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Moon in a Dead Eye by Pascal Garnier

July 16, 2015 19 comments

Moon in a Dead Eye by Pascal Garnier (2009) French title: Lune captive dans un œil mort.

Moon in a Dead Eye is my second Pascal Garnier and what a delight it was.

Martial and Odette are freshly settled in a gated community in the South of France. They used to live near Paris and they sold their house and left everything behind for this place. Only they are the first settlers. Pioneers of a new genre, they look at the rain falling down on their dream and hope for the arrival of new neighbours to break their loneliness and start activities at the brand new clubhouse. There are fifty houses in the complex and they are the only inhabitants. Pioneers, I tell you.

Martial has trouble adjusting to his new life. The house is full of furniture that smell new and Odette is on a mission to add as many trinkets as necessary to make this place feel like home.

Odette, elle, colonisait les lieux avec une détermination de missionnaire. Chaque fois qu’ils allaient en ville elle ne manquait pas d’en rapporter une chose, un objet, utile ou décoratif, un tapis de bain, un vase, un enrouleur de papier toilette, une monstrueuse cigale de céramique jaune et noire… Odette, meanwhile, was colonising the place with missionary zeal. She could not go into town without bringing some useful or decorative object back with her: a bath mat, a toilet-roll holder, a hideous black and yellow ceramic cicada… (translation by Emily Boyce)

For non-French readers, these « hideous black and yellow ceramic cicada » are typical tourist crap beach merchants sell along the shore during the summer. It’s as Provence as lavender, Marseille soap and Provence table cloth. These cicada look like this:

cigaleand if you’re unlucky, it makes cicada noise as well. For a French woman, the mental image is immediate and screams beauf, which has no direct translation and is a slightly derogative way to say archetypal lower-middle-class Frenchman.

Garnier_LuneArrive Marlène and Maxime Node. Neighbours, at last. Odette and Martial speculated about them and were looking forward to meeting them. Like in American series about hell in the suburbs, they welcome them with warmth and intend to be friends. After all they have to live in close proximity. Well, you’re still in France though because they don’t bring pie, only start with a little customary chat before going back to their house, laughing, gossiping about Maxime’s teeth being an ad for his dentist and celebrating by opening a bottle of champagne and a can of foie gras.

We see the two couples settling in a routine until a fifth person moves in another house. They wouldn’t be friend if they weren’t neighbours, so the distraction is welcome. Léa is alone and it’s not clear to the others why she chose to live here. They speculate. Is she a widow? Is she a spinster? Their mission is to include her in their little group.

Meanwhile, Martial still feels out-of-place, out-of-time.

Oui, c’était comme de vivre en vacances, à la difference près que les vacances avaient une fin alors qu’ici, il n’y en avait pas. C’était un peu comme s’ils s’étaient payé l’éternité, ils n’avaient plus d’avenir. Yes, it was like living on holiday, the only difference being that holidays came to an end. It was as though they had bought themselves a ticket to the afterlife; they no longer had a future.

But Odette is determined to make the most of her new life. She pushes the developer to hire someone to take care of the clubhouse and entertain them now that they’re numerous enough. Madeleine joins them once a week. Deep down they all know moving there was a mistake but they refuse to acknowledge it, otherwise they’d fall apart.

All the characters are pathetic in their own way. They have a past, they’re not so young anymore and their motivations to leave their house, their friends, their neighbourhoods behind are incomprehensible. They’re looking for security. Odette and Martial’s first months on the property are creepy enough to make you run to the hills. After the Nodes arrive, they are set on socializing at any cost and it’s like they’re in a perpetual summer camp for grown-ups. Only it gets tiring. Only they’re not children anymore but ageing.

Pascal Garnier shows very well how hard it is for Martial to settle in a new place, how he misses his habits in his old neighbourhood, how everything seems forced and new. He also pictures masterfully  how hell is other people, as Sartre pointed out in Huis-Clos. They have to live together and as they’re all retired, they are at home all the time and bump into each other repeatedly. Womanizer Maxime has a crush on Léa, he’s a little obnoxious and Marlène talks incessantly about her son, the lawyer. Odette and Martial are in this together, finding comfort in each other’s company. They are good together and they were chasing a dream of the South, as if life were easier, funnier under the sun.

Moon in a Dead Eye turns paranoid and gory at some point but I won’t reveal how and why. For that, you’ll have to read the book. I recommend it for its wacky sense of humour, Garnier’s poetry in his writing, for the characters who come to life and seem to come out of the pages to meet you. They are middle-class couples who dreamt of a sunny retirement, who looked for an escape to find a not-so golden prison.

Garnier describes the gated community and the artificial life it creates. People live in their world and are cut off of real life. Part of feeling alive is feeling a member of a community. And a healthy community has people from all ages, all backgrounds. Martial misses little things: small talk with the baker, having a café at the downstairs bar, being part of the hustle of a living neighbourhood. They’re living in an alternate world where children are banned and strangers have to be formally admitted at the gate. Moon in a Dead Eye is French to the core. Garnier has this nasty sense of humour so so French and usually directed at the bourgeoisie.

I’m with Pascal Garnier on this one. I’ll never understand how someone would willingly go and live in a place full of dos and don’ts and that regiments the presence of children. I’d suffocate. And let’s not speak of being forced-fed with silly activities at the clubhouse and being obliged to socialize with neighbours all day long. *shudder* I also don’t see myself leaving all my friends behind, my everyday life to chase after a dream of eternal sunshine in the South. Why would I want to move to a ghetto for senior citizens? I’d rather live downtown, near a cinema, a bookstore, a library and a bakery, with free access to family and friends. The rest is futile preoccupations, which leads me to recommend you Guy’s insightful review of Moon in a Dead Eye.

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