Written by Pascal Garnier — Pascal Garnier was, until his death in 2010, one of the most distinctive and versatile authors in France. Children’s writer, novelist, short story writer and even painter, he was profoundly disparaging of genre labels on books, calling them an oversimplified compartmentalisation of literature ‘apartheid’. Therefore, I would hesitate to call his books ‘crime fiction’ or ‘thrillers’. Yet there is a distinct noir feel to his books for adults…
How’s the Pain is only the second of his novels to be translated into English. The first one, The Panda Theory, was published in March and garnered some respectful reviews, although it didn’t break any sales records. I was riveted by its stylish simplicity and wanted to read more by this author. This second novel is even better – funny, poignant, easy to read and yet very unsettling.
If I say that this is a novel about existential angst, it will probably put off any would-be reader. Yet this world-weariness and anxiety are conveyed beautifully through an intriguing storyline, limpid prose and dialogue of searing sincerity. I cannot recommend it highly enough.
This is the story of an unlikely friendship between Simon, an ageing contract killer out to do one last job before retirement, and Bernard, a rather naïve young man without any purpose or passion in life. Bernard is not much good at anything, but he can drive, and Simon needs a driver to take him to his last job in the south of France. The job is perfectly executed, but when the employer refuses to show up at their meeting place and tries to avoid paying him, Simon reacts in the only way he knows how, with disastrous consequences for the fish at the National Aquarium. But how will Bernard react when he finds out what Simon’s real job is?
Along the way, of course, this mismatched pair meet other memorable secondary characters, such as Bernard’s drink-befuddled mother, a vacuous young woman with a baby, and a chatty female taxidermist who makes a beeline for Simon. This is also the story of a small group of outsiders, people drifting at the periphery of society, searching for companionship and fulfilment, however illusory. These loners and no-hopers have somehow found each other and, despite their distrust of each other’s motives, cling to each other, as if protecting some last shred of humanity. The theme of broken dreams and people drifting through life, trying to fill a yawning gap within themselves, is dark, but interspersed with lots of black humour. The story is powerful, yet simply told, a cross between a thriller, a road trip, comedy and social documentary.
This novel will reverberate in your head and haunt you for a while after reading. It may not be to everyone’s taste, but for those who like their stories situated at the borderline between thriller and something else, Pascal Garnier’s work is tremendously satisfying. There is a very Simenon-like quality to his writing – the Simenon of the ‘romans durs’ rather than the Maigret novels.
The publishing house Gallic Noir is doing an excellent job of spreading the word about Garnier, albeit posthumously. This year they have published two of the author’s novels in English already, and the third, The A26, is on its way.
CFL Rating: 5 Stars