The Islanders: Pascal Garnier

“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.

The IslandersNot 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?’

‘Yes’

“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.’

‘Ah.’

‘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:

Moon in a Dead Eye

How’s the Pain?

The Front Seat Passenger

The Islanders

The Panda Theory

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.

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25 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Garnier Pascal

25 responses to “The Islanders: Pascal Garnier

  1. There’s a slight similarity to Simenon in the romans durs, but I’d agree with you, not that much of an heir. More like Claude Chabrol, to my mind. The Moon in a Dead Eye is the only one I haven’t read yet of the translations (and I still have Boxes coming up), so it’s good to see that it’s your favourite.

    • I was thinking Derek Raymond–not that I’ve read that much but the one I read stuck w/ me. And yes I can see the Claude Chabrol connection now you mention it w/his off kilter take on the bourgeoisie.

      • And that deceptive ‘all is well with the world’ opening scenes, settled life, then bam! Things go off-kilter! Haven’t read Derek Raymond, so he goes on my list. Also, some similarity with Manchette (although not as overtly political).

  2. Jonathan

    I’ve only read ‘Moon in a Dead Eye’ so far and I liked his style. This one really appeals to me so may be my next Garnier.

  3. I loved the Islanders – read it at Christmas and laughed – that sketch with Rodolphe and the Raft of the Medusa. Looking forward to reading more Garnier (A26 was brilliant too). I can see the Simenon romans durs reference, but Garnier takes that concept and makes it both blacker and funnier.

  4. I have a love-hate relationship with Garnier – I know what you mean by ‘horrified fascination’. I loved ‘How’s The Pain?’ but, unlike you, not ‘Moon in a Dead Eye’. There’s a kind of ‘fuck you’ quality to him that I don’t find in Simenon.

  5. I have not read Garnier but I want to.

    His work certainly sounds dark.

    In regards to this book, 144 pages does not seem like much based on the plot threads and developments that you mention.

  6. You’ve done it again, damn you. Someone else I really need to read…

  7. Ooh, I’m not sure I like the sound of this one. I have a copy, but maybe I’ll leave it for a while, especially as you’ve put it below Front Seat. Great analysis of Garnier’s themes and fetishes. I’ve definitely noticed a common thread of the dangers of isolation and alienation from society in his work…

    • I can’t give away too much here Jacqui but I think that Garnier recreates a certain criminal phenomenon excellently. The details are mostly introspective–think The Lost Weekend. I still loved it even though it didn’t rank near the top.

  8. I can see the Simenon link with A26, but not the other I’ve read (How’s the Pain) or other I’ve seen reviewed.

    I have Moon on the shelf and will get to the rest in due course…

  9. I agree with the comparison to Chabrol.
    The fight of two Santa Claus reminds me of Le père Noël est une ordure. (Santa Claus is a scumbag) because of the trash version of the festivities and Jugno playing A crazy Santa Claus.

    I have Lune captive dans un oeil mort near me, I’ll read it soon. I’m looking forward to comparing quotes.

  10. I’m going to stop visiting you soon – you feature so many books that I wouldn’t have considered and then make them sound really appealing. I love the quotes you’ve chosen, and I can picture the fight between the two Santa characters only too easily! Seems like this one would suit me very well indeed.

  11. I really enjoyed the museum quote, as sick as it may be but . . . I won’t be picking him up again this soon after the last one which I really didn’t lie.

    • I wouldn’t want to lock myself away and go on a Garnier binge Too depressing. The fascinating aspect of this book though is how well he describes a particular phenomenon we sometimes see in crime: the murderous duo–how two otherwise normal people fuse into murderers.

  12. Hm, I have others by him and it’s not in your top three, so I suspect I’ll pass. I rather bounced off Garnier, and while I do plan to read more I suspect he’ll never be a favourite.

    Raymond is an interesting comparison, but for me Raymond has a profound moral edge to his work which I’m not sure I saw in Garnier. Not of course that books require a profound or indeed any moral edge to be good.

    • You’re right Max, there is no moral edge here but I think the work is as dark as (the one) Raymond I read. I think if a reader goes into Garnier expecting a latter day Simenon, they’re in for a shock.

      I tried a few pages of A-26 and put it aside. I think it’s unfortunate that you hit what seems to be a lesser Garnier first.

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