“This was not real life in the everyday world where you could come and go as you pleased; Olivier knew what a massive step he was taking. This was not a matter of chance. What it was a matter of, he did not know. He had set foot on a slippery slope and he was sliding, yes, sliding.”
I’ve read a few novels by Pascal Garnier, and I thought, of the translations available, I only had A-26 left to read. Then a couple of other titles appeared: The Islanders and Boxes. I’d delayed reading A-26 as I didn’t want to get to the end of the road with Garnier, but then Max’s review caused me to wonder if I’d saved the weakest Garnier for last. So here we are with The Islanders–a strange title, I thought, for Garnier, but then after concluding this slim novel (144 pages) the title made sense in a horrible, sickening sort of way. While the title evokes certain images: sea, sand, and palm trees, forget all of those wonderful thoughts because you’ll find none of those here. The Islanders, for Garnier at least, is a state of mind: madness, murder, and how two personality types, when they meet, bind together in isolation and become dangerously obsessive and murderous.
Garnier’s bleak, darkly funny story begins with introducing its handful of sad, wrecked characters:
- Now dry, alcoholic Olivier, a man who runs a perfume shop with his wife, Odile, travels to Versailles on December 21st to wrap up his mother’s paltry estate and see her buried.
- Homeless Roland, whose life went “tits up the day he was born,” loses his job the very first day as Santa Claus after horrifying children by fighting with a rival santa “like two hookers fighting for turf.“
- Schoolteacher Jeanne who lives with her obese blind brother Rodolphe.
Olivier isn’t exactly racked with grief over his mother’s death; he thinks that he’ll wrap up the funeral and go home, but things become more complicated. He can’t just oversee the burial and run; the ground is frozen:
The burial could not take place before the 27th; the undertaker had just told him so. The dead just kept coming and the ground was rock-hard.
‘What if we had her cremated?’
‘Monsieur! We must respect the deceased’s last wishes. Your mother had planned for everything.’
‘Except dying at Christmas. So there’s nothing we can do?’
That’s typical Garnier. There are no taboos here, and just as we have a scene of fighting Santas with blood soaked beards, we also have an indifferent son who can’t wait to get his mother 6 feet under. So Olivier finds himself stuck in Versailles, but things change for the worst when he bumps into his mother’s neighbor, Jeanne, the first love of his life, a girl he never forgot. It’s as though when these two re-connect, that all the years they spent apart collapse, and they pick right back up where they left off–each one the other half of a dark puzzle. Suddenly, “it really was as if they had only spent a day apart.” At first we don’t understand the bonds and secrets Jeanne and Olivier share, and those aspects of the plot are gradually revealed over the course of the story.
Not a lot of the plot can be discussed without ruining the story, but here’s a great quote involving Rodolphe who plays a favourite sick, twisted game by dragging some poor soul into conversation at a museum.
‘Excuse me, Madame. Do you speak French?’
“Oh good. Would you mind telling me about the painting there, in front of us?’
‘The Raft of the Medusa?’
‘That’s the one.!’
‘But … what do you want me to tell you.’
‘I’m visually impaired and …’
‘Oh! I’m sorry, I hadn’t noticed. You don’t often come across blin-, visually impaired people in art galleries.’
‘I appreciate why you might be surprised, Madame, but I’m waiting for my sister to come and pick me up. I can still enjoy something of the art through other people’s eyes. as long as I’m not bothering you?’
‘No, not at all! So … it’s a picture of a raft … with people on it, far out at sea.’
‘Just a minute, I’ve got a guide … Gériacault, Géricault … Ah, here we are. The Raft of the Medusa, 1819, acquired in 1824—‘
‘No, I’m not interested in that. I want to what you can see.’
‘What I can see?’
‘Yes. How many people are on this raft? Is it day or night? Colours, everything!’
‘Right, right. Hang on, I’m counting them … The thing is, some of them are dead and some alive.’
‘Count the bodies, just the bodies!’
“I’d say about fifteen but I can’t be sure, they’re all piled up …’
‘Is it disgusting?’
And so the scene continues and you can tell where it’s going–although the innocent bystander, an unwitting participant in Rodolphe’s game, is still unaware that she’s a plaything for his amusement. So here’s Garnier assaulting another taboo as he shows a disabled character who’s exploiting his disability to disarm another person–someone who’s been duped into engaging in conversation with a perfect stranger simply because the disabled stranger seems to need help. After reading a handful of Garnier novels, some common threads are floating to the surface, and one of those themes is that life is so awful, if you kill someone, you are doing them a favour. This idea is threaded into the story through its many ghastly images: a kitchen that “glowed yellowish like the colour of nicotine-stained teeth,” a telephone receiver that “smelt of dried spit,” “monstrous turds of white pudding [that] came spewing out of butchers,” and a main character, Olivier, who is “an indifferent passenger through life.”
There’s always an aspect of horrified fascination when it comes to reading Garnier. This horrified fascination can bump into amusement (Moon in a Dead Eye) dangerous obsession (The Front Seat Passenger) or magnetic disgust (The Panda Theory), and towards the end of The Islanders, the disgust factors pile on. Garnier doesn’t allow his readers to maintain any distance from the more repellent aspects of this story, and so while we get an incredible first row seat to a psychotic relationship, we also get some of the more skin-crawling details of the descent into madness. Garnier is convincing in his portrayal of how two seemingly-normal, somewhat functional people combine and fuse into murderous, toxic, self-destructive isolation.
Here’s my order of preference so far:
Review copy/own a copy
Translated by Emily Boyce
French title: Les Insulaires
Finally there’s a statement on the cover: “The true heir to Simenon: John Banville.” Personally, I don’t see it.