Babies, JFK, and Noir

Sitting in the Jet Blue Terminal at JFK airport, the seductive mid-eighties croon of Foreigner wanting to know what love is surreptitiously filling the air, I realize that airports and children are not that compatible. Not that I am stating some repressed loathing of parents – I have some myself – but judging from their behavior I am not convinced that they are happy people. It seems to involve copious amounts of yelling at short whiney people who never do anything right. Lots of luggage, disobeying, screaming, crying, convincing, persuading, and reprimanding while they wait for their flights to take them to a place where they can do all of that in peace. In the meantime, there is the crying. All of us – me, the kids, the parents. Yes, I digress, because it’s about all I can do right now before I go over to sound off on both the kids and the parents. So, allow me to gather myself together and get back to the business at hand.

International literature! Some of you may know that I ventured to NYC for the Best Translated Book Award of 2008. It was a quaint together at Melville House Publishing in Dumbo(Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass), an upscale artsy section of Brooklyn. There was lots of wine and cheese slices on hand to be had(who doesn’t love the cheddar-jack cheese?) and some exciting translation talk. The winners were announced by the suave Francisco Goldman who mentioned that he hoped whomever received the award would be cute. Yes, indeed, high standards for works in translation. New Directions picked up the award for their poetry book, The Fighting Spirit of the Walnut by Takashi Hiraide, trranslated from the Japanese by Sawako Nakayasu, and Archipelago picked up the fiction award for Tranquility by Attila Bartis, tranlsated by Imre Goldstein. I thought both of these works were well-deserving and I am still haunted by Tranquility. Also, enjoyed some great conversation with Jeff Waxman of the Seminary Coop, cool bookstore in my old city, Chicago. Met the folks from CALQUE whom I look forward to working with in the future because they put out such a stellar journal that focuses on works in translation.

And now to the last bit of news, a review that was originally posted at Three Percent. On staying with my current theme of Paris, this novel Noir by Olivier Pauvert will bring a definite sci-fi thriller vibe to the list of titles I have covered so far. This is Pauvert’s first book and it’s a gripping nightmare that brings to mind the works of Orwell, Huxley and the humor of Vian. This book is fairly twisted, but then what can you expect from a pharmacist who lives in the lazy French countryside? So, friends, peruse the full review and enjoy:

Olivier Pauvert’s Noir — his first and only novel to date — brings nihilism, amorality, and fascism to a dystopian nightmare that manages to make the city of Paris seem less than pleasurable, and even downright frightening. Fans of well-written science fiction will be sucker punched by the direct prose that limns a suspenseful plot permeated with elements of splatterpunk goriness. If that isn’t enough, there is a dominant element of the metaphysical. After the protagonist discovers a gruesome corpse, he is arrested and then dies when the police van he is in careens off the road. He awakens to find that it is twelve years later and that he has not completely died but has returned as a ghost version of himself in the body of man who looks like he has Down’s Syndrome. Our protagonist remains unnamed, and we learn that it is necessary for him to wear sunglasses because, as he quickly learns, he kills any living thing that makes direct eye contact with him. While being chased by the National Militia, he discovers his power to kill with his eye contact:

The two dogs come over towards me, growling. I am not frightened any more, I’ve had enough. Let’s get it over with. I stare at them. The freeze, paralysed, whining. I take a step forward, they lie down on the ballast. When I reach out my hand to touch them they fall to one side, dead. I look up, no one. The dogs are well and truly dead, here in front of me. Their eyes are glassy. There’s white froth drooling from their mouths. I stand their panicking for a moment, turn round, turn back, no one anywhere. What happened?

Constantly on the run for his looks, and in search of the truth to why he is actually back as a Spirit — did he brutally kill and disembowel a girl and hang her from a tree? — he is protected by a black man who finds him sleeping in the métro. The man tells him that he has two hours before daybreak and that he must hide because he recognizes that he is a spirit. After he gives him shelter in his apartment for the night, he explains to our narrator why people fear him:

“I don’t understand any of this. What have I done?”
“I don’t know, that’s for you to find out. I don’t know very much about Spirits like you, and I hardly understand anything about their world. All I can tell you is that, for years now, people who look like you — the simple, the misshapen, the deformed and the ugly — are allowed to be seen: it’s forbidden. It would sully their ideal of Man’s body and soul. That’s why they’re hunting you down, too, that’s why they want to catch you. But you’re not like the Mongols they got rid of at the beginning. You’re like the ones that started appearing later, one of those spirits they value so highly. You need to be careful because they want you really badly. Keep your sunglasses on, be discreet and quick, because you don’t belong down here. Your time here is limited.”

And on the run he goes, stealing, killing those who threaten him and meeting Spirits like himself during his horrific journey to find the truth. As our narrator gets closer to his own truth, he delves deeper into the sinister tactics of the government. Reading as if it were Condon’s The Manchurian Candidate taken to the limit, Pauvert’s novel warns us of the perils of the police state and makes us wonder how close we are.

The plot is intricate and difficult to outline without giving away too much of the novel. But this is a true work of transgressive fiction. To speak of this type of fiction, there is the inevitable comparison to Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World. But what is so interesting about these books is the version of the future they painted within the context of that era. Pauvert manages to give us a thrilling version of dystopia while adding a potent mix of the metaphysical and horror creates an engaging version of transgressive fiction that is relevant to our time in history.

Full of imagination, anarchy, and subtle political commentary, Noir is worthy foray into noir science fiction. You will be too involved with the novel to notice it’s messages about a political dystopia, but when you finish, the future will difficult to forget.

Noir: A Novel by Olivier Pauvert
Translated from the French by Adriana Hunter
Counterpoint Press
234 pages, Paperback
ISBN: 9781582434476

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