Portrait of the Writer as a Domesticated Animal, as in the French writer Lydie Salvayre's other novels, treats us to a meditative work of fiction narrated by someone trying to find their foothold in the void. This time, Salvayre's void is high finance and the "free market". An unnamed female narrator has agreed to write the authorised biography of the richest man in the world, a fast-food magnate called Tobold the Hamburger King.
It is soon made clear he is a despicable man and, wherever he goes, there is bound to be conflict. Yet the narrator is quickly seduced by Tobold's world. She mixes with call girls and celebrities, falling under the spell of Robert De Niro, witnessing untold cruelty and distorted religious doctrines. Pen in hand, she follows Tobold's every move.
Tobold refers to his future biography as "the gospel". Such is the level of his megalomania that, bizarrely, he uses the life of Christ as his model. His worldview is devoid of altruism and filled with self-aggrandising philosophies, where the poor "never go out of style". For Tobold, the economic structure of the world must never change.
Such "economic messianism" is something his new-found biographer finds sickening, but still she is lured. It is this knowing slide into Tobold's sordid abyss that makes Salvayre's novel (translated by William Pedersen) so interesting. She has placed the writer in a world governed by the crass accumulation of profit. The narrator can only fall back on her own ideologies for intellectual succour, but reveals her own vanities. Likewise, all empires have to collapse. After an unannounced visit from Tobold's mother we, with the narrator, follow his descent into a crazed, remorseful wreck of a man seeking some kind of redemption.
Salvayre has created a satirical plunge into the abyss infused with absurdities and truisms alike. At once hilarious and damning, the novel can both repel and soothe. Perhaps most telling of all, like all great writers, Salvayre understands that all biography is fiction.
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