Category Archives: Garnier Pascal

Low Heights: Pascal Garnier

In Pascal Garnier’s dark, nastily funny novel, Low Heights, curmudgeonly widower Monsieur Lavenant, almost 75, is the patient from hell. A successful, former business man, Lavenant is still spry and was quite healthy until he was struck by a stroke. Now his left arm and hand are useless, and this incapacity hasn’t helped his temperament improve. Thérèse, his long-suffering private, live-in nurse, whose beatific state provokes Lavenant rather than calms him, is the recipient of most of her employer’s abuse. But after a series of jobs in which she nurses the elderly ill, she’s used to it, and her mind resides in a place where Lavenant’s insults can’t reach her.

Low Heights

When the novel opens, Lavenant has decided to leave his hometown of Lyon and relocate to a home in a village in the Rhone-Alps region. They make a pitstop in the beautiful city of Nyons, but to Lavenant the city is just another series of annoyances. Nothing makes him happy, and Thérèse can’t reason with him:

Just look at that! English, Dutch, Germans, Belgians … Do I go and do my shopping in their countries? No! You’d think we were still under the Occupation.

I could easily have done the shopping on my own; you didn’t have to come.

That’s right, you’d like me to stay shut up in my hole like a rat. I do still have the right to go out, you know.

Once at their new home, Lavenant and Thérèse’s relationship starts to shift. Lavenant begins to mellow and he warms to Thérèse. Can it be possible that all that wonderful mountain air and the peace and quiet of the countryside will improve Lavenant’s temperament? Things are looking up, and then they are surprised by a visit from a young man who claims to be Lavenant’s son.

As is usual with Garnier, expect the unexpected. Low Heights is morbidly, darkly funny with the author’s signature putrid descriptions of people and nature.

It was nice on the terrace. There was a cool breeze from the lake. The fillets of perch were excellent, the service impeccable. yet it was if something like an imperceptible odour of putrefaction hung over this perfect world, accompanied by a worrying ticking sound. 

Garnier’s Too Close to the Edge explores what happens when people move away from the suburbs, and The Islanders explores a Folie à Deux. There are elements of those themes in Low Heights; Lavenant, hardly a reasonable man at the best of times, becomes increasingly eccentric and irascible as he and Thérèse move away from civilization. Garnier seems to argue that any internal moral compass that keeps us in check when we live in cities, disintegrates and disappears the closer we go to nature–nature makes us revert to our animal selves.  The relationship between Lavenant and his nurse becomes increasingly twisted, so much so that Thérèse, a seemingly fairly normal woman (if too bovine) begins to enter Lavenant’s psychosis.

In Low Heights Garnier cynically explores how old people can get away with stuff–rudeness for example. Lavenant exploits his age mercilessly, and his behavior is constantly excused by others. Also examined here is how we bring our personalities to disease, so thoughtless, impatient people who may be barely tolerable when healthy become monstrous when ill.

I liked Low Heights a lot, but it’s still nowhere near my favourite Garnier. For those interested here’s an order of preference. Not that I expect anyone to agree, but there may be a reader out there who wants to try Garnier:

Order of reading preference:

Moon in a Dead Eye

Too Close to the Edge

How’s the Pain

The Front Seat Passenger

The Islanders

Low Heights

Boxes

The Eskimo Solution

The Panda Theory

A-26

Translated by Melanie Florence

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The Eskimo Solution: Pascal Garnier

“He kills people’s parents the way Eskimos leave their elders on a patch of ice because … it’s natural, ecologically sound, a lot more humane and far more economical that endlessly prolonging their suffering in a nursing home. Besides, he’ll hardly be doing them harm; he’ll do the job carefully, every crime professionally planned and tailored to the person like a Club Med holiday.”

In Pascal Garnier’s The Eskimo Solution, an author of children’s stories decides to branch out into a different genre. On a slim advance from his skeptical publisher, he’s rented a house on the Normandy coast, and begins working on a novel about a middle-aged man named Louis who decides to start killing the parents of various friends in order to ‘gift’ his friends with premature inheritances.

Since everything goes to plan, no trouble with the law or anything, he starts killing the parents of friends in need. Of course, he doesn’t tell them what he’s doing-it’s his little secret, pure charity. He’s an anonymous benefactor, if you like.

Gradually the writer begins to identify with his fictional character and the writer’s life spirals out of control as fiction and reality mix in a deadly and disorienting fashion…

the-eskimo-solutiom

Any one reading The Eskimo Solution will have to pay close attention to the text as Garnier melts back and forth into the crime writer’s life and that of his main character and alterego, Louis. The crime writer’s tale is written in the first person while Louis’ story unfolds in the third, so if you get lost it’s fairly easy to pull yourself back and hang onto ‘reality.’ Any sense of confusion, however, isn’t helped by the fact that there’s another Louis, an elderly neighbour in the crime writer’s life. I asked myself why Garnier used the same name twice and concluded that the two characters named Louis–one real, the other fictional–serve to blur the lines between fact and fiction (in this metafictional novel). And as the novel continues with the plot taking the stance of Life Imitates Art, Garnier is clearly dragging the reader into a life spinning out of control.

I really liked parts of The Eskimo Solution; it’s classic Garnier black humour with the crime writer  bemoaning the fact that he has to wait until his parents die until he gets his hands on a meagre inheritance, hoping all the old people will be wiped out by an epidemic, and pissed off asthe fucking doctors have made them practically immortal,” but overall this is not Garnier’s best by a long shot. The novel’s premise had a lot of promise, and if the crime writer had begun following Louis’ lead, this would have been a much stronger novel. Indeed, Garnier seems to play with this possibility–he even places two elderly people in the path of the crime writer. The elderly neighbours, Arlette and (another) Louis are harmless and sweet, but since the crime writer’s fictional Louis has been bumping off people over 50 at an alarming rate, Garnier dangles the murder of Arlette and Louis as a tantalizing possibility.

Anyway, if you’re a Garnier fan as I am (and this is novel number 9) you won’t be able to resist. The Eskimo Solution shows a middle-aged man chomping at the bit to get his hands on his parents’ money, and like many a writer before him, he uses fiction to resolve the issues in his life. Given that I’ve talked to so many people in the last few years who dumped their elderly parents in ‘rest homes’ while they cleared out their estates, selling off all the parents’ worldly goods asap, this novel hit a chord for me. Garnier illuminates the dark wish of many early middle-aged children, drags it to daylight, and takes it to a typical Garnier-ish conclusion. Garnier’s work can’t all be as good as Moon in a Dead Eye, and when you start reading a large number of novels from any writer, it’s inevitable that you rank them in order of preference. While I wasn’t crazy about The Eskimo Solution, it had its merits in spite of its flaws.

Order of reading preference:

Moon in a Dead Eye

Too Close to the Edge

How’s the Pain

The Front Seat Passenger

The Islanders

Boxes

The Eskimo Solution

The Panda Theory

A-26

Here’s another review at Words and Peace

Review copy

Translated by Emily Boyce and Jane Aitken

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The A-26: Pascal Garnier

Regular readers of this blog know that I’m a fan of Pascal Garnier. With A-26, I’ve now read 8 of his novels, and sad to say, I finally found one I disliked. Of course, I was forewarned by Max’s review. A-26 was, unfortunately, Max’s first Garnier, and if it had been my first Garnier, it might well have been my last…

A-26 is the story of two siblings: Bernard and his insane sister Yolande. Wait a minute … I’ve made it sound as though Bernard is sane. He’s employed, takes care of Yolande (in a very loosely defined way) and even has a relationship with a former girlfriend, the resentful Jacqueline (now unhappily married to some other sucker). But Bernard isn’t normal at all … he’s a serial killer, and a sick one at that.

A26

A-26 had some of the hallmark signs of the other Garnier novels I’ve read (and loved)–the idea that when you kill someone you are doing them a favour by sparing them more time in this horrible world, a sparse yet descriptive style and the continual motif of death and decay. Yolande (otherwise known rather appropriately as Yoyo) is a hoarder who has refused to step outside of her home since her head was shaved for sleeping with a German during WWII. As far as Yoyo’s concerned WWII still rages outside her door and while Bernard may say he’s going off to work, he’s really part the Resistance. Yoyo’s only contact with the outside world is through a hole drilled for her benefit in the shutter.

Depending on her mood, she called it the ‘bellybutton’ or the ‘world’s arsehole.’

Yolande and Bernard’s world spins to its end stage when Bernard is diagnosed with terminal cancer. He isn’t afraid to die, and neither is he particularly sorry to leave the world behind. Living with his insane sister who spends her days concocting the most appalling meals, death will be a release for Bernard. Meanwhile Yoyo’s big concern is where to find the space for his body:

‘Bernard’s not gone to work today, he wasn’t up for it. He’s getting tireder and tireder, thinner and thinner. His body’s like this house, coming apart at the seams. Where am I going to put him when he’s dead? There’s not a bit of space left anywhere. We’ll get by, we’ve always got by, ever since I can remember. Nothing has ever left this house, even the toilet’s blacked up. We keep everything. Some day, we won’t need anything else, it’ll all be here, for ever.’

For this reader, while the themes of A-26 certainly fit with the other Garnier novels I’ve read, the black humour, so characteristic in his novels, couldn’t wash away the bad taste of several scenes: the death of victims and the cruelty to animals. While I often feel as though I don’t care what happens to Garnier’s despicable characters, I am, at least, interested in their destructive and self-destructive journeys as the novels careen towards the grand finales. In the case of A-26, I couldn’t care less.

Both Moon in a Dead Eye and Too Close to the Edge concern people who make disastrous retirement decisions, and as it turns out life in a gated community and in the bucolic countryside (respectively) is far more dangerous than living in the big city. While bad things happen to people, there’s the nagging feeling that they’ve brought it upon themselves–at least partly. How’s the Pain? is the story of a dying hit man who hooks up with a rather guileless young man. The juxtaposition of these two characters–dark and light–brings balance to the tale. In The Front Seat Passenger, the main character deserves what he gets. The Islanders concerns another whacko set of siblings, and while the novel takes a turn towards madness, plied with disgusting details, these characters, for the most part, turn on each other. The Panda Theory pushed my acceptance in a couple of scenes, but IMO A-26 went over the edge in its descriptions. Yoyo’s madness is intriguing, but the scenes involving animals left me with no room to care about these people who are a waste of oxygen. I get that Bernard and Yoyo’s life is threatened by the imminent arrival of a motorway, but A-26 for this reader was just unpleasant.

I delayed reading A-26 as I’d read Max’s negative review and had no new Garnier novels in sight. I didn’t want the last one I read to leave a bad memory, but The Eskimo Solution is due to be released 9/16.

So for anyone interested, here’s an order of reading preference:

Moon in a Dead Eye

Too Close to the Edge

How’s the Pain

The Front Seat Passenger

The Islanders

Boxes

The Panda Theory

A-26

translated by Melanie Florence.

 

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Too Close to the Edge: Pascal Garnier

Too Close to the Edge  is classic Pascal Garnier; it’s dark, it’s nasty, full of bitter ironies and the plot takes aim at some very specific societal taboos.

too close to the edge

Widow Éliette has finally, after a year of mourning for Charles, her husband of forty years, arrived at a place of some contentment. They’d bought a former silk farm thirty years earlier and spent “every spare moment” fixing it up while planning to retire to this imagined peaceful, bucolic life. “They had already started packing for their move from the Parisian suburbs to this Saint-Vincent house in the Ardèche, where life was supposed to be a never ending holiday” when cancer hit, and Charles died just two months before his retirement. Éliette, against the advice of her children, Sylvie and Marc, went ahead with the retirement plans and now lives alone. They think she’s courting disaster; she can’t drive and the nearest village is 8 kilometres away.

Part of the reason that Éliette decides to move to the country is to establish a life for herself and not just be ‘the mother’ or ‘the grandmother’ to her children and their offspring. In fact relationships with her family have become an obligation, an annoyance more than anything else. She’s dreading an upcoming visit which she knows will be as tedious to her as it is so her children. She even makes excuses to get off the phone:

Of course she loved her children and her children’s children just as she might love the sky, the trees, the mountains, life in general–but after two days in their company she could no longer stand the sight of them.

Éliette relies on her neighbours, the Jauberts who own a farm 2 kilometres away. They see themselves as Éliette’s “protectors,” and in time the relationship has become “burdensome” to Éliette who finds the forced socialization boring.  Shapeless Rose Jaubert wears “disgusting” nylon overalls every day because they’re so easy to hose off, and Paul Jaubert is a veteran of the Algerian war who harbours, as it turns out, violent homophobic behaviour.

It’s due to the dependence on the Jauberts that Éliette finally decides to buy an Aixam (I had to look this up,) which gives her independence and “changed her life.” In a novel full of black ironies, this “microcar” is the factor that opens the floodgates to the hellish events that occur for the rest of the book.

At 64, Éliette is still an attractive woman–slim “as though time had polished her with beeswax,” and she’s feeling a little frisky in the supermarket in Montélimar “convinced that every man in the shop was staring at her.”

In the vegetable aisle, she blushed as it dawned on her she had filled her trolley with courgettes, aubergines, carrots, cucumbers and even an enormous long white turnip weighing nearly 300 grams, which she struggled to make herself see in a culinary light. It was stronger than she was; a kind of inflammation of her mind was slowly turning the supermarket into a sex shop.

After buying some sexy underwear, she’s driving home when the Aixam has a puncture. There she is stuck on a country road in a rainstorm, miles from anywhere when an attractive middle-aged man in a three-piece suit, carrying a briefcase trudges up the road:

It was like a scene out of a Western: beneath a low sky, a stranger walks calmly towards his widescreen destiny.

Is the stranger going to be the man of Éliette’s dreams, or is his arrival the beginning of a nightmare? For those of you familiar with Garnier’s work, that’s a rhetorical question. I particularly liked this Garnier novel because it reminded me of Simenon’s Romans Durs (although much darker and much more perverse) for the way we see a main character who takes very little encouragement to go off the rails. I’m always fascinated by this sort of behaviour as it generates so many questions about human motivations.

Too Close to the Edge will probably make my best-of-year list. This is not a novel that would ever get the Booker, but if you’re at all familiar with Garnier, you know what to expect. I’ve read several Garnier novels so far, and here they are listed in order of preference:

Moon in a Dead Eye

Too Close to the Edge

How’s the Pain?

The Front Seat Passenger

The Islanders

Boxes

The Panda Theory.

Garnier is merciless with his characters, and in Too Close to the Edge, the sheltered Éliette, with her gardening plans and her new recipes, is the character who’s about to receive some painful lessons in life. Garnier seems to delight in stripping away bourgeois conventions and morality as he brings on the ‘true’ realities of his dark, amoral world: murder, greed, lust, and violence.  After now reading 7 Garnier novels, it’s a good time to make some generalized comments about his themes.

  1. Don’t retire to the countryside
  2. Don’t pick up strangers
  3. Don’t wish for anything, because you’ll get it and wish you hadn’t.

Review copy.

Translated by Emily Boyce

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Boxes: Pascal Garnier

Pascal Garnier’s book Boxes opens with the illustrator Brice moving from Lyon to St Joseph, a village in Valence. It’s November and Brice is miserable and “furious with [his wife] Emily for having left him helpless and alone.” In time, we learn that Emily, a journalist, fell in love with this house two months earlier, and even though she’s absent, Brice has continued with their plans to move.

All Brice could recall of that visit were fragments, like those which come back to you from a long-gone dream. It was dark, and he was hungry and tired. The estate agent, squeezed into his cheap little pinstriped suit, had followed them round like a poodle and, since he had no sales pitch, turned on all the electric light switches-clickety click-to prove that everything had been redone.

That quote is a perfect example of Garnier’s style and bleak, darkly humorous vision. We see the estate agent, plump, pitifully eager and hopeful that he will make a sale. There are no personal details about the estate agent, the colour of his hair or eyes, and Garnier couldn’t care less about his marital status–he’s just a pathetic sad little man on his hamster treadmill, desperately trying to make a living.

But back to Brice… Garnier gives us a few pages of that special kind of hell … moving from one home to another–underscored by Brice’s thoughts that he made a mistake.

Now stone walls and ceilings weighed down by enormous beams were leaning in on him, menacingly. It was extremely cold, and dim like in a cave. He opened the blinds in the dining room and living room, but the dishwater-coloured light which poured in did nothing to warm the atmosphere. It was like being in an aquarium without the fish.

‘A burial plot for life, that’s what we’ve bought ourselves.’

The move  “put an end to ten years of a life so perfect that it seemed it would last forever.” But the house in Saint Joseph was Emily’s choice and Emily’s project, and so Brice is going along for the ride. But where is Emily? Clearly he expects Emily to return and their happy married life to continue. The big question becomes … where is Emily? Is she dead? Has she left Brice, a man clearly teetering on the edge? Emily’s parents call occasionally to check to see how Brice is faring alone, and there are some badly connected phone calls from Emily. The story behind Emily’s absence is slowly pieced together over the course of the novel.

boxesAuthor Pascal Garnier also wrote children’s books. It’s not easy to mesh Garnier’s dark novels with the children’s author side of his career, but perhaps Brice is Garnier on the other side of the mirror. Brice creates the illustrations for a series of Sabine novels and now loathes the fictional child, the fleshy author who created her, and children in general:

Children are ogres, vampires. You only have to look at their young parents–the mothers with their dried-up breasts, the empty-handed fathers–to grasp the sheer greed of these merciless cannibals. They get us in the prime of life and ruin our secret gardens with their red tricycles and bouncy balls that flatten everything like wrecking balls. They transform our lovers into fat women, drooling blissfully as they feel their bellies, and turn us into idiots numb with exhaustion, pushing supermarket trolleys overflowing with bland food stuffs. They get angry with us because they’re midgets, obliging us to punish them and regret it. On the beach they play at burying us or dig holes to push us into. That’s all they dream of: taking our place. They’re ashamed of us, are sorry they’re not orphans, but still ape us horribly. Later they ransack our drawers, and become more and more stupid as their beards grow, their breasts grow, their teeth grow. Soon, like past years, we no longer see them. They’ll reappear only to chuck a handful of earth or a withered rose on to our coffin and argue over the leftovers. Children are Nazis; they recognize only one race: their own.

Boxes is not my favourite Garnier novel. Plot wise, Boxes seems weaker than the other Garniers I’ve read, but the malicious joy found here resides in Garnier’s unique world vision. The picturesque village, for example, according to Garnier, is something grotesque and diseased; from one central house, the village appears to have spread “developing like secondary tumours.” There is one hilarious section involving Brice’s opinion of Meccano, and it’s a perfect example of Garnier’s skill. The passage sums up the author’s way of capturing the collective disappointments of humankind as we struggle to survive in this merciless world.

Boxes is a story of madness and just what happens when one vulnerable person meets someone who is deranged. It’s a topic touched on in Garnier’s  Islanders–a story in which two functional (or semi functional) people connect and descend in a self-destructive spiral- a folie à deux.

For those interested, I’m listing Garnier novels in my order of preference, and that means that some have to go towards the bottom of the pile; but even the bottom of the pile is damn good.

Moon in a Dead Eye

How’s the Pain?

The Front Seat Passenger

The Islanders

The Panda Theory

Boxes

Cleopatra Loves Books reviewed Boxes

Translated by Melanie Florence

Review copy/personal copy

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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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The Front Seat Passenger by Pascal Garnier

Pascal Garnier’s novel, Moon in a Dead Eye, is set in a gated retirement community, and concerns a set of paranoid residents who worry about who might get inside; really they should have been more worried about each other. That same dark irony is at the heart of Garnier’s The Front Seat Passenger–a short novel which concerns a widower who isn’t exactly mourning for his dead wife.  

Fabien is a wonderful Garnier creation, for this author seems to excel in formulating characters who don’t possess appropriate emotions. That’s certainly true in The Panda Theory, a novel in which the main character, Gabriel travels to Brittany and befriends a number of people who seem to think he’s the solution to their many problems. In the case of Gabriel, a lack of appropriate emotions is deadly whereas in The Front Seat Passenger, Fabien’s inappropriate responses leave him open to a very dangerous situation. There’s something off about Fabien; he’s not likeable, and so in a sense he deserves what he gets.

the front seat passengerFabien is visiting his father–a man who never recovered from his wife, Charlotte’s desertion thirty-five years earlier. After hearing that she has died, he’s gone into full-blown mourning, and Fabien doesn’t understand his father’s deep sense of loss. This mystery of emotion eludes Fabien, and in a way its absence protects him, but only for part of the novel. Here’s how Fabien feels about children, so it’s just as well he doesn’t have any:

To Fabien children were just receptacles that you constantly had to empty and fill. They clung to you for years, and as soon as they took themselves adults, they reproduced and ruined your holidays with their offspring.

Upon returning home to Paris, Fabien receives the news that his wife, Sylvie, has been killed in a car accident along with her married lover. Fabien is flabbergasted. While he was aware that he was having marriage problems, he had no idea that Sylvie was having an affair. After identifying Sylvie’s body, Fabien asks questions about the man who died in the car with Sylvie. He tells the police that he and the dead man are, after all,  “sort of related now.”

Exactly why does Fabien track down and proceed to stalk, Martine, the frail, shy woman married to Sylvie’s dead lover? Is he curious? Does he seek revenge? Does he think he has some sort of ‘right’ to Martine in a spoils-of-war mentality? Or is it just that he has nothing better to do? Why is he so obsessed with this mouse?

the other man’s wife looked singularly uninteresting, She was a pale blonde of about thirty, with staring blue eyes, practically no lips, and dressed in navy and beige. She looked like an overexposed photo, with so little presence that one wondered if she was capable of casting a shadow.

Martine may be a widow, but she has a constant companion, Madeleine–a “muscular fifty-year-old with the sharp eye of a bodyguard,”–the keeper of her figurative chastity belt. Fabien stalks the two women, waiting for his opportunity to approach Martine without her duenna/bodyguard, and when he discovers that the two women are planning a holiday in Majorca, he decides to follow them….

This is a scenario that’s ripe for various unfolding disasters, but that’s as much of the plot as I’m going to discuss. I’ll add another long quote, however, from the section describing Fabien’s chaotic living arrangements with his friend Gilles. Fabien, claiming to “feel nothing,” can’t stand being in his own apartment surrounded by Sylvie’s things, so he moves in with the divorced Gilles, whose wife Fanchon has moved out, taking most of the furniture and leaving the fridge, the TV and the stove. The place looks like it’s been burgled. Gilles, who’s unemployed, sits around smoking Columbian weed, and shares custody of his small son with his ex-wife. Fabien fits right in with the chaos surrounding Gilles:

An open space filled with toys and smoke. Fabien decided he liked the new décor. After half an hour neither of them were giving a thought to their pitiful status as abandoned males. They were on all fours on the carpet building a dream Lego city and arguing over the bricks.

‘No! You can’t have the chimney. I need all the chimneys! It’s for a reception area for Santa Clauses. Don’t you get it?’

‘Ok, but pass me the red staircase; everything in the temple has to be red.’

Why did no one ever point out the delights of unemployment? Whilst everyone else was dashing about, coming and going, bent under the weight of their responsibilities and worries, two middle-aged mates, one widowed, one divorced, were happily playing Lego at four o’clock on a weekday afternoon.

“Gilles, can you hear animal scrabblings in the kitchen?’

‘That’s Casimir. The stupid bitch took the hamster cage without noticing that he wasn’t inside. I’ve bunged him in the oven in the meantime. Otherwise he eats everything.’

Something approaching life began to flow in Fabien’s veins.

In Emma’s review, she mentioned that ‘The Front Seat Passenger’ translates to La Place du Mort: the deadman’s place/seat. Here taking that seat in a car is called ‘riding shotgun.’ It’s strange, but both of those phrases: deadman’s place and ‘riding shotgun’ can be applied to the plot.

This is now the fourth novel I’ve read by Garnier, and once again I’ll urge any fans of Jean-Patrick Manchette to check out Garnier. Garnier has the blacker, nastier sense of humour, but there are many connections between these two French crime writers–brevity, energy, irony, attitude towards the bourgeoisie, and the sucker punch of characters who find others more violently explosive or more unpredictably psycho than themselves. And for anyone interested, here’s my order of preference for Garnier so far:

Moon in a Dead Eye

How’s the Pain? (very closely tied with)  The Front Seat Passenger

The Panda Theory.

Review copy/own a copy

Translated by Jane Aitken

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Moon in a Dead Eye by Pascal Garnier

Yes, it was like living on holiday, the only difference being that holidays came to an end. It was as though they had bought themselves a ticket to the afterlife; they no longer had a future.”

I thought when I read How’s the Pain, I’d found my favourite Pascal Garnier novel, but the decision was premature. How could I know what was in store for me in Moon in a Dead Eye, a darkly funny look at a ‘dream’ gated retirement community and its handful of pathetic inhabitants. Over the past few years, I’ve noticed that people sometimes make strange retirement decisions–some move across country to places they’ve only ever visited briefly; others move to houses they’ve bought sight-unseen over the internet, others strip their retirement nesteggs to build dream retirement homes out in the middle of nowhere only to find themselves running out of money or ripped off by contractors, and spouses who’ve lived together for 40 years decide they can’t take another day, pack a suitcase and split.   All these observations and memories came back to me as I read Moon in a Dead Eye

Moon in a dead eyeMartial and Odette Sudre retire from Paris to Les Conviviales, a retirement community in the Midi. Concerned about the increased violence in their Parisian neighbourhood, the retirement community seemed to be the ideal alternative–especially when the estate agent told them that they “exactly fitted the owner profile the property company was seeking.” It was a hard-pressure sell, and Martial and Odette, narcotized by the thought they’d be surrounded by people just like them, signed on the dotted line….

Now, three months later, it’s December and Martial and Odette arrive to discover that they are the sole inhabitants of the community. True, there’s Monsieur Flesh,  a caretaker-manager, a surly antisocial type, but what happened to all the other promised residents, the activities director, the sunny weather? But not to worry… there’s another couple due to arrive in March or April.

Martial and Odette are like shipwreck survivors washed up in a ghost town. Odette, the one who pushed for the move in the first place, refuses to be unhappy with their decision to move, so she throws herself into her new life and hobbies which is probably just as well as there’s nothing else to do. First she starts making crappy apple jelly, and then moves on to torturing her husband with culinary ‘surprises’ from around the world. Imagine how thrilled they are when someone else finally moves in. Maxime (with his false teeth and dyed black hair)  and former ballerina Marlene Node, another retired couple of course, move in up the street. From a distance the Nodes seem younger than the Sudres, but up close, it’s a different story. If these two couples met elsewhere, they’d instinctively avoid one another, but if there are only four of you living inside a gated community, you don’t have a choice but to become friends.

They engaged in the customary small talk for a quarter of an hour, all the while studying each other closely out of the corners of their eyes, like naturalists examining a newly discovered species.

So now we have 4 people, 2 couples in this forced friendship created by circumstance. Then a fifth person moves, a younger, single woman named Léa. By this point, the other four residents are desperate for a new face:

She had been a little taken aback to find the four of them on her doorstep. The removal men had only just left and she had barely had time to get her breath back. They stood there smiling like Jehovah’s witnesses, the tall one especially, Maxime Node. He was the one who introduced everybody, showing them off as though trying to get a good price for them. Then they all began talking at once, each of them impressing on her their willingness to help. They didn’t seem like bad people, but they still frightened her a bit. Too eager, too smiley, too many outstretched hands … so old and wrinkled it was hard to tell whether they were grasping or giving.

A gated community exists to keep out the riff-raff, and the residents who buy into such an arrangement are happy with that idea. M. Flesh is there to make sure that the outside world doesn’t creep in and intrude on their fabricated middle-class isolation, but the lengths he goes to are extreme. Plus then there’s the whole gate part of ‘gated community.’ At what point do you become locked in instead of the world being locked out? When gypsies move in and set up an encampment down the road outside of  Les Conviviales, paranoia reigns and all hell breaks loose.

Moon in a Dead Eye is savagely hilarious, and most of the humour comes from snobbery & paranoia. Garnier doesn’t spare his characters; they’re a sad lot whose empty lives become worse when they move into this gated community.  Aging lothario Maxime sees the poor as “vermin” infesting society, and when he’s inside a gated community with people in his own economic sphere, he can only associate with a couple in his peer group. In theory this should comfort Maxime, but the isolation only fuels his paranoia. Maxime finds the company of people his own age disconcerting as he’s spent the last few years denying the fact that he’s aging, and he spends a considerable amount of time and energy to disguising, unsuccessfully, his age. Living in a retirement community just confirms the fact that Maxime is no longer young, and this fuels his feeling of exposure and vulnerability. The ‘security’ of the gated community feeds the paranoia gnawing at Maxime until any difference seems unacceptable and threatening:

A lezzie, that’s what she was! A dirty bloody lezzie! … The only reason they’d bought this dump was because they’d been assured their neighbours would be of a certain caliber, no one too foreign, no dogs, no cats, no children or grandchildren for more than two weeks at a time … Well, if they were going to let lesbians in, it would be fairy boys next!.

While in the past in Orléans, feeling as though he lived a life under siege, Maxime carried a revolver, but he’s no more secure now–especially after the gypsies appear. They’re just more people who according to Maxime are “out to get us and take our things.” Living in isolation, even in a place that theoretically safe, hasn’t done Maxime any favours.

They had been burgled three times in recent years. The residential neighbourhood of Orléans  where they had lived for many moons had become a prime target for the scum who came in from the outlying boroughs. Nothing could stop them, not the most sophisticated alarm systems or the patrols that took place day and night. They were everywhere and nowhere, gnawing away like vermin at the foundations of the stable, quiet life people had worked so hard to build.

Living in this retirement community is a sort of living-death, a hibernation phase just prior to the permanence of death. Garnier shows how this sort of isolation is unhealthy and contributes to the idea that any sort of difference (class, wealth) feeds paranoia. Although the subject matter is different from the dying hitman of How’s the Pain and the disaffected killer in The Panda Theory, once again I’m reminded of Jean-Pierre Manchette, probably because of Garnier’s merciless view of the bourgeoisie. 

Review copy/own a copy.Translated by Emily Boyce

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How’s the Pain? by Pascal Garnier

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….

How's the painAs 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.

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The Panda Theory by Pascal Garnier

In Pascal Garnier’s bleak, dark novel The Panda Theory, a man named Gabriel arrives in a small “nondescript” town in Brittany. He has no specific purpose there, and he could be termed a drifter–except for the fact that he has means. He checks into the town’s small hotel, and from then on becomes involved with a handful of the town’s inhabitants who invite him into their sad lives. It would be a stretch to say that he makes friends as these relationships aren’t quite ‘normal.’ Instead he meets various troubled people and becomes involved in their problems. It’s as if he’s the solution these people are looking for, and I suppose, in a nasty way, he is.

the panda theoryGabriel has no clear purpose in town–he’s not there on business, he has no relatives nearby; he’s just there. And within a few hours of his arrival, he’s eyed as a prospect by the hotel’s attractive single receptionist, Madeleine, invited to eat with José, the owner of the town bistro whose wife, Marie is in hospital with an as-yet undiagnosed cyst or tumour, and befriended by a couple of lowlifes, a prostitute named Rita and her lover, Marco. While all these characters–Madeleine, José, Rita and Marco, invite Gabriel into their sad, pathetic lives and pour their endless stream of misery and personal problems into his ears, he just soaks up this information like a sponge. He seems to be a good listener, asks nothing in return and shows empathy for his small circle of fresh acquaintances. Suddenly José is relying on Gabriel for companionship (and meals), Madeleine hopes for love and sex, Rita’s looking for a meal ticket, and Marco, who’s hoping for a fat inheritance from his aging, estranged father, looks for money.  Marco and Rita, eternally down on their luck, are in town waiting for the old man, “a bag of decaying organs,”  to die:

The man and the woman sat opposite one another with their arms folded. They leant over two empty coffee cups, their foreheads nearly touching, looking like two bookends on an empty bookshelf. The man was well into his forties, his face was angular and gaunt with deep-set eyes, hollow cheeks and nostrils. His greasy hair was swept back off his face and curled on his coat collar. The woman had her back to Gabriel, but he could see a little of her face in the mirror. She looked disreputable; a dusting of white powder coated her blotches, spots and wrinkles. She resembled a cake that had been left for too long in a shop window.

Gabriel, and of course, the name brings up biblical references, seems to have appeared in these people’s lives at the moment they needed him most, but is he a savior there to solve their problems? Well in a way… . Asked by Madeleine about his work he replies that he provides a “service.” Gabriel considers that people’s lives are destined to full of unhappiness in a universe without meaning and “no difference between good and evil.” According to Gabriel,  “Happiness is a calamity you can never recover from. As soon as you catch a glimpse of it, the door slams shut and you spend the rest of your life bitterly regretting what is no more.”  The novel is interspersed with Gabriel’s recollections of his past and it’s gradually revealed why he feels we live in a bleak universe and why he believes that happiness is treacherous.

The street swarmed with extras but there was no audience, or director. And there was probably no script either. Everybody wandered around without aim or purpose, hesitant and unable to find their place. Perhaps that was the intention. It wasn’t unusual to bump into the same person in different parts of town; grim-faced, lost in thought and waiting, in the absence of a revelation, for some sort of sign. The entire town seemed on standby. The sky was equally unsettled, with threatening clouds, light rain and intermittent flashes of lightning. Swarms of minuscule gnats, impervious to swiping hands, buzzed overhead. Nothing made sense. If being alive was just a hobby then how could you be sure that there would be a tomorrow? Just as there was no guarantee there had been a yesterday. It was a day to kill someone for no reason.

The blurb on the front cover states that the novel is “darkly humorous.” I wouldn’t go that far–although if there is humour here, it’s gallows humour. The story is bleak (I said that already) in its depiction of the human condition and depressing, but it is also a thought-provoking novel in its attitude towards a random act of meaningless violence and its subsequent impact on a numbed Gabriel. He carries his burden to those who invite him into their difficult, troubled lives and pour their tragedies and disappointments onto his head. Garnier shows us types of violence: the random meaningless variety and the targeted kind–to quote Kem Nunn’s new novel, Chance, “there are no victims, only volunteers.”

 When reading this novel, I had to get beyond a certain feeling of repugnance in the novel’s references to disease, meat, and decay which underscore the sordidness of human existence. Rita and Marco’s relationship, for example is compared to “traveling in the same carriage stinking of feet, you manage to find your little corner of intimacy.” A tongue in someone’s mouth is described as “wriggling meat,” and Rita with her hairy armpits, looks like “a piece of meat lying on a cloth ready to be sliced up.” The novel is full of images of death and dying worked cleverly into the plot to build foreboding and doom:

The TV screen spewed a stream of incoherent images and gurgling sounds, like blood bubbling from a slit throat.

Gabriel also seems obsessed with meat. When he’s not carting around a bloody shoulder of lamb, cooking calves’ liver, or tearing off pieces of practically raw chicken from the carcass, he’s thinking about food. Food and death are connected in Gabriel’s mind, and by the time you come to the end of the book, you’ll know why. The issue of whether or not I liked this novel seems irrelevant, and I’m still chewing that over. There’s a philosophical aspect to this story that takes the plot beyond like or dislike, and instead it’s a matter of our response to Gabriel’s mission. There’s enough ‘meat’ here to keep a Philosophy class debating for hours.

Stu has also read and reviewed this book.

Translated from French by Gallic Books.

review copy

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