Petite Fleur

Petite Fleur is the third of Iosi Havilio’s five novels to be translated into English (on this occasion by Lorna Scott Fox), following Open Door and Paradises. It is, however, my first experience of Havilio who is clearly a rather eccentric writer of the Cesar Aira school. Beatriz Sarlo’s comment in reference to Open Door – “it doesn’t obey any of the laws of reading, it feels like it sprang out of nowhere” – could equally apply to this later novel, which begins realistically enough but is soon following a logic of its own.

As the narrator, Jose, says in the novel’s opening line, “This story begins when I was someone else,” that is, before his job in a firework factory goes up in smoke at the same time as the factory itself, “reminiscent of a far-off, spectacular war.” Jose’s sudden unemployment leads to his wife, Laura, returning to work after a year off to take care of their daughter, Antonia. Initially Jose struggles with his new role as house husband – “no initiative ever got beyond the limbo of assertions” – until Laura suggests he tidy up their CDs:

“The task took me all day, and though I’d started off unwillingly, moved entirely by a defiant pride, my excitement began to rise from the feet up with almost imperceptible warmth until I couldn’t hide it any longer… Thanks to music I passed from idleness to action, from despondency to hope, and to the ideal management of time.”

One job leads to another, and soon he is planning a vegetable garden, requiring only to borrow a neighbour’s spade to get started. The neighbour, Guillermo, who has only lived nearby for a few months and has spent most of that time refitting his apartment, turns out to be a music lover as well, and the visit extends into hours as Guillermo plays Jose records from his collection. It’s on the way out that things begin to get strange:

“He squatted down, obviously feeling dizzy, and a slow but raging irritation rose in me. A kind of primitive protest that caused something deep inside to snap. That’s when I leaned over, grabbed the spade by the handle and lifted it cleanly from between the bags and in a single continuous motion, up, back and down, sank it into the back of Guillermo’s neck.”

Although we have only been in Jose’s company for a few pages, it’s fair to say this seems out of character. As Guillermo has been all but decapitated, there is no doubt he is dead. Jose escapes, spade in hand, washes the blood from his clothes, and begins to dig what was once going to be his compost pit but is now a grave for Guillermo.

Although the novel is already a murder mystery (the mystery being why he committed the murder), that is not the direction which the narrative will take. Jose spends a couple of tense days waiting for the body to be found but there are “no police, no TV cameras on the doorstep.” Even when he spots a young woman leaving the apartment, the alarm is not raised. Eventually he can bear it no longer and goes round to see for himself:

“The hints of the last few days had braced me for something uncanny, but even so, when the door opened I couldn’t stifle a giggle of dismay… Guillermo greeted me with a beaming smile, elated to the point of euphoria.”

Jose has discovered that when he kills someone (or something – various experiments on ants and pigeons follow) they return to life, with no memory of the murder. Of course, the idea is ridiculous, but once that ridiculous idea has been established it can be pursued with realism, which is largely what fantastic literature does. Havilio also cleverly interrupts the narrative at this point with a reminiscence about a past love affair, only tangentially linked via a fondness for Tolstoy’s Resurrection, before Jose resumes his visits to Guillermo.

As Jose becomes accustomed to his new powers, Laura is also struggling with her new role as a working mother, eventually entering therapy which involves facing your worst fears by enacting them. Her friend, Marion, for example, (who introduces her to, Horacio, the therapist) tackles the “stigma of attractiveness” by being made to strip, insulted, having her hair cut, and eventually being kicked and spat on by the other patients before Horacio demands that she urinate in front of them. Laura’s therapy revolves around the idea that her father abandoned her because she wasn’t a son. In both her case, and Jose’s, there is a sense of coming to terms with the role reversal that has taken place in their lives via their very different forms of release and exploration. Havilio also links this to a more general tendency to destruction and rebirth (which includes the deliberate explosion at the factory, arranged by its owners):

“A periodic summons to destruction and resurgence. Take a look at history, it’s all there: rich men, lovers, artists, frittering away their works, the better to recognise themselves in downfall.”

Petite Fleur is endlessly entertaining: one long paragraph that you are unlikely to want to stop reading. As its dark ending reveals, however, it’s not simply fun and games.

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6 Responses to “Petite Fleur”

  1. JacquiWine Says:

    Yep, I can see why Cesar Aira came to mind as you were reading this one! As you know, I’ve tried and failed with Aira in the past, so I doubt whether I would be the ideal reader for Havilio’s novel. That said, it does sound rather fun in a bizarre sort of way – a little like some of the stories from that Argentinian film, Wild Tales.

  2. Max Cairnduff Says:

    I can see the Aira link myself, but I didn’t entirely take to his Little Buddha which I read recently (liked most of it but I thought he flubbed the landing) and this sounds a bit too bizarre for my present mood.

  3. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    Sounds fascinating, Grant – you always seem to track down intriguing books I’ve never heard of.

    • 1streading Says:

      Well, this one comes from And Other Stories who have excellent quality control. I picked it up at Edinburgh Book Festival – couldn’t get to Havilio’s event as I was working but managed to get a signed book at least!

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