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The place not to be

June 23, 2014 33 comments

The Front Seat Passenger by Pascal Garnier. French title: La place du mort.

I have to admit that I discovered French writer Pascal Garnier on English-speaking blogs. Then a libraire at Quai du Polar highly recommended him as well. So I bought La place du mort, translated into The Front Seat Passenger. In French, la place du mort has a double meaning. Literally, it’s “the deadman’s place/seat”. For a car, it means the front passenger seat because according to the statistics, the risk to die in case of an accident is higher when you’re on this seat. Referring to the front passenger seat as la place du mort is very common language in France. The second meaning is to take a dead man’s place. Keep this in mind. Oh, and did I mention Garnier writes polars, aka crime fiction?

The book opens on a murder. A person voluntarily drives into a car, causes an accident where the driver and the front seat passenger die. First encounter with Garnier’s striking prose:

In the forest a fox had just ripped open a rabbit. It pricked up its ears when it heard the squealing of tyres on a tarmac and the clang of metal in the ravine. But that only lasted a few seconds. Then silence descended again. With one bite, the fox disembowelled the rabbit and plunged its muzzle into the steaming innards. All around it, thousands of animals, large and small, were eating or climbing on top of each other for the sole purpose of perpetuating their species.Translated by Jane Aitken. Dans la forêt un renard vient d’égorger un lapin. Ses oreilles se dressent en entendant le crissement des pneus sur l’asphalte et le bruit de la tôle dans le ravin. Ça ne dure que quelques secondes. Le silence reprend possession des lieux. D’un coup de dents, il éventre le lapin et plonge son museau pointu dans les entrailles fumantes. Partout autour de lui, des milliers d’animaux, des plus grands aux plus petits, s’entre-bouffent ou se grimpent dessus sans autre but que de perpétuer le jeu.

GarnierI’m afraid the English translation misses out a bit the black humour at the end of the quote. s’entre-bouffent or eat each other has a humorous tone and it’s not written to for the sole purpose of perpetuating their species but for the sole purpose of perpetuating the game. But perhaps it doesn’t sound as well in English as it does in French. When I read this paragraph just after the murder, I see Garnier reminding mankind that they are animals and that the animal world is not bucolic but full of violence. So violence is part of our nature and that’s what he’ll show us.

Just after this gruelling scene, we meet with Fabien Delorme, forfty-something, visiting his father. The two men have nothing to say to each other and Fabien is there out of duty and without his wife Sylvie. When he comes home to his apartment in Paris, the police pay him a visit and tell him his wife is dead. She was killed in a car accident near Dijon with her lover, Martial Arnoult. Fabien goes to the hospital and briefly sees Martine, Martial’s wife. He notes down her name and address.

Back home, his friend Gilles decides Fabien that can’t leave alone and as a recently divorced father, he’s happy to invite Fabien to live with him. As Fabien points out Il n’était pas incapable de vivre seul, il ne concevait la solitude qu’accompagné. (He wasn’t unable to live alone but his idea of solitude was being with someone.) They find a new routine but Fabien decides to stalk Martine. He wants to seduce her, to take Martial’s place. He’s sort of seeking revenge: “he stole my wife, I’ll steal his widow”. He doesn’t know yet he’s going to embark on a crazy journey.

Fabien is not a likeable character and he’s surrounded by insane or childish characters. The story is pure noir but everything holds in Garnier’s unique style. Like here, in this conversation between the police and Fabien, after Sylvie’s death:

– Did you know what her last wills were? – Her last wills?

– Yes, whether she wanted to be buried or cremated?

– I don’t know…I suppose she didn’t want to die, just like anybody else.

(my translation)

– Savez-vous quelles étaient ses dernières volontés?- Ses dernières volontés ?

– Oui, si elle souhaitait être inhumée ou incinérée ?

– Je n’en sais rien…Je suppose qu’elle ne voulait pas mourir, comme tout le monde.

The whole novel is full of eccentric thoughts and acid piques, placing Fabien in a realm of his own.

I’ve seen Pascal Garnier compared to Simenon. I haven’t read Simenon, except for two or three Maigret books. Based on this, I don’t know where this comparison comes from. There’s a wicked sense of humour in Garnier that lacked in the Simenons I’ve read. I haven’t read the best ones, I know. I assume that the good ones are rife with black humour. For me, Pascal Garnier the crazy son of a Patrick Manchette with sprinkles of a Duane Swierczynski. And that’s a huge compliment. I read La place du mort on a plane and I kept chuckling and chuckling despite the dark path the story was taking. I had obviously so much fun reading it that my neighbour had to politely ask Excuse me, but what are you reading? It seems excellent and she left the plane with the reference of the book.

While I’m not tempted to read L’A26, I’m much interested in Flux which won the Prix de l’humour noir. Definitely a writer to discover. Definitely a writer I’ll explore.

PS: this would make an excellent film. (with Daroussin as Fabien, for example)

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