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I expected a chef, I got a four stars chef

July 9, 2011 16 comments

L’homme aux cercles bleus by Fred Vargas. 1996 English title: The Chalk Circle Man

The Chalk Circle Man is the first novel of the Adamsberg series but one of the last translated into English. I’d rather read them in the right order so I started with this one. Commissaire Adamsberg has just been appointed to a Parisian police station (5ème Arrondissement, i.e. le Quartier Latin). In this volume, we discover Adamsberg world, personal history and his way of thinking without thinking, loving without loving and solving crimes with a slow voice and an incomparable coolness. We guess that he and Inspecteur Danglard will be an complementary and efficient duo.

Now the plot. A strange man draws blue circles around inanimate objects on the sidewalks inParis. He does it at night, chooses random objects and draws a circle around them. Is it a sort of work of art pointing at our consumer society? Is it the work of a maniac? From the start, Adamsberg smells cruelty behind this and carefully keeps watch. No crime has been committed so far but he expects a murder. So he’s more resigned than surprised when the first corpse is found.

As always I’m not good at writing about crime fiction. I can’t even describe Adamsberg, Danglard or the side characters. However, after spending a great time reading it, I wondered why I liked this one and couldn’t finish Michael Chabon’s book the other day. But first, I have to say that I don’t read a writer’s biography before reading his/her book. I love diving into a book clean of any prejudice or assumption about the writer; I want to meet his/her work before meeting him/her. I hadn’t heard of Chabon when I bought his book; it just seemed right up in my alley. This is why I didn’t know he had won the Pulitzer price in 2001 or that he was a champion of creative writing classes when I started reading his book and at the same time thinking of a recipe, an idea I used for my post.

I wouldn’t say Chabon is a bad writer, not at all and btw, who am I to judge? I thought it was well-written, with a complex plot, unusual characters but it sounded fake to me. As we say in French “La mayonnaise n’a pas pris”, literally, “the mayonnaise didn’t thicken”.

On the contrary, Vargas doesn’t sound fake and I marvel at the chemistry she creates between her work and her readers. Talk with a French reader about books. At a moment, he/she will ask “Have you read Fred Vargas?” Whatever your answer, he/she will follow by a “Oh how I love Adamsberg!” So it’s not only me. How does she do it?

In appearance, Vargas’s book didn’t make me think. But now, if I let my mind wander, it does address a lot of issues in such light touches that it reaches you. Cruelty and how it is intrinsic to human nature. Love. Loneliness. Parenthood. Handicap. Pride. It reaches you in spite of you, like a drizzle of issues. You don’t realise what’s happening until you’re wet. Is that the clue, the difference between Chabon and Vargas? She’s more profound than him? I’m not sure.

Fred Vargas works as a researcher. She never graduated in literature. I don’t think she’s taken writing classes. Writing isn’t her job. Writing is her hobby and maybe a necessity. The idea lingers in my mind, flows back and forth in tidal waves and brings back Reiner Maria Rilke and his letters to Franz Kappus. It carries along Rilke’s ideas about writing as a necessity, as something personal you have in you, something you have to do to be yourself, something that gives away who you are.

And that’s it. I didn’t feel Michael Chabon was giving me something personal through his book. I feel Fred Vargas does. In my eyes, he’s a gifted craftsman, she’s an artist. I have nothing against craftsmen but I prefer artists.

 

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