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Every pun intended

April 23, 2013 17 comments

Ceci est bien une pipe. San-Antonio by Frédéric Dard. 1999. Not available in English. (Again, I know, I know…)

San-AntonioFor a French, San-Antonio is probably as famous Philip Marlowe. He a commissaire created by Frédéric Dard, a French crime fiction writer. There are 175 San-Antonio books and the first one was published in 1949. It’s a cult crime fiction series, my paperback edition even includes a guidebook by category. For example, you can know which novels are about a kidnapping. With such a reputation and such a fan base, I had to try one and my random pick brought me to Ceci est bien une pipe. Well not exactly random since the title is a reference to Magritte’s painting Ceci n’est pas une pipe and I love Magritte.

Frédéric Dard is not translated into English and there’s certainly a reason to it: the style. It’s literary lad lit. – Try to say this aloud. That’s probably why this genre doesn’t exist in book stores, you can’t even pronounce it. So Frédéric Dard writes lad lit. That’s an undeniable fact: sex, dead bodies, fights, sex, dead bodies, fights,… the pattern is easy to recognize – not that I’m that familiar with the genre. The plot in Ceci est bien une pipe is as engaging as an episode of Scooby-Doo. Wait, actually, I still have to decide whether Scooby-Doo isn’t even more suspenseful than this. In addition, the characters aren’t well-drawn and they all seem rather strange. San-Antonio and his colleagues still live with their mothers in their old childhood rooms despite behaving like stinking machos. I’m not sure I want to know the Freudian interpretation of it.

Why didn’t I abandon the book? Because of the Queneau-like style. Frédéric Dard was well-read and his writing was full of puns, cultural references, inventions, use of English grammar in French and twists with words. The text is full of allusions and double-entendres. It starts with the title as pipe is both a pipe and a blow-job. Now my challenge is to translate a few sentences to try to show you what I mean.

English syntax Contremauvaisefortuneboncoeurfaisant Makingthebestofabadjobly
Literary reference : Apollinaire’s poem Sous le Pont Mirabeau. Quand tu deviens gênant pour ton entourage, retire-toi dans un mouroir ou enjambe le parapet du pont Mirabeau sous lequel coulent la Seine et nos amours, tout le monde t’en saura gré. When you become a burden to your relatives, retire in an old people’s home or cross the parapet of the Mirabeau bridge under which the Seine and our loves flow, everybody will be grateful.
Old FrenchChangeons de page, je vas te narrer la chose ! Let us change of page, I will narrate thou every thing!
Subtle lad litMon Dieu, pouquoi avez-Vous fait les “autruis” si chiants? Je ne demande que leur cul aux unes et un peu d’amicalité aux autres. Pour le reste, je parviens à m’arranger. Dear God, why did Thou create the “others” so annoying? I only ask their ass to the ones and a bit of friendshipness to the others. The rest I can manage.
Play-on-words after discovering a mutilated bodyAujourd’hui, le fond de l’horreur est frais.Based on the French phrase « le fond de l’air est frais », meaning it’s chilly. Today, the horror is chilly.

It’s pearl after pearl of funny, inventive language and major use of argot – some words I didn’t even know. Lots of good play-on-words. Excellent ideas to twist the French syntax, include literal use of English expressions. To be honest, I had a lot of fun during the first 100 pages. Then it becomes old and tiring and since the plot wasn’t worth it…I finished it but used a lot of times the second unalienable right of the reader: I skipped pages, scanned through many ones and reached the end. You might love chocolate, when you eat too much of it in a row, you get sick.

By the way, Frédéric Dard comes from in Saint-Chef, a quaint village in the Dauphiné. It’s between Lyon and Grenoble and he makes several allusions to his region in the book. He includes local ways of speaking (mimi for kiss on the cheek), allusions to the Basilique de Fourvière (Lyon) and a touching reference to the cemetery in Saint-Chef, where he is now buried.

[Je] songeais qu’après une longue immersion dans la médiocrité, je prendrai un pied éléphantesque dans le nouveau cimetière de Saint-Chef-en-Dauphiné où j’irai attaquer mon éternité à l’ombre de la « Tour du Poulet » (XIIè) [I] was thinking that after a long immersion in mediocrity, I’ll get an elephantly kick out of starting my eternity in the new cemetery in Saint-Chef-en-Dauphiné, in the shadow of the Chicken Tower. (12thC)

There really is a Tour du Poulet in Saint-Chef and it really dates back to the 12th century.

Touching as this is, no more San-Antonio for me, but I’m glad I read it. Frédéric Dard also wrote La Vieille qui marchait dans la mer, which was made into a film with Jeanne Moreau. I want to read this one as it doesn’t feature San-Antonio.

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