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TWO BY JEAN ECHENOZ
Dalkey Archive ($12.95)
New Press ($21.95)
by Andrew Palmer
French writer Jean Echenoz is the author of ten acclaimed novels, seven of which have been translated into English. He was already a popular novelist in his homeland before I'm Gone came out in 1999, but when that novel won the Prix Goncourt—roughly the equivalent of the National Book Award—he became a household name. Now, with the recent publication of two more English translations of his work by the estimable Mark Polizzotti, Echenoz stands ripe for further recognition in this country.
Chopin's Move, originally published in 1989, is a slim, crackling, refraction of a spy novel which both participates in and perverts the genre. Its cast of characters includes Franck Chopin, the protagonist, an entomologist turned spy whose signature method is to attach "bugs" to living flies; Vito Piranese, a one-legged spy who trails Chopin and seems to be the protagonist until he's dropped from the novel for good after chapter two; Colonel Seck, an upper level agent who we don't discover is black until two-thirds of the way through the novel; and sundry other shadowy players who tend to fulfill neither their personal and professional expectations nor the reader's expectations of them as characters in a novel. The story involves Chopin getting mixed up with a high roller economist and his chess aficionado thugs, as well as with a lonely seductress whose husband disappeared six years ago. We're tossed back and forth from the not-so-gay north side of Paris to a posh hotel and wooded resort in the country (with plenty of deserted warehouses and suburban wastelands in between), trying to keep up with the constant realignment of affections and allegiances. That Echenoz manages to keep us interested, despite the unapologetically flat characters and the obliquest of plots, is no small feat.
His main weapon in this struggle is his measured, articulate, meticulous prose, infused with sly, playful humor. He shuns extended psychological explorations in favor of elaborate, high-definition descriptions of surface phenomena—clothes, building exteriors, wall paper, peripheral figures, and the like—with a sharp eye for the odd or off-kilter:
The overripe pianist from teatime had been replaced by an organist of similar age, whose russet toupee slipped a notch and in the same direction as his spirited movements, and one of his contact lenses sometimes fell on the keyboard of the Hammond organ: without skipping a kneaded beat, he sought his missing lens between two black keys, quickly spat on it, and glued it back to his cornea.
Passages like this, seemingly divorced from all plot considerations and character development, are sprinkled liberally throughout the novel, hovering just outside the edges of symbol or clue. Often they seem to be there simply for the reader to delight in their photographic specificity.
Such distracted freeze-frames also provide an ironic counterbalance to the madcap, spy game plot, which hops along in spite of itself. Chapters are short; perspectives shift; things happen quickly. Chopin's Move is a breezy book filled with studied prose, but what ultimately keeps the pages turning are not the story or characters, but the sentences.
Piano, published in France last year, walks a similar razor's edge between story and playfully descriptive asides. Here, though, it's a single, strong protagonist who carries us through from beginning to end. Max Delmarc is a world class Parisian concert pianist with a horrible case of stage fright, which he treats with large doses of pre-performance alcohol. He lives with his sister and dreams of meeting a woman whom he saw but never spoke to more than twenty years ago. The narrator tells us on the first page, "He is going to die a violent death in twenty-two days but, as he is yet unaware of this, that is not what he is afraid of," and, indeed, before the end of part one of this short, three-part novel, he's stabbed to death by a mugger. Part two takes place in purgatory, a surreal hospital/hostel/prison called the "Orientation Center." Max is nursed to health and then seduced by Doris Day, and another employee there just might be Dean Martin. The director of the center informs Max that at the end of a week-long stay he will be sent either to an idyllic park or to the "urban zone," a city very much resembling the Paris he has just left. Part three is a sharply satiric and often hilarious account of the beginning of Max's eternity in this city.
Because we're attached to Max for the length of the novel, and because he's such a sad and sympathetic character, Piano works on an emotional level that is largely absent from Chopin's Move. We feel for Max, even as he makes his way through Echenoz's funhouse world. If the ending feels too much like a punch line to a very elaborate joke rather than the pathos at which Echenoz seems to be aiming, we can forgive him: the joke's telling was worth it in itself.
Both Chopin's Move and Piano are evocations of loneliness, taking place in a world where even telephones can ring "in a state of solitary exasperation" and cars "(echo) plaintively against the stone facades, the way a man moans in solitary between four bare walls." The main characters are men who lead highly successful professional lives, but whose personal lives are characterized by ineptitude and disappointment. Echenoz's great trick, as Max and Chopin float through absurd, barely comprehensible tableaux in which they are bit players at best, is to shift the focus off of the characters and onto the scenery. It makes them seem all the more lonely (even their creator's not giving them much attention), while at the same time revealing the humor and beauty of the space that surrounds and reflects their loneliness.
At one point in Chopin's Move, Chopin sits in a car with his boss, Colonel Seck. The microscopic brilliance of the following description is typical, and the final sentence could be Echenoz summing up his own work:
Outside the light precipitation continued. Droplets of rain hunched on the glass, sparse and immobile. They had to band together, get unionized in one fat drop before they could hurtle gaily down the windshield, on whose verso, inside the car, droplets of fog clustered toward the same end. It sometimes happened that two drops of different nature rolled down at the same time, united on opposite sides of the windshield, appearing to slice it down the middle. Interesting, all right.
It's hard not to agree with that assessment.
Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2004 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2004/2005