In fiction, cruelty can be exploited for its shock valve or used to make a point. These two novels, one from France, the other from Greece, illustrate both choices.
Rien Ne Va Plus, by Margarita Karapanou. Translated from the Greek by Karen Emmerich. Clockroot Books/Interlink Publishing Group, 184 pages, $15.
Reviewed by Tommy Wallach
While it is both reductive and unjust to attempt to characterize the literature of a nation (though not quite as idiotic as trying to delineate the ‘currents’ of today’s fiction), if someone demanded that I describe modern French literature in one phrase, I would go with, ‘seemingly normal people doing awful things to each other for inexplicable reasons.’
In Véronique Olmi’s French bestseller, Beside the Sea, a mother brings her two children to a beachside hotel, then smothers them to death with a pillow. In Margarita Karapanou’s Rien Ne Va Plus, a married couple torture each other while the author punishes the reader with a series of contradictory plot lines. It might be worth adding here that only the former novel is French, while the second merely has a French title. And yet the difference in intention between the two novels perfectly points out why my generalization holds. Olmi is cruel to no conceivable end, but Karapanou uses pain to make a point.
The protagonist of Beside the Sea, we quickly realize, is deeply disturbed. She has removed her kids from school and taken them on vacation, but from the first page there’s no mystery about what’s going to happen; these kids have slightly worse odds than the campers of Crystal Lake in Friday the 13th, or the CIA officers hunted by Predator. A considerable (and surprising) number of critics have lauded Olmi’s special insight into the broken mind of her protagonist, but I’m not convinced of the depth of the book’s exploration of extreme mental illness. The mother certainly sounds deranged — “didn’t I use to long to be knocked down by a car and break my leg so I’d finally have a good enough reason to be left in peace?”—but not exactly smother-your-children damaged.
The sense Olmi is skimming the surface isn’t helped by her refusal to give us any of the mother’s back story. Clearly she’s reached a breaking point, but exactly how has she raised her boys to their present age? And if she’s run out of money, how did she have enough before?
I can’t help but think of Laurent Cantet’s film Time Out (L’emploi du Temps), loosely based on the story of Jean-Claude Romand, the man who pretended to be a doctor for 18 years, then killed his entire family when it seemed the truth was about to come out. In his interpretation of domestic genocide, Cantet chose to leave out the murders, most likely for reasons of dramatic plausibility. For me, Olmi’s decision to provide violence without context is doubly flawed: horror-film shocking and intellectually disappointing. And while there’s no lack of good writing, the implication that someone capable of killing her children would also be capable of “narrating” a grammatical and correctly-punctuated story in the first person is suspect. And there’s nothing crazy about stream of consciousness; as Joyce taught us in the final chapter of Ulysses, that’s how every mind works.
Rien Ne Va Plus starts us off in a similar vein of inexplicable cruelty. The narrator, a female novelist named Louisa, has just married the beautiful and debonair Alkiviadis. And the first stop after the wedding? A gay bar, where Alkiviadis invites a fifteen year-old boy back to the house. There, Lousia is made to watch while Alkiviadis and the boy make love. The marriage ends in divorce and, finally, Alkiviadis’ suicide.
After a poetic interlude (“The end has arrived. But not even that can release me. Because there is no End. Amen.”), the book begins once more to describe the courtship and marriage of Louisa and Alkiviadis. For the first few chapters, the two seem terribly in love, but then everything shifts: “—Every time I want to write,” Louisa warns Alkiviadis, “I want to write love stories. But as soon as I pick up the pen I’m overcome by horror.”
By the next page, Louisa has become a monster.
She moves to America to have an affair with a painter (who fell in love with her through her novels). Next, after returning to Alkividias and marrying him, she runs off to Italy with an obese lesbian named Vanessa. Both of these partners are eventually rebuffed, violently, by Louisa. When she returns to her husband and ends up pregnant, she waits a few months before deciding to have it aborted. The reason she gives the doctor?
“Because I hate my husband, and I want to deny him the joy of having this baby.”
She eventually leaves him for good, going off on her own, and the book ends with Louisa asleep and peaceful. “At last! She is alone!” we are told, in a third-person narration that began only a few pages before.
So what differentiates the cruelty of Olmi from that of Karapanou? What justification could there be (assuming one believes that horror demands justification) for such inhumanity?
After their divorce, Louisa tells Alkiviadis that she lied to him constantly throughout their marriage, not only about big things, such as her many lovers, but also small things, such as going out to the movies when she really just sat in a café drinking espresso:
Perhaps it was because those lies gave life a phantasmagorical glow. I could turn each day into fireworks, shape it however I wanted, as if I were God. And the strange thing is that you actually liked it, you knew I was lying to you…
The reader has become Louisa’s lover, a feeling only deepened when we learn that the novel’s opening portion, in which Alkiviadis was the monster, is actually the novel-within-a-novel written by Louisa. Just like her ex-husband, we have been unable to leave Louisa, in spite of the many ways in which we’ve been manipulated, betrayed, and tortured. Karapanou points out the perverse paradox of fiction, that we seek truth in lies. This is a desire that is taken advantage of by works like Olmi’s, which are intended to disturb: the most horrifying lies are not necessarily the most illuminating, but they are invariably the most riveting.
Tommy Wallach is a writer and musician, and more of his work can be found here