Posts Tagged ‘Herve Le Tellier’

Books of the Year 2022 Part 2

December 27, 2022

Marzan, Mon Amour by Katja Oskamp (translated by Jo Heinrich)

It’s not obvious that the story of a chiropodist from an uninvitingly concrete housing estate in East Berlin would become one of my favourite books of 2022, but that is, indeed, what happened. Marzan, Mon Amour is never sentimental, but often heart-warming, without ever disguising the difficulties of life. The format allows Oskamp to share the stories of her narrator’s many customers, which in turn allows her to present a picture of East German society as it was in the years before the Berlin wall was pulled down. Yet another wonderful find from Peirene books who, despite only publishing three books a year, are frequent contributors to my top ten.

The Anomaly by Herve le Tellier (translated by Adrianna Hunter)

A much more likely inclusion in the best books of 2022 is the 2020 Prix Goncourt winner The Anomaly. The story of a plane which lands twice – once when due and then an exact copy, passengers included, three months later – never has Oulipo been used to such page-turning effect. Telling the story from the point of view of numerous characters is no mere gimmick but actually adds to the tension, and the many nods to Oulipo writers of the past – and even the inclusion of a book within a book – at no point get in the way of readability. Most impressive of all, given its concept, le Tellier produces an ending that works.

Stranger to the Moon by Evelio Rosero (translated by Anne McLean and Victor Meadowcroft)

2022 saw the return of Columbian writer Evelio Rosero to print in English for the first time since 2015 thanks to new publisher, Mountain Leopard Press. Stranger to the Moon is a small book in everything but ideas, Rosero crafts a world where the Clothed and the Naked live divided, the latter largely confined to a crowded house (the narrator spends much of his time in a wardrobe) while the former are free. In what is a disturbing fable about social division, Rosero does not lose sight of his main character as an individual who does not feel like he belongs with either faction. An unsettling tale that you are not likely to forget quickly.

The Twilight Zone by Nona Fernandez (translated by Natasha Wimmer)

The publication of Nona Fernandez fiction in the UK by Daunt books is to be celebrated. The Twilight Zone, which, like Space Invaders, uses popular culture as an entry point to life in Chile under dictatorship, focuses on one particular member of the armed forces who was involved in the systematic torture of those who opposed the regime – we know this because he confesses in the 1980s in a magazine article the narrator remembers. This is another smart novel on the part of Fernandez as the story of the soldier becomes linked to the story of the narrator, providing an anchor for the reader as well as a reminder that brutal regimes have a long-lasting effect on ordinary people.

Still Born by Guadalope Nettel (translated by Rosalind Harvey)

Still Born is also a political novel, but here the politics are personal. Nettel is not the first writer to consider the pros and cons of having children, but she asks the questions here in a particularly nuanced way. The novel tells two stories of two women: the narrator, who has made the conscious decision not to have children, and one of her friends, who falls pregnant. Both women are put in a position where their beliefs are challenged: the former by the neglected child of a neighbour, the latter by giving birth to a child who is not expected to survive. Never preachy, the novel makes a genuine attempt to explore the concept of motherhood.

The Anomaly

May 22, 2022

Herve Le Tellier’s The Anomaly, winner of the 2020 Prix Goncort and recently translated into English by Adriana Hunter, is a ‘concept’ novel in more ways than one. It is, first of all, based around one central, movie-pitch idea – a ‘what if’ which Le Tellier both begins and ends with. In addition, however, its form, too, is ‘conceptual’ – more conceptual than the average novel that is – as befits Le Tellier’s role as the current president of the Oulipo. The novel is divided into three parts: the first and last of 13 chapters, the second of 9 chapters. Each part takes its title from a line in in a Raymond Queneau poem. Its epigraphs come for a book written by one of its characters, Victor Miesel, called The anomaly – and they are exactly what we might expect from the pensées of a French intellectual:

“A true pessimist knows that is already too late to be one.”

There are references to Georges Perec, Italo Calvino and (for reasons which will becomes obvious) Romain Gary, the only writer to have won the Prix Goncort twice (by publishing under another name as the prize only allows one win).

If this makes the novel sound solipsistic then nothing could be further from the truth. Its literary references are either tongue-in-cheek or all but invisible, and certainly not necessary to enjoy a novel as gripping as any thriller. Of course, this is in part because Le Tellier is also writing across a series of genres – including thriller and satire – in short chapters which focus on one of his many characters. The novel opens with the hired killer, Blake. We learn about his first and latest kills and, incidentally, about a recent flight from Paris to New York which was “so terrifying he thought his time was up.” He is reading a book by an author he spotted on the flight – Victor Miesel who takes centre-stage in the next chapter. Here we learn about the flight in more detail:

“…the plane plummets in yet another air pocket, and something in Victor suddenly snaps, he closes his eyes and lets himself be sloshed every which way, no longer trying to anchor himself. He’s turned into one of those lab mice that’s subjected to violent stresses and eventually stops fighting, resigned to dying.”

We soon realise that the event which links all the characters is the turbulent air flight as Le Tellier introduces us to them one by one: Lucie, a French filmmaker whose relationship with Andre, thirty years older, is coming to an end; Sophia, a seven-year-old girl who is terrified of her father; Joanna, a black lawyer defending a dubious pharmaceutical company; Slimboy, a gay Nigerian singer; and David Markle, the pilot, who has terminal cancer. That there is more to it than a shared near-death experience, however, is clear from many of the chapter endings when police or FBI arrive three months later (everything is meticulously dated) looking for the passengers. One exception is Miesel: since returning to Paris he has been writing:

“Over just a few weeks, a gramophonic Victor Miesel fills hundreds of pages…”

When he finishes his new book he sends it to his publisher and, “overcome by a piercing anxiety that he cannot identify” he falls / jumps (it is left deliberately ambiguous) from his balcony to his death. The book is The anomaly which goes on to become a best-seller.

In the first part we also meet Adrian Miller, a mathematician at Princeton, who, after 9/11, had been part of a group tasked with detailing responses to possible air incidents. When their report is submitted, they are asked: “What if we’re confronted with a case that fits none of the situations covered?” As a fan of Douglas Adams, he names this scenario ‘42’ (parts of the protocol are also borrowed from Close Encounters of the Third Kind) in the firm belief it will never be needed. Not so: he has just received a message on his bullet-proof phone to tell him a car is waiting outside.

Only at the end of the first part does Le Tellier reveal what has happened to provoke such a response (look way now if you don’t want to know – though the book’s blurb reveals this in its first sentence) – Flight 006 lands safely on the 10th March, and then again on the 24th June. Not simply the same flight number or the same plane but the same pilot, passengers and crew: a duplicate of the original, or perhaps the original which has been duplicated. Whichever way round, the fact is there are now doubles of everyone on board.

The novel’s second section details the experience of the June passengers, taken to a military base and held there while a team of scientists and philosophers attempt to work out what has happened. They are not immediately told that three months has passed since take-off, nor that they already exist elsewhere in the world. Both scientific and philosophical explanations are kept light, but it would be naïve to think that they were not also serious. In the final section the March and the June passengers are brought together with varying consequences, and the novel’s conclusion is retrospectively obvious, though still one I didn’t see coming.

The Anomaly is Oulipo at its most entertaining – a compelling read which is impressive both as a literary feat and as an example of speculative fiction. Hopefully its accessibility will not detract from Le Tellier’s achievement.