Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Shadow IFFP 2012 - Round-Up Number Eight

Today's stop on our Independent Foreign Fiction Prize tour is in Paris, where we'll spend a few hours (and decades) in the company of some interesting - at times infuriating - people.  Allons-y...

Hate: A Romance by Tristan Garcia (translated by Marion Duvert and Lorin Stein)
What's it all about?
Hate is set in Paris at the end of the twentieth century, stretching into the start of the twenty-first, and revolves around four people, very different but each important in the era described.  Gay culture has taken over both the nightlife and the cultural literary scene of the French capital, and Dominique (Doumé) Rossi is one of its chroniclers, a journalist with an eye for the Zeitgeist.  Another keeping a close eye on things is academic and cultural philosopher Jean-Michel Leibowitz (Leibo), who later starts an affair with one of his students, the narrator of the book, Elizabeth (Liz) Lavallois.

It takes the introduction of a fourth character, however, to light the touch paper and put a bomb under the whole story, and that is the indecipherable, incoherent, undeconstructable William (Willy) Miller.  Willy comes to Paris without any real hope or plans, but his open personality and good looks help him to make an impression on the gay scene, eventually leading to him getting together with Dominique.  The shy young man from the provinces grows into a spokesperson for a generation, and his relationship with Rossi raises his profile even further.

This romance occurs just when a shockwave is resounding throughout western society.  A new, incurable illness is cutting a swathe through the youth of the eighties, and it appears to be almost exclusively targeting homosexuals.  As Rossi, scared by the deaths of many of his contemporaries, champions a safe-sex crusade, Willy (by now separated from Dominique) has very different ideas: for him it's time to enjoy life and stand up against the fear-mongering older generation.  This pits the former lovers against each other in a very public battle: from romance, comes hate...

After reading several reviews and chatting to other bloggers about this book, I was actually dreading reading it.  I had shelved my original plan to buy a French copy and reserved an English-language version from the library instead.  Then I sat down to read it... and I loved it.  I read it over two days, but I actually finished it well within twenty-four hours, rushing back to it whenever I had the opportunity.

There's nothing amazing about the actual writing (there's an awful lot of dialogue and narrative moving the action along), but it is a fascinating story, cleverly written and full of references to world and national events of the eighties and nineties.  Anyone who has had to suffer through literary theory classes will recognise a lot of the names mentioned as Garcia namechecks just about anyone who's anyone in the French cultural scene.  Derrida?  Yep.  Foucault?  Best mates.  Bourdieu?  Idiot.  Et cetera, et cetera...

A lot of the focus is on the way a cultural minority was able to subvert mainstream society and marginalise the majority.  Through Leibo, his pop philosopher, Garcia expounds on la pensée unique, the common thought, where society follows ideas blindly.  Leibo irritatedly says:
"You can't pretend that stuff is somehow 'progressive' just because some minority latches onto it, or because it's somehow of the people, or because it's popular."  p.71
It's a little ironic because part of me thinks that he could very well have been talking about the stir caused by the book he appears in ;)

Instead though it's Willy he's talking about, infuriating, ubiquitous, seemingly indestrucible and very much larger than life.  From his obscure origins, Willy rises to the top of Paris' gay subculture, eventually eclipsing his former lover and attempting to destroy him.  He is dumb, but profound, an idiot able to silence intellectuals with a withering burst of invented psychobabble.  Beautiful, narcissistic, self-absorbed and utterly selfish at times, gregarious and funny at others, Willy is a symbol, an icon of the commercialised, packaged society.

Unique as Willy is though, I couldn't help thinking of a character from another novel, another rebel without a cause, a plan or a pot to piss in.  He's a very similar character to Dean Moriarty, Kerouac's archetypal slacker from his novel On the Road.  Moriarty was the symbol of his age, just as Willy is a representative of his, but where we leave the selfish Moriarty at the end of Kerouac's novel, having only seen a part of his story, here we get to witness the whole narrative arc, the rise and inevitable fall.

One difference between the two though is that Willy eventually finds a mission in his conflict with Dominique.  More than a fight between exes, this is a clash of generations, a rebellion by the youth against their fathers.  While Rossi wants to prevent those who have followed him from making the same mistakes he and his friends did, Willy rejects his advice, insisting that he is only trying to validate himself and make his experiences seem special.  Everyone fucks up.  Nothing is learned.  Get out of our way.  Everyone's going to die anyway, so a condom won't save you...

Just as the reader might start to tire of the petty power games, however, the story turns, and we are confronted with something more important, something upsetting.  We begin to see the effects of the bareback, free-love agenda Willy espoused, in the shape of people facing an agonising death.  After the fun and games, Garcia confronts us with the true cost of Willy's selfish actions...

Do you think it deserves to make the shortlist?
At the start of writing this review, I was thinking possibly, but having looked back at what I've written... How can I fail to say yes?  There are flaws, the major one being the narrator, Liz.  She is a weak, contrived character, there solely to connect the three men and move the story along.  It would probably have been difficult to improve her role without radically restructuring the way the novel is set up, but it's still a black mark against an otherwise excellent book.  I've already mentioned that the writing isn't anything special, but Hate isn't about that, it's about the ideas and the story - and they are excellent.  There's so much more I could have written about, and the book is only 272-pages long...

Yep, I'd put it in.

Will it make the shortlist?
It's a possibility.  I'm sure the panellists will enjoy the meta-textual aspects (unless it all gets a little too claustrophobic and close to home).  However, I'm also aware that not everyone has liked this book, and it's a novel that may be looking for the right reader.  I was one, but you can never tell whether the IFFP people will be...

Well, that went on for longer than I'd expected ;)

Not many more to go now - I'll see you next time for another stop on our journey towards the announcement of the winner.  In fact, by the time my next review is posted, we will already know which of the books have made it onto the shortlist.  Exciting times are ahead...