“There are no exterminators for neighbors.”
Emile and Juliette Hazel have been married for 43 years, and when Emile retires from his job as a Greek and Latin high school teacher, the couple look forward to the perfect retirement. In their minds that means moving from the hustle and bustle of the city to the pristine peacefulness of a small isolated house in the country, “less out of a love of nature than out of a need for solitude.” They can’t believe their luck when they find the House:
When we saw the House, we had a wonderful feeling of relief: this place we’d been aspiring to since childhood existed after all. If we had dared to imagine it, we would have imagined a clearing just like this one, near a river, with this house-the House-pretty, invisible, a wisteria climbing its walls.
Yes, a dream come true. What could possibly go wrong?
So Emile and Juliette, a loving couple who look forward to growing old together, buy the house and move in. They are four miles from the village of Mauves, but not to worry, they have a neighbor. A doctor, no less, and surely having a doctor nearby is a good thing, isn’t it?….
A week after moving in, at four in the afternoon, there’s a knock at the door. The gargantuan Dr Palamedes Bernardin, a morose man who resembles a “depressed Buddha,” stays exactly two hours. It’s a horrible visit for the Hazels as they try everything possible to engage the monosyllabic Bernardin in conversation. But what’s even worse is that the visit becomes a dreaded, oppressive, tedious daily event. Initially the Hazels employ a series of tactics: escape, frivolity, open-ended questions and even boredom–anything to put an end to Bernardin’s visits, but nothing works. And then they meet his wife.
The Stranger Next Door, from Belgium author Amélie Nothomb, with its twisted dark ironies and black humour should appeal to fans of Pascal Garnier. Garnier seems to take delight in throwing his characters into adverse circumstances–circumstances in which we have a good laugh at their discomfort as they struggle, and are captured, in the mighty fist of fate. That same sort of feeling is here, but the tale is told in the first person. We enter the mind of Emile–a man who feels trapped by politeness, and who, over time, driven to breaking point, feeling smaller in the eyes of his wife, takes a dark path from which there is no return.
And here’s one of my favourite quotes, ironic under the circumstances:
It’s true that someone will always say that good and evil don’t exist: that is a person who never had any dealings real evil. Good is far less convincing than evil, but it’s because their chemical structures are quite different.
Like gold, good is never found in a pure state in nature: it therefore doesn’t seem impressive. It has the unfortunate tendency not to act; it prefers, passively, to be seen.
Evil, on the other hand, is like a gas: it’s not easy to see, but it can be detected by its odor. It’s most often stagnant, disbursed in a suffocating sheet; initially this aspect makes it seem inoffensive, but then suddenly you see it at work and you realize the ground it has won, the tasks it has accomplished. And by then it’s all over; gas cannot be expelled.
Many of us have had to deal with obnoxious neighbours and/or pushy people in our lives, so the situation in the book feels very real and makes us question how we would react in the circumstances. Pushiness is a type of manipulation because it forces the target to move out of the comfort zone and engage in behaviours he, or she, would not normally employ. The Stranger Next Door , a delightful, darkly funny, nimble surprise, will make my best-of-year list.
Translated by Carol Volk
Originally published as Les Catilinaires