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The Truth About Marie, By Jean-Philippe Toussaint
Jonathan Gibbs reviews books for The Independent and elsewhere. His novel Randall, about the contemporary art world and the fate of the YBAs, is published by Galley Beggar Press. He blogs on this aspect of his writing at tinycamels.wordpress.com
Tuesday 22 November 2011
It's a paradox of translated fiction that, the better the translation, the less foreign the book can feel. Settings aside, your Jo Nesbos and Roberto Bolaños sometimes read like they were written in English. Not so with Jean-Philippe Toussaint. His strange, spare novels are Gallic through and through, teasing in their philosophical play, and pointedly cavalier with regards to such solid Anglo-Saxon notions as plot and narrative point of view.
The Truth About Marie (translated by Matthew B Smith) is a sequel to Running Away, which circled around the relationship between an unnamed narrator and the sexy, sparky Marie. That book left the two of them clinging to each other, one clothed, one naked, in the night-time sea off Elba on the day of Marie's father's funeral. This one starts with them living apart in Paris. When Marie's new lover has a heart attack in the middle of the night and dies, it's our narrator she calls, and he who leaves his new lover to hurry through the rain to her apartment.
Much of what occurs happens prior to that night, and much is pure supposition. The narrator has a strange and compelling way of filling out details of Marie's life that he could never know.
The mixing together of the real and the imagined feels quite daring, until you remember that what you're reading is fiction anyway. It's this kind of subtle tactic that gives the book its intellectual frisson. That said, Toussaint knows how to build a scene, slowly developing an ordinary situation until it becomes highly dramatic. Here we have not only the couple's encounter but the transportation of a racehorse in the hold of an airliner – a 40-page tour de force – and a forest fire back on Elba.
The diffidence of the narrator, and his reticence as to the exact point, means you get carried along almost blind to the power of the writing, until you find yourself on a rain-sodden runway, staring down a thoroughbred as it charges you, "its eyes wild, savage, mad, its mane flapping in the wind, flinging mud and sweat in every direction." That there is nothing like this being written in English at the moment should be recommendation enough to the curious reader.
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