ludicrous situation throughout the book! Another coincidence at the nudist colony, is the presence of his long-lost school friend, Tony, rendered one-eyed by JPP himself in an attempt to protect his friend that went all awry, and Tony’s plastic and ice-cold girlfriend, the imposing Sofia.

Things start to get interesting when JPP is ordered to keep an eye on the owner of a car with a certain matriculation number, a car he knows quite well since it is the one he offered his wife, and which has since changed ownership to none other than Tony, his long-lost school friend. Amidst the heat of the summer, the naked bodies and his own infatuation with the beautiful Yolanda, JPP’s thoughts are all jumbled and he can’t make out what is really going on in that colony and who is after whom. The sudden appearance of another “Number” exceptionally dispatched to the colony complicate matters more and alert him that a parallel plan might be concocted by the Enterprise.

In trying to make sense of the situation he is in, Juan confronts himself, as he wonders who is he? Is he Number 3? Is he the unremarkable Juan Perez Perez? Is he the father of his children who are growing so fast he doesn’t realize it? Is he the son forever in search of the father figure? Is he a player? Is he capable of love?

As such, I conclude this review by saying that I found it quite clever from Salem to be able to introduce such serious questions amidst the sexual humor and the evolving intrigue throughout the book, and in this regard, I found his book quite unique. Because, I wouldn’t say that the intrigue is what holds our attention, nor the humor alone and the reactions JPP makes to the incidents and surprises popping up around him, but it’s a mix of all three rendered in a very entertaining writing style. I wonder the direction that Salem will take with his future books, as I suppose he is quite capable of playing more on the intrigue or more on the subjective elements or even spinning a complex love story in a mystery novel.

PS: In the “Thank You” section at the end of the book, I was surprised to read that Carlos Salem thanked, among others, a particular bookstore in Lyon, with the name of… “Au Bonheur Des Ogres“! I didn’t get the chance to visit it while I was there, but it’s cause enough for me to return back to Lyon.

Vengeances by Philippe Djian

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I had the pleasure of reading this one with Emma from Book Around The Corner and the fortune of actually meeting Emma and chatting with her about Vengeances over some (quite) hot beverages.

Vengeances left me with a sense of unease and I had the feeling that the ending was botched up and incidents quickly wrapped up, though the book is fairly short (< 200 pages) and so I suppose that a couple of additional pages wouldn’t have hurt anyone and would have cleared up some of the ambiguities of the book.

Ambiguity is what characterizes this book. The opening paragraph is a first-person narrative told by Marc, the main character of the book, whose son, Alexandre, apparently struck by something, shoots himself in the head in front of his father’s neighbors, days before Christmas. Before proceeding with the content of the book, its ambiguous character is reinforced by the use of the double perspective: first and third person narratives alternate in almost regular succession throughout the book. Of course, one notices the difference in tone between the heartfelt and subjective first-person narrative and the impartial and rather cold (in comparison) third-person narrative. At first, I was irritated by this, especially that neither brings anything additional to the events of the story, and either method could have been dispensed with, but then I realized that the third-person narrative is used to lend credibility to the first; after all, how much can one trust a storyteller who was under such a shock? This comforts me when I came to the last paragraph of the book which is told in the voice of Marc, and so I was able to assume that this is how things rightly ended.

Ambiguity also extends itself to the content of the book. We never know for certain why did Alexandre commit suicide. With such a spectacularly tragic start of the book, one assumes that the elucidation of such an act, or at the very least its effect on the father, the changes that it brings on the father, would take center stage of the book, that is not the case. The explicit alteration in Marc’s life is that his companion Elisabeth leaves him and he “adopts” a drunken young girl, Gloria, who throws up all over him in the metro.

In fact, that is what I like about the book. Few of the plot changes are predictable, yet without them being shocking to my taste. The relationship between Marc and Alexandre is faintly felt throughout the book and for a reason: Marc never really matured to be a father, he never managed to let go of his past’s little cocoon: a tripartite relationship involving Michel, his best friend, agent and promoter of his creations, and Anne, Michel’s wife, whom Marc screwed (Djian’s word) for over a year before she ended up marrying Michel. Anne and Michel offered Marc the sustainable chance of indulging in alcohol and drugs at will, of vacationing together and attending gallery exhibitions and other similar events.

This tripartite relationship is at the heart of the book, and Djian manages to bring in a sweet mix of subtlety and aggression in painting the characters and evoking the transformations in the plot. Starting with such an aggressive act as the suicide of the son, we are, page after page, led through the implicit complicity that ties Anne, Michel and Marc together to the point where Marc’s first wife felt completely left out from it. Gloria herself starts off as an aggressive character yet her destabilizing of the trio’s relationship is done quite imperceptibly, with insinuations rather than explicit words or actions. I loved how a character like her could destabilize their age-long relationship, and it seemed so logical in such a double-faced relationship, on the surface solid, its fibers loose: for the adults of the book, Anne, Michel and Marc, are not really adults. They are characterized by a scarring egoism. Their ethics are meager and can be summed up with “ne se laisser pas aller” (not to let go, not to be dragged into).

Writing this post helped me realize that there is more to this book then when I turned over the last page. Djian’s writing – strangely even the portrayal of adults – reminded me of Ann Beattie’s writing in Chilly Scenes of Winter. That said, Djian’s writing comes off as more colorful, more sarcastic – I would even risk sardonic, and smarter. I very much appreciated when he writes the following, when Marc, unbeknownst  to Gloria, is surprised by her presence in a shady area:

J’avais passé les dernières heures à m’interroger sur ce que j’avais vu, et j’avais très envie de lui en parler, mais j’avais peur de commettre une de ces maladresses qui peuvent à jamais ternir une vie, la flétrir, la ronger, j’avais peur de la faire fuir en la poussant dans ses retranchements et de perdre alors tout espoir de sauver quoi que ce soit

My translation: I had spent the last hours wondering about what I had seen, and I really wanted to tell her, but I was afraid to commit any of these blunders that may forever tarnish a life, make it fade, gnaw at it, I was afraid of scaring her, pushing her to the wall and then lose all hope of saving whatever is there to save

Emma informed me that Djian’s earlier writing was lighter in tone, and when I will read him again – because I will – I suppose I will be considering one of his first books.