A perfect black comedy

autoroutePascal Garnier The A26
Gallic Books 2013
Melanie Florence, translator

Roads. Railway lines. Lives.
Where do they begin and end?
But end they must. Dead.

It’s the early nineties and a motorway is carving its way through the northeast French countryside. The construction of the A26 (the autoroute des Anglais as it now known) in its impersonal way inevitably affects the communities in its vicinity, disrupting lives in unforeseen ways and, in this novella, becoming an unexpected harbinger of death.

During the Second World War Yolande, as a wayward and sexually precocious teenager, earned the fierce disapproval of her compatriots for associating with a young German soldier, and was brutally punished as a result. Traumatised, she remained incarcerated at home for the remainder of the war and beyond, developing a paranoia about strangers and the outside world. Her younger brother Bernard, with whom she lives, does engage with life however, and is now nearing retirement from French national railway SNCF. Against the background of the arrival of the motorway the scene is set for many personal tragedies: the construction trenches are just so reminiscent of the blight that successive conflicts – the Franco-Prussian wars of the late 19th century and the global wars of the 20th – have visited on this corner of France that communities risk being devastated in similar fashion.

Garnier has crafted a perfect black comedy, with a cast of characters all equally mesmerising and individually flawed. The two siblings are ripe for disaster, Yolande living in a continuous present which remains rooted in the past, Bernard denying the inevitability of death from cancer by refusing to acknowledge it while, in periods of apparent remission, indulging in shockingly inappropriate acts.

Others lives interact with the siblings, from the chance encounters Bernard has on his solitary drives away from the claustrophobic confines of home to those whom Bernard and Yolande knew back during the war. Jacqueline and Bernard had been sweethearts but she had gone on to marry the irascible Roland who perpetually suspected her of affairs with Bernard. In addition Roland’s unfortunately resemblance to his father André, the chief architect of Yolande’s humiliation, leads to a conclusion that with hindsight seems inevitable.

What makes this miniature (exactly a hundred pages in this edition) so compelling is its combination of virtues. There are striking images and descriptive passages – Yolande sorting buttons or hurling missiles at rats, Bernard’s microscopic vision of Jacqueline’s face marked by encroaching age – combined with Garnier’s ability to get into the mindset of his characters. Seeing life (and death) through their eyes the reader is manipulated into acquiescing to their extreme actions, a technique that Patricia Highsmith famously displayed in The Talented Mr Ripley. While some of the protagonists are blameless (unless being human is in itself blameworthy) the major players all display features that range from that of the sociopath to the psychopath. Where they may lack empathy for others, Garnier demonstrates empathy for them and conveys that to us, making us almost complicit in their deeds.

Without seeing the original I can’t comment on the accuracy of Melanie Florence’s rendition but it certainly doesn’t read like a literal translation, flowing quite easily with no obvious awkward idiomatic hiccups. Garnier himself died in 2010 but his novels are gradually being published in English by Gallic Books with support from the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs. On the basis of this offering I shall certainly be looking out for more of the same.

I was predisposed to enjoy this by Tomcat’s insightful review, which is available here: http://wp.me/pWuJh-tR

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4 thoughts on “A perfect black comedy

  1. Many thanks for the link – I’m flattered; and I’m so glad you enjoyed the book.
    This is a brilliant review: it’s always great to see people writing about books that’re decidedly outside of the literary mainstream. I liked your points about the construction trenches being mimetic of similar wartime structures – which I have to admit passed me by – but you’re absolutely right, of course: a very insightful observation, thanks!

    I too will be seeking out more books by Garnier – it seems criminal that only now, after his death, he’s starting to be translated into English.
    Tom.

    1. Thanks! Yes, looking forward to catching some of the other published titles; came across this by chance in a local bookshop in Fishguard, so hoping they’ve got some more.

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