Tanguy Viel’s Article 353 explores a murder through the narrator/murderer’s ex-facto explanation of the crime. A definition of exactly what Article 353 is can be found at the end of the book. After watching 6 seasons of the French series Spiral, I can’t say that I understand the French legal system, but I have grasped that it is very different to America (and Britain). I’m glad I had the Spiral experience in order to understand a little of the French legal process.
Article 353 is set in a dying seaside town on the Brittany coast. It’s the 90s, and middle-aged divorced, Kermeur, is expecting a 400,000 franc layoff payout. Thanks to the town’s mayor, Le Goff, Kermeur at least has a roof over his head for himself and his young son. They live in a gatehouse of what is rather grandly termed the local chateau. Kermeur maintains the grounds.
As always in these sorts of towns, places with beautiful scenic views but no industry, there’s always talk of Big Money coming in and making a splash. In this case it’s Lazenec, a middle-aged man who arrives one day at the chateau along with the mayor, Le Goff. Lazenac is new to the region but suddenly he’s everywhere in his fancy car and his fancy yacht. He buys the Chateau and the land and plans to build a resort on the land. It’s an investment opportunity:
What I should’ve thought that evening, and what I’ve learned to think since, is that it’s never a good sign to run into twice in the same day a guy you didn’t know the day before.
I’m not revealing spoilers to say that Kermeur is arrested for the murder of Lazenac: for tossing him off of his yacht 5 miles off the coast to be exact. The novel is Kermeur’s side of things as told to the judge.
Imagine that, I told the judge, a seaside resort here on Brest Bay! And I continued reading the article line by line, with its big sentences like all the region lacked was the faith and courage to face the future, there was undeveloped potential here, it said, for generations we’ve been sitting on a gold mine covered by cabbages and artichokes, a new era of tourism and development was dawning, it was time to prepare to enter the new millennium
I was part way through the book when I looked up the currency exchange rates for 400,000 Francs in 1990. At that time, it was about 69,000 dollars and change. Now Kermeur is a man in a tenuous position: he doesn’t own a home, has a marginal job and may lose that plus the home he lives in as a result of these swanky resort homes. Kermeur is seduced by the idea of success & wealth, and he acts foolishly. When a slick developer goes knocking on doors looking for investors, that means he DOESN’T have the money himself: he wants yours. He’s not doing you any favours, he’s helping himself. Whether or not you think Kermeur is justified in his subsequent actions is going to be a personal decision.
I liked the book’s premise; I enjoy books that centre on people’s relationship with money. We spend our whole lives working for money, spending money, thinking about money, and not understanding money. Many of us lived through the last crazy housing boom and saw people assuming insane amounts of debt. We all read about the suicides, the marriage break-ups, the moonlight flits. People seemed to want to climb out of their established status, and use the boom to move on up the ladder–flipping houses and perhaps even becoming landlords in the process. I knew many people who were ruined and will never recoup. So who made all the money? Makes me think of Marx and The Wages of Labour. …
I found the book’s bias … is that the right word ? … or should I say, decided moral direction, uninteresting. Someone is swindled. His life is ruined. Is murder justified? Unfortunately, the book’s structure leads the reader down a certain prescribed path of judgement. A different structural narrative (say events as they occur) would have allowed for a wider scope of issues such as morality, wishful thinking, etc. As is, we know what happened. Kermeur finally understands why he did what he did: Why he gambled with the largest amount of cash he would ever get his hands on in one lifetime–money he could not afford to lose. I felt as though I was being at best guided, at worst, told, the moral judgement I should feel about this ‘case.’
Translated by William Rodarmor