Reviews of Pascal Garnier’s novel The Panda Theory claimed the book was funny. I thought it was bleak, but humour is a very unpredictable thing, so when the same thing was written about How’s the Pain? I didn’t expect the novel to be funny at all–but it is. I’ll qualify that by saying that the book isn’t laugh-out-loud funny, but it’s full of morbid humour with a central motif of death and decay. This is how the book begins:
The sound coming from somewhere in the darkness was barely audible, but it was enough to shatter his sleep. The drone of the moped grew louder until it was directly beneath his window, grating on his nerves like a dentist’s drill boring into a decayed tooth. Then it faded into the distance, leaving nothing behind but a long rip through the fabric of this sleeping city. He hadn’t opened his eyes or moved except to twitch his mouth in annoyance at the buzzing mechanical insect. Lying flat on his back with his hands crossed over his chest, Simon could have been a recumbent tomb effigy. One at a time he opened his heavy eyelids, gummed together like the rusty shutters of an old shop. He groped for his glasses on the bedside table, but could barely see any better once he had them on.
So this is Simon, a middle-aged man, who’s travelling on business. While staying in Vals-de-Bains, he meets a young man named Bernard who, after losing two fingers from his left hand in a factory incident(while drunk), is staying with his alcoholic mother temporarily. Simon meets Bernard when both men are in a park watching a wedding and the photographer who “had no qualms about destroying the flowerbeds or tyrannizing his models to ensure that this would truly be the most beautiful day of their lives.” Bernard strikes up a conversation with the stranger, and their exchanges reveal the central cores of their personalities. Simon is a pessimist who sees the worst in everyone, and Bernard, an optimist and a perennial loser, lives lightly. Even though Simon is a loner and avoids people, there’s something about Bernard that he finds appealing. Perhaps it’s his complete guilelessness, or perhaps Bernard reminds Simon of his younger, directionless self. The two men strike up a relationship, and Simon who claims to be an exterminator who owns a pest control business employs Bernard as his driver for two days….
As the two men travel to their destination, thanks to Bernard’s generous heart, an ad-hoc family coalesces around Simon–whether he wants it or not. And the drive, and perhaps even the friendship with Bernard bring back some troubling memories to Simon–how he was a directionless young man until he joined the army, his formative years in Algeria, his love affair with a woman named Safia, and his last act of friendship towards an army comrade.
That’s as much of the plot I’m going to give away, but I have to mention Bernard’s hopeless, alcoholic mother, Madame Ferrand; there’s a whole chapter devoted to describing the trajectory of her life and her pathetic career as a serial failed shopkeeper. At age 35, she dumped her 2 year-old fatherless son, Bernard with her parents and moved to Vals-de-Bains where, with her “meagre savings,” she opened a millinery shop called Chez Anais. Over the years, the shop transformed into various manifestations, all of them failures, and it’s through her life that we see the living example of Simon’s beliefs: life is awful–and most people should be put out of their misery. Of course, though, we have the ‘right’ to put ourselves through the misery of our choosing, and in this case, Madame Ferrand’s misery is alcohol soaked.
She leant against the doorframe for a moment, her cartoonish kohl-lined eyes judging the distance between herself and Simon and sizing up any obstacles to avoid on the way. Then, like a bull charging the matador, she puffed out through her nose and lunged forward with her hand held out, her face split by a smile reminiscent of a gash made by a machete in a watermelon.
‘Enchantée, cher monsieur, enchantée! You’re most welcome.’
Simon caught her just in time to stop her tripping over a fold in the rug and smoothly kissed her hand. The patchouli oil she had splashed all over herself could not disguise the lingering smell of rum.
While this is a crime novel, it’s also inherently philosophical. It’s through his relationship with Bernard that Simon’s views about life are at once endorsed and paradoxically challenged. Bernard is kind, but naïve, hopeless and a magnet for all sorts of trouble, but at the same time, Bernard’s buoyancy, careless optimism and sheer gullibility open him up to life–like a wound exposed to further attack, and yet, at the end of the day, who would you rather be? Financially successful Simon, whose negativity has led to isolation, or loser Bernard, a man who lives lightly and shrugs off worries?
There’s a wonderful scene when Simon is waiting at an aquarium for a business meeting and he watches a shark in a glass tank.
The shark was drowning its sorrows inside its glass cage. It turned this way and that for no apparent reason, taking no notice of the opaline jellyfish and shoals of multicolored fish swimming out from clumps of soft seaweed. There was not much to choose between aquatic and life on earth; either could be equally boring. The proof was in the amphibians which had dithered between the two for thousands of years without ever making their minds up, or the valium-drugged crocodiles whose sleepy eyes peeked above the surface of muddy pools. Like Simon, who stood watching them, all these creatures seemed to be on standby, waiting for something that was always just out of reach. Over-excited kids pressed their noses against the glass, ganging their horrid chubby little hands against the walls of the tanks. Their shrieks ruined the silence of this other world. From the looks on the faces of their harassed parents, it was clear many would gladly throw their offspring to the piranhas. The world might well end in the same murky green waters that spawned humanity.
I liked The Panda Theory enough to explore more of Pascal Garnier’s work, and I’m glad I did because How’s The Pain? is superb. At 163 pages (my copy) this entertaining, highly-recommended, lean tale should appeal to fans of Jean-Patrick Manchette–not for its tone, but for its style. This is a frame story, and I’d recommend going back and re-reading the opening chapter again after finishing the book. Review copy/own a copy. Translated by Emily Boyce.