Written by Jérémie Guez, translated by Edward Gauvin — Jérémie Guez is a highly-praised young author in his native France. I’ve been reading him for a while now and was hoping his books would appear English, and now Unnamed Press has translated his third novel for English-speaking readers.
Eyes Full of Empty is the story of Idir, an unconventional Parisian private eye. The son of an Algerian immigrant who turned into a Jaguar-driving doctor, Idir was sent to all the good schools. However, the strain of living up to the standards of his privileged classmates resulted in some rash decisions and outbursts, for which he paid the price with six months in prison. That may have spelled the end of his social climbing, but he straddles the two worlds by doing borderline intimidation of debtors and small-scale investigations for wealthy clients who cannot bear to get their own hands dirty.
To his astonishment, one day Oscar (the classmate whom he assaulted, ending up in prison) asks him to investigate the disappearance of his brother Thibaut. Meanwhile, his best friend Thomas would like to know if his wife is cheating on him, and Thomas’ father is keen to recover his stolen car. Idir gets involved in each of these cases, but starts feeling he is being used or set up by the rich people. He finds more honour among thieves, the kids he grew up with in Belleville, and his prison acquaintances. Additional complications ensue when Idir stumbles across a couple of dead bodies and becomes involved with Thomas’ beautiful wife Natalie. Is he just hankering after the possessions of a friend whom he always sought to emulate?
As he goes on a wild goose chase through a diverse and shady city, we get to meet the best car thief in Paris, drug dealers, pornographers and sex shop owners. Idir has friends across all ethnic groups, but this is not so much a book about multicultural Paris, but more about its class system. Crucially, it is not just about money, since many of Idir’s friends and his own father have plenty of that, but about social acceptance and prejudices of all kinds.
Idir has the world-weary gaze and sarcastic retorts of Jacob Arjouni’s Kayankaya or Raymond Chandler’s Marlowe. Unlike them, however, he is also afflicted with a syndrome which must surely be a handicap for a hardboiled detective: he can be struck down anytime with fits of spontaneous, uncontrollable crying. As we progress through this tale of betrayal and double-crossing, we realise that his crying is more than justified. He truly is all alone in a dark world where friends turn into strangers and where there are no easy answers to even the simplest of questions.
The original is full of ‘argot’, the slang used by different Parisian subcultures, which poses a real challenge for translators, so you may notice an occasional clunkiness in the dialogue. However, this book effortlessly mixes noir tropes with contemporary references, sarcastic retorts with heartfelt moments. The title sums up perfectly the emptiness and darkness which most of the characters in this book feel. Paris is presented here not as a city of lights but a jostling, hustling city of shadows. The question is, after all of the recent events: is this image of the city of Paris captured by Guez perhaps rather accurate?
You can read an interview with Jérémie Guez here.
CFL Rating: 5 Stars