World Literature Today
By Schenk, Leslie
Magazine: World Literature Today, Summer 1999
WORLD LITERATURE IN REVIEW: FRENCH
Benoit Duteurtre. Les malentendus. Paris. Gallimard. 1999. 140 pages. 80 F. ISBN
The brilliant little novel in two parts, Les malentendus, gives proof, if indeed proof is needed, that
the relatively young Benoit Duteurtre is on his way to becoming one of the shining lights of French
literature in the twenty-first century. His achievement is already most impressive: two books of
nonfiction and now six novels, at the age of thirty-nine! One can only applaud his already
masterly treatment of his personages and his subject, and wonder to what further heights he will
rise in the future.
Duteurtre's newest novel is not only about its panoply of main characters, each individuated and
made visible with an extraordinary--almost Japanese--economy of deft strokes: Martin, a
left-wing sciences-po student; Cecile, a bigoted right-wing woman making big bucks out of
appliances for handicapped people; Rachid, an illegal immigrant, and his cousin Karim, a beur
(second-generation Maghrebi), a legal resident of the dreaded banlieues (suburbs); and finally
Jean-Robert, a fading homosexual confined to an electric wheelchair due to an autoroute accident.
Stir well, and you can see that this brief novel is actually about an enormous subject too: the
French being pulled kicking and screaming into a new century, having to modernize, to
commercialize, to assimilate foreigners (read: blacks and North African Arabs), and perhaps
eventually to synthesize their conflicting intellectual trends, if that can ever happen in a nation of
around sixty million excessively individual individuals.
All in all, the French are freer of racial prejudice than any other nationality, but with the proviso
that when they do catch the disease, it is chronic. A small minority of the population blames
everything but the weather on the "foreign scum invading France," and illogically at that, despite
French pride in French logic. Illegal residents cannot benefit from national family allowances, et
cetera, but that does not prevent bigots from screaming that they all have four wives and
nineteen children and are impoverishing the tills of the Social Security Ministry.
Les malentendus as a title is a kind of pun, for it might be translated as "The Misunderstood" but
also as "Misunderstandings." Part 1 starts off as a kind of romp, an extravagant light comedy hot
off the boulevards, with protagonists entering and exiting doors in quick succession, warm
laughter rewarding the playwright's cleverness. For he really is clever, with a species of
sleight-of-hand that permits his juggling of so many characters in so short a space. A sharp
intellect governs it all and elevates it into Literature with a capital L. I was astonished at my
increasing delight from page 1 on, and at the same time at the intellectual acrobatics I had to
exercise to keep up with it. What impressed me most, though, was how beautiful the French
language can be when it is manipulated with care and dedication, as here, for French usage in
general is dumbing down almost as rapidly as is American usage. I haven't basked in such
precision, radiance, and concision in French since I discovered Colette ages ago. Consider:
Les phares percaient la nuit comme des yeux affoles. Les moteurs mugissaient, les carrosseries
se cabraient au rythme des feux rouges puis repartaient au galop. Un camion frigo piaffait
derriere un troupeau d'autocars, accomplissant au pas de charge la visite nocturne de Paris. Un
couple de Meganes poursuivait une bande de Clios. Les bestiaux a pistons deferlaient,
petaradaient, lachaient derriere eux des jets de gaz d'echappement. Dominant l'autoroute
urbaine, le vieux dome de l'Institut de France brillait sous l'eclairage de puissants projecteurs. Le
batiment du XVII[sup e] siecle venait de subir un recurage intensif. Decrasse du noir des ans,
lave de sa croute sale a coup de carsher, il emergeait de la circulation et posait sur la ville
bruyante le sourire plus blanc qui accueillait l'an 2000.
That "whiter smile" refers to dentifrice ads on TV.
Ah, but if only writers would respect other languages as much as they respect their own! Duteurtre
writes "talkie-walkie" when he means "walkie-talkie"; the lyrics of a song are supposedly "I love
the Life, because I love the Love" instead of "I love Life, because I love Love"; he uses "sitting"
when he means "sit-in"; and he calls Cecile's company "Handilove," which smacks of pornography
rather than handicapped customers. Just because anglophone writers similarly massacre French is
The following citation may be only a fair example of Duteurtre's writing qua writing, but it
demonstrates something fresh and new: how some French now see themselves. We are in one of
the newfangled drive-in theme parks, called Pays de France:
Le long de la rue medievale, quelques abris couverts (mais sans facades d'epoque) offraient aux
clients du parc la possibilite de se restaurer ou d'effectuer des achats. L'Auberge des Croisades
pour boire un Coca; la Rotisserie de Fanchon et son burger geant "Sacre Charlemagne"; l'Antre
de Robin des Bois et ses rayons de souvenirs eclaires par des tubes au neon. Deguises en
femmes de la Renaissance, les vendeuses portaient de lourdes robes en tissus synthetiques et
des coiffes de tableaux flamands. Selon le reglement de Pays de France, elles appelaient leurs
clients: "Mon bon sire" et "Gente damoiselle". Leurs mains, ornees de breloques, faisaient defiler
les codes-barres sur les caisses automatiques. Le prospectus du parc annoncait la creation de
trois cents emplois saisonniers.
In part 2, from which this acrid extract comes, the smile becomes something of a sneer. The
author shows, not tells, the underside of what modernization means to a country with an ancient
history, and, through its characters' interlocking gyrations, how mean it is of people to harbor
prejudices, to prostitute their sexuality, to exploit one another--even handicapped people--for
monetary gain, to make not even meager attempts at understanding one another, all of them
stubbornly enclosed within their own mind-sets.
The means by which all these characters follow their various paths to end up in one locality,
turning themselves all figuratively naked in the final few pages, is something I won't give away,
except to describe it as delicious plotting at its best. When the curtain finally dropped, I wished I
could shout, "Bravo, bravo! Author!" before a multitudinous public. So I do so now, if more
sedately: very, very highly recommended.
By Leslie Schenk, Chevilly-Larue, Fr.
Date de création : 16/07/2005 @ 17:03
Dernière modification : 16/07/2005 @ 17:03
Catégorie : Les malentendus
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