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Ce que je sens, c’est un immense découragement, une sensation d’isolement insupportable, une peur perpétuelle d’un malheur vague, une défiance complète de mes forces, une absence totale de désirs, une impossibilité de trouver un amusement quelconque.
Et puis je l’ai vue, la tristesse. Elle est venue, comme ça. C’était un souffle silencieux mais froid. Une brise s’est affalée sur mon visage et j’ai compris. J’ai compris que te revoir ne serait plus pareil, que c’était te voir que je désirais. J’ai compris que tu étais partie, et que je restais. La tristesse est venue, comme elle était venue autrefois. Et j’ai compris.
I was given A Burnt-Out Case by a philosophy professor in early January because I was feeling quite dissatisfied with my job and I was considering starting from scratch, embarking on a different track to study comparative literature. Because I knew my professor was a Catholic Christian, I assumed the book would deal with Catholicism; doubtless, the subject matter revolves around faith, but I also had the feeling that other topics were similarly present.
The book packs a handful of concurrent themes. Readers of Greene might be expecting to read about matters of faith, morality or politics. I found that the book dealt more with choice, and this central presence of decisions and alternatives that are felt in the insignificant details of our lives, yet, somehow they end up throwing us into different trajectories, sometimes independently of our intentions.
On the surface, yes, matters of faith are examined, especially Christian theology. Since faith and choice cannot be separated, in particular, the interpretation of theological subjects, I felt that the fabric of the plot is woven around the characters’ responsiveness and flexibility to their own choices.
That said, I suppose that someone with Greene’s experience and unstable life, must inevitably conclude that choosing any course of action, any form of companionship, or even any belief system must seem quite an absurd and random decision.
The book starts with an ambiguous European, later to be identified as (aptly-named) Querry, arriving at a leproserie, somewhere on the borders of a river in Congo, because the boat he embarked upon cannot go any further. It is clear from the first pages that he is in torment, for he is unable to smile, unwilling to talk, isolating his inner self to avoid facing questions he cannot reasonably answer.
As the story unfolds and Querry gets in contact with the other characters: Dr. Colin, of the dispensary, the order of the Fathers, the manager of an oil factory and his wife, the reporter and his own African servant, we are informed that he lost the ability to love: not his work, wherein he excelled as an architect, nor women, nor God.
With the contact of the inhabitants, both Africans and Europeans, of this leprosery, a mild metamorphosis occurs to him: he begins to care, even if fleetingly, for his African servant, a cured leper and he offers his services as a builder to the people working on establishing a new hospital. Though both changes are quite diluted and meager in comparison with what the others are and have been doing in this isolated enclave, yet they form the connecting threads of this plot for they rally the other characters around them. For instance, the Superior of the order of the Fathers accepts them without moralizing about them, without analyzing their motives. The rigid Father Thomas is too enthusiastic to declare victory of faith over disbelief in this man’s heart. The manager of the oil factory glorifies such acts to reflect the humility of the famous Querry; “the” Querry, as he calls him, against whom he would like to measure his intellect and his actions.
Following these “heroic” acts, as they were dubbed, by the inhabitants of the leproserie, Querry does not feel regret for doing them, but he spends a frustratingly long time, attempting to refute them, to reflect their true worth, in vain. “The innocence and immaturity of isolation” as Greene writes inevitably compels people to project their own needs, their own aspirations even, to this new change in their environment.
My own interpretation of why Querry undertook these two actions does not take me far. As plain as it may be, I assume that the drive behind these actions is the interaction that Querry felt with the people of the leproserie; in particular, with Dr. Colin, the atheist physician who thrives to cure his patients, sometimes against all reason, without the demotivation which such disappointments might bring. Dr. Colin is content with his atheism; Querry is fighting an inner struggle against disbelief.
What I liked about the book is that throughout a good chunk of it, nothing obvious happens. The inner transformations and reactions of the characters are what brought the plot to such a climactic ending. Additionally, I liked the equidistance Graham Greene takes towards his characters. I did not detect any judgement against them; I felt they were ‘honest’ characters, acting within a margin of behavior which faithfully entraps them. Perhaps this is why in the introduction to the book, Greene states that these characters are pure fiction and cannot be identified. One has the feeling that he was accurately reporting on real people he encountered.
Having finished the book, I went on to check out Greene’s biography [I am a fan of this website on writers’ biographies: http://www.kirjasto.sci.fi] and I was stunned to discover how much aspects of his life, including people he encountered, are represented in his books; this one in particular. For example, Greene hated being labeled a Catholic novelist, much like Querry despised being referred to as a Catholic architect. Another point of interest to the readers of the book, Querry’s love life seems to revolve around affairs with married women, not unlike Greene’s.
I think A Burnt-Out Case is one of those books that one enjoys reading without putting them down; I finished it in a couple of days, which is quite the record for my reading habits. The absence of any dynamism in the plot allows one to enjoy Greene’s furtive comments against colonialism, (“Yet in our century , you could hardly call them fools. Hola Camp, Sharperville and Algiers had justified all possible belief in European cruelty.”), his remarks on the specificities of African culture (“Father Thomas, when you have been in Africa a little longer, you will learn not to ask an African a question which may be answered by yes. It’s their form of courtesy to agree. It means nothing at all”), and why not, his theological interpretations (“Bad things are not there. They are nothing. Hate means no love. Envy means no justice. They are just empty spaces where Yezu ought to be”)
When I woke up last Saturday to a gorgeously dark sky brooding with heavy clouds, I knew it was ripe time to pick-up a new Simenon.
I have 6 Volumes of the Tout-Maigret, from Omnibus, and I am starting with the fourth volume. To my (slight) disappointment, the story I chose Mon Ami Maigret, is set at an island, Porquerolles, with its flanelle-clad dwellers and harsh sunlight casting golden reflections over the sea. One of the rare “sunny” cases, but yep, it had to be this one.
Brushing such a minor letdown aside, the book was fun to read. The first chapter opens up a tad on the hyperbole, when the reader learns that Mr. Pyke, the title name of the first chapter, is dispatched from Scotland Yard to observe the investigative methods of Maigret. Since this is Simenon writing, this inflated Maigret figure, himself suddenly under scrutiny from Mr. Pyke, is barely given much space, and we are directed back in, to the reality of the Quai des Orfevres, a bit too bluntly even, when Maigret receives a phone call from a brigadier relaying him the news that a man was murdered in Porquerolles because of his friendship with him.
Though I find Simenon favoring, often too much, the silent dialogues between the guest characters and Maigret, in Mon Ami Maigret, I had the feeling that such an exchange between the two was not given enough space to develop. Perhaps, this has to do with the sunny, not quite serious Porquerolles, which allegedly strikes new visitors with “Porquerollite” a virus that causes people to shed all formalities and embrace the sun and the sea, and the joie-de-vivre. Nevertheless, what furtive exchanges occur between Maigret and Pyke remain the most interesting parts of the story; in fact, it is because of one of those, that I thought it would be interesting to review this book.
Here we are in 1949, an Englishman of the same profession as his French host, expresses his opinion about a suspect in the case. We are outside the café of the hotel, under the warm sunlight, there was between the Englishman and the suspect no interrogation, only a game of chess, and yet the Englishman is able to draw a portrait of the suspect, who is Dutch, because of general traits that he noticed and which are common among young people coming form morally rigid countries (comparing the Netherlands, back then, to England, is funny to me). He is even able to extend such an observation to the host country, France, claiming that the Dutch suspect must not seem a unique specimen to the French. Incidentally, his profiling of the Dutch came to confirm a mild uneasiness that Maigret felt around Mr. Pyke, because of the different approach he adopted questioning some of the suspects:
Maigret était un peu soucieux, un peu crispé. Sans être attaqué, il était chatouillé par l’envie de se défendre
Further ahead, Mr. Pyke informs Maigret that the Dutch speaks perfect English, an additional characteristic that adds definition to the Dutch’s portrait.
I appreciated those two pages for the simple reason that they feel quite distanced from us; how easy was it back then to sketch the identity of a character out of the general identity of a group, of a bigger sample. I find that these days everything is about assuming one’s own identity, about finding ourselves, uniqueness, differentiation. A crime writer of this present age cannot risk going into the familiar, or into the assumption, or into pre-defined types.
Before I close my review, and since this is Simenon writing, I find that the receding importance of the investigative techniques and procedures (to the disappointment of Pyke and his Scotland Yard superiors) and the untangling of the mystery in the background are what I enjoy most about every Maigret. We are nearing the end of the story, the interrogation of the two suspects, which Maigret wanted to be done in confidentiality, at least as much as the island would allow it, is almost over:
“Avouez, Monsieur X, que vous n’êtes pas fâché que ça craque!” Jusqu’à ce “monsieur” qui blessait Y au plus profond de lui-même.
at the same time, outside the interrogation room:
Le déjeuner avait commençé à l’Arche. Jojo n’avait pas dû se taire tout à fait, ou alors les gens flairaient quelque chose car on voyait de temps en temps des silhouettes rôder autour de la mairie.
Even though Maigret gave his orders to Jojo,t he girl who works at the café l’Arche, not to blabber about who is being interrogated and where, “word got out” as the saying goes and people started to gather around the mayor’s office.
We, readers, will never know how exactly word got out, and if it did, for that matter. It’s a totally inconsequential matter, because the book ends shortly after that, but I love that Simenon is able to move from ascertaining the psychology of the suspect, down to its minutest details, then gradually leaving the focal point of the interrogation to what is happening out there, without himself offering much about it, but nevertheless, creating a completely realistic and tangible atmosphere, very vivid in our mind, despite of (or maybe because of) the lack of any attempt to clearly resolve out every detail of the plot.
I have mixed feelings about this book. The fact that it won the “Prix de l’Académie Francaise” 2012 tips the scales towards disappointment. Then again if I was not intrigued by a crime book that won the said prize, I probably wouldn’t have even picked it up.
It is a 660+ pages crime book; that made me quite hesitant to consider it, I just assume there would be unnecessary details and characters and boring repetitiveness. I was wrong about the first two.
The book’s back cover states that it is a “reflection on America”. I don’t know how one understands such a phrase, nevertheless it felt to me a bit too much to qualify the book as such.
It is the story of a first-time successful young writer, Marcus Goldman, struggling to start his second work, who flies to the rescue of his mentor, the great Harry L. Quebert. Quebert is arrested and accused of the murder of the 15-year old Nola Kellergan, whose body (or the remains of it) is discovered 33 years (2008) after her disappearance (1975) from a small New Hampshire town, Aurora.
The book’s front cover is a painting by Edward Hopper, one of my favorite painters, “Portrait of Orleans”, and this book is certainly a portrait of Aurora. The inhabitants of Aurora seem typical of any small village; endowed with the natural virtues and vices and small-town life; they are friendly, nosy about each other’s affairs, yet understanding, even respectful, of each other’s privacy (if such a privacy exists in a small village), and as is the case in any small town, and especially those described in crime novels, newcomers almost always carry a deeper past with them.
Though the book is more action than description, yet the characters and the events occuring in the past are chronicled in such a way that one feels as if he was part of that fateful 1975 summer.
What felt a bit unsettling, in my opinion, was that the recalling of past events did not create in me this feeling of mystery one anxiously anticipates following the deep-digging in crime novels. I even felt that the paths that led our amateur detective-writer to snatch bits of truths about what happened from the dwellers of Aurora were too “programmed”; it was as if people awaited in their houses, or diners, or stores for the arrival of Marcus to recount him in precision what happened 33 years earlier. Over the lifespan of the book, I could count rare occasions in which characters seemed suspicious, or wary or cautious of the questions and deductions thrown-in by Marcus Goldman.
As the case is closed, every little twist of events is lucidly narrated by Goldman/Dicker so much that the imagination of the reader is left thirsty. This is because, throughout the book, Dicker retells the events from the perspective each and every actor directly or indirectly related to the crime, which generates so many overlapping narratives leaving no room for guesswork.
As the detective-writer finds himself entangled in the twists and turns of the book he is simultaneously writing, the reader is offered an entrance to the world of book publishing; there is a most revealing chapter of the book, chapter 6, that completely takes the charm out of the book publishing process. Nevertheless, it is revealed in such a way that I found it quite funny to read.
Overall, I enjoyed the book; it is an easy read of the simple lives of simple people in an average small town. I particularly appreciated that an author can still up an addictive crime novel without the bells and whistles of forensic science and technology, and rely on the simplicity of the characters to elucidate the mystery.
Du coup, par la vertu de ce mot [stale], cette éxperience à laquelle je venais d’être livré prenait corps, devenait objet de réflexion, et aussitôt, comme magiquement, je m’en libérais; je retrouvais un motif qui m’a souvent retenu, mais que je n’ai jamais pu exploiter à fond et qui garde par là-même pour moi une fraîcheur particulière… Ce sentiment de staleness [sic] ne se produit que dans les zones stagnantes de l’esprit. Le stagnant coïncide avec le ressassé; et ici comme dans le monde sensible, il semble bien que la stagnation engendre un commencement de putrescence. […]
Je puis dire, sans exagération, que tout mon effort philosophique peut se définir comme tendu vers la production - je répugne à employer ce terme physique - de courants par lesquels la vie renaît dans certaines régions de l’esprit qui semblaient livrées à la torpeur et comme exposées à la décomposition. D’où l’extraordinaire importance de l’événement, même purement intérieur, même là où il est impossible de le relier à une circonstance objective et précisable. J’ai eu l’occasion à plusieurs reprises de souligner l’importance métaphysique de la rencontre, bien loin d’y voir avec le rationaliste une simple conjonction fortuite; mais je n’avais jamais remarqué jusqu’à ce jour qu’il peut se produire des rencontres au plan de la pensée elle-même. Rencontre quelqu’un ce n’es pas simplement le croiser, c’est être au moins un instant auprès de lui, avec lui; c’est dirai-je d’un mot dont je devrai user plus d’une fois, une co-présence.
Gabriel Marcel - Essai de Philosophie Concrète
What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?
Ashamed, numb with nostalgia and anxiety, reluctant to enter the crowded bar, though equally reluctant to have the taxi-driver go in for her, Yvonne, her consciousness so lashed by wind and air and voyage she still seemed to be travelling, still sailing into Acapulco harbour yesterday evening through a hurricane of immense and gorgeous butterflies swooping seaward to greet the Pennsylvania - at first it was as though fountains of multicoloured stationery were being swept out of the saloon lounge - glanced defensively round the square, really tranquil in the midst of this commotion, of the butterflies still zigzagging overhead or past the heavy open ports, endlessly vanishing astern, their square, motionless and brilliant in the seven o’clock morning sunlight, silent yet somehow poised, expectant, with one eye half open already, the merry-go-rounds, the Ferris wheel, lightly dreaming, looking forward to the fiesta later - the ranged rugged taxis too that were looking forward to something else, a taxi strike that afternoon, she’d been confidentially informed.
Malcolm Lowry - Under the Volcano