Books: Meursault without the manhood

Kevin Le Gendre
Sunday 17 January 1999 00:02 GMT


by Michel Houellebecq trs Paul Hammond, Serpent's Tail pounds 8.99

The thing I remember most about French O-level classes was learning that an apparently simple expression like "yours sincerely" was not translated as "amicalement votre". The correct rendering was very long and complex with words like honneur and distingues. Good translation is not just a question of matching familiar and unfamiliar words. Tone is just as important as meaning.

'' is a very artful interpretation, as opposed to strict translation of the French title of Michel Houellebecq's acerbic account of modern lifestyling. The original appellation is six times as long and bulging with weighty substantives like extension, domaine and lutte. All of these grand concepts in a mere ''? Yes, in so far as the effect of Houellebecq's text is a kind of head-shrinking ambivalence. And utter dissolution of feeling when he really gets going.

Flick open any page, and within a few paragraphs you see that the author has not so much built his narrative on a premise of disengagement from life as declared a total commitment to non- existence. When Raphael Tisserand, a doomed supernerd with the social graces of an autistic chimp, is killed in a car crash, his death is registered like a second division football result.

This is the most dramatic non-event in a novel which has the simplest of structures. A computer programmer, whose life in Paris is marked by a lack of sex-drive, ambition and interests, is sent out to the sticks to train civil servants in the use of new software. The ensuing "adventure" is as bleak as Eurodisney in December. Our hero/ narrator meets up with prize face-ache Tisserand, spouts a lot of pseudo- analytical crap, then slowly loses his grip on reality, spiralling into illness, irrationality and finally fruitless murder schemes. Nothing really happens though.

To a certain extent, I can see where Houellebecq is coming from: the anti-action storytelling is all part of the grey, platitudinous world he brings to life. The problem is, though, that the dry, detached narrative is so tightly in sync with his grim info-generation angst that you're left with no emotion to deflate. For cynicism to work there has to be some integrity to destroy in the first place, but Houellebecq is almost too coldly efficient in his dehumanisation. He lets no light through at all, depriving us of the pleasure of moral corruption (something the French do very well). There are, despite the presence of steak-knives and road accidents, no victims in . Only walking corpses.

Then there's this weirdo thesis that he cooks up about sexuality and social hierarchy and economics. The rich have power, the lookers get laid ... it's just not convincing enough to justify some of the nutty behaviour that goes on - like our hero's desire to become a self-made John Wayne Bobbit. He can't even pull let alone commit adultery, so he might as well just slice off his own todger. Evidemment!

Contrary to the cover quote, is not "L'Etranger for the info generation". Camus's Meursault might have been alienated and alienating, but he was also genuinely affecting. Houellebecq's hero, despite some initial promise, turns out to be nothing more than a self-aggrandising whingebag (another thing the French do very well). All the psychobabble that underscores the stir-crazy chaos, despite its artful execution, amounts to very little. Then again maybe that's the whole point. Maybe I missed something. Maybe I need to abandon "the domain of the rules and enter the domain of the struggle". Yeah, sure. . Great translation.

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