Category Archives: Garnier Pascal

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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