In Pascal Garnier’s bleak, dark novel The Panda Theory, a man named Gabriel arrives in a small “nondescript” town in Brittany. He has no specific purpose there, and he could be termed a drifter–except for the fact that he has means. He checks into the town’s small hotel, and from then on becomes involved with a handful of the town’s inhabitants who invite him into their sad lives. It would be a stretch to say that he makes friends as these relationships aren’t quite ‘normal.’ Instead he meets various troubled people and becomes involved in their problems. It’s as if he’s the solution these people are looking for, and I suppose, in a nasty way, he is.
Gabriel has no clear purpose in town–he’s not there on business, he has no relatives nearby; he’s just there. And within a few hours of his arrival, he’s eyed as a prospect by the hotel’s attractive single receptionist, Madeleine, invited to eat with José, the owner of the town bistro whose wife, Marie is in hospital with an as-yet undiagnosed cyst or tumour, and befriended by a couple of lowlifes, a prostitute named Rita and her lover, Marco. While all these characters–Madeleine, José, Rita and Marco, invite Gabriel into their sad, pathetic lives and pour their endless stream of misery and personal problems into his ears, he just soaks up this information like a sponge. He seems to be a good listener, asks nothing in return and shows empathy for his small circle of fresh acquaintances. Suddenly José is relying on Gabriel for companionship (and meals), Madeleine hopes for love and sex, Rita’s looking for a meal ticket, and Marco, who’s hoping for a fat inheritance from his aging, estranged father, looks for money. Marco and Rita, eternally down on their luck, are in town waiting for the old man, “a bag of decaying organs,” to die:
The man and the woman sat opposite one another with their arms folded. They leant over two empty coffee cups, their foreheads nearly touching, looking like two bookends on an empty bookshelf. The man was well into his forties, his face was angular and gaunt with deep-set eyes, hollow cheeks and nostrils. His greasy hair was swept back off his face and curled on his coat collar. The woman had her back to Gabriel, but he could see a little of her face in the mirror. She looked disreputable; a dusting of white powder coated her blotches, spots and wrinkles. She resembled a cake that had been left for too long in a shop window.
Gabriel, and of course, the name brings up biblical references, seems to have appeared in these people’s lives at the moment they needed him most, but is he a savior there to solve their problems? Well in a way… . Asked by Madeleine about his work he replies that he provides a “service.” Gabriel considers that people’s lives are destined to full of unhappiness in a universe without meaning and “no difference between good and evil.” According to Gabriel, “Happiness is a calamity you can never recover from. As soon as you catch a glimpse of it, the door slams shut and you spend the rest of your life bitterly regretting what is no more.” The novel is interspersed with Gabriel’s recollections of his past and it’s gradually revealed why he feels we live in a bleak universe and why he believes that happiness is treacherous.
The street swarmed with extras but there was no audience, or director. And there was probably no script either. Everybody wandered around without aim or purpose, hesitant and unable to find their place. Perhaps that was the intention. It wasn’t unusual to bump into the same person in different parts of town; grim-faced, lost in thought and waiting, in the absence of a revelation, for some sort of sign. The entire town seemed on standby. The sky was equally unsettled, with threatening clouds, light rain and intermittent flashes of lightning. Swarms of minuscule gnats, impervious to swiping hands, buzzed overhead. Nothing made sense. If being alive was just a hobby then how could you be sure that there would be a tomorrow? Just as there was no guarantee there had been a yesterday. It was a day to kill someone for no reason.
The blurb on the front cover states that the novel is “darkly humorous.” I wouldn’t go that far–although if there is humour here, it’s gallows humour. The story is bleak (I said that already) in its depiction of the human condition and depressing, but it is also a thought-provoking novel in its attitude towards a random act of meaningless violence and its subsequent impact on a numbed Gabriel. He carries his burden to those who invite him into their difficult, troubled lives and pour their tragedies and disappointments onto his head. Garnier shows us types of violence: the random meaningless variety and the targeted kind–to quote Kem Nunn’s new novel, Chance, “there are no victims, only volunteers.”
When reading this novel, I had to get beyond a certain feeling of repugnance in the novel’s references to disease, meat, and decay which underscore the sordidness of human existence. Rita and Marco’s relationship, for example is compared to “traveling in the same carriage stinking of feet, you manage to find your little corner of intimacy.” A tongue in someone’s mouth is described as “wriggling meat,” and Rita with her hairy armpits, looks like “a piece of meat lying on a cloth ready to be sliced up.” The novel is full of images of death and dying worked cleverly into the plot to build foreboding and doom:
The TV screen spewed a stream of incoherent images and gurgling sounds, like blood bubbling from a slit throat.
Gabriel also seems obsessed with meat. When he’s not carting around a bloody shoulder of lamb, cooking calves’ liver, or tearing off pieces of practically raw chicken from the carcass, he’s thinking about food. Food and death are connected in Gabriel’s mind, and by the time you come to the end of the book, you’ll know why. The issue of whether or not I liked this novel seems irrelevant, and I’m still chewing that over. There’s a philosophical aspect to this story that takes the plot beyond like or dislike, and instead it’s a matter of our response to Gabriel’s mission. There’s enough ‘meat’ here to keep a Philosophy class debating for hours.
Stu has also read and reviewed this book.
Translated from French by Gallic Books.