This one almost beat me, in several ways. Firstly, it’s in French. Secondly, it’s long. Thirdly, it’s full of abstract thoughts and made up concepts. Fourthly, it’s intensely weird.
Disclaimer: I know for a fact I missed a lot and probably misunderstood a lot as well. I didn’t have time to research all of the specialised vocabulary about pigeon-keeping, deer-hunting, WWII military vocab and whatnot. If I’m talking nonsense, then say so! Let’s talk!
This is going to be a weird review to write, because I wasn’t expecting to like this book – and the first quarter or so did its best to dissuade me. But by the end… I… liked it? “Like” is the wrong word. But it’s stuck with me.
Abel Tiffauges, our plucky main character, is, in a word, a huge weirdo. The first section of the book is his sort of diary/memoirs, all symbolically written by his left hand. He rambles on about his pet theories a lot and reminisces about his grim boarding school experiences, in which he found himself under the protection of the privileged son of two of the school staff, Nestor. Nestor is also supremely strange. There’s something of Mishima’s Kashiwagi in his precocious cynicism and love of philosophy and the way he can manipulate his way to a popularity that seems like it should be inaccessible to him. Nestor’s death in a school fire (that may or may not have been caused by Tiffauges’s odd affinity with coincidence/the world’s seeming willingness to bend itself to further Tiffauges’s journey) affects Tiffauges throughout the book, and in some ways Tiffauges seems to have inherited something of Nestor after his death, or inhabited his role, or become him. It’s hard to describe a lot of what happens in the book, even if you think you sort of understand it. This could of course be my subpar French talking.
Anyway, the first section of the book reads like the diary of a man who’s going to snap and go on a killing spree. His idea of women is that we don’t have sexual organs, we are the sexual organs of men, and I spent a lot of this section wishing he’d stop having opinions about women. Luckily for me, he did (and he became a lot more bearable. Not bearable, but less unbearable, anyway)! Unluckily for me, it was because of a really unsettling event in the book!
So, in the character of Tiffauges Tournier seems to mix traits associated with innocence and traits associated with monstrousness, and it’s really unsettling to read. On one hand, from the outside (especially visible when we get out of his creepy serial killer diary and into the third person narrative of most of the rest of the book) he could easily be taken for a gentle (or at least simple) giant archetype – he’s hugely tall, mostly silent and docile, he has no interest in any sort of sex whatsoever (he is specifically described as having a micropenis), he has an affinity with animals (pigeons in particular, and as we all know by now, pigeons are doves, which come with their own symbolism). But we’ve been in his head, and we know the things that are monstrous about him as well. His obsession with children is creepy. Non-sexual, but still creepy. The ecstatic pleasure he gets from carrying children is weird and uncomfortable. His obsession with poo is pretty terrible (at one point he nicknames his horse the Anal Angel and compares its stools with his own. At another point he tells us about accompanying Nestor to the school outhouse and becoming a Groom of the Stool for a bit). His theory that Adam’s original form was a self-fulfilling hermaphrodite too blissful and complete to actually do anything is weird and discomfiting. He breaks taboos with his thoughts and obsessions all over the shop. His desire late on in the book to have a cloak woven from the hair cuttings of the students at the Napola he ends up working at (oh, our Abel lives a colourful life) comes from… a weird, but sort of innocent? place.
This is just such a weird book. Symbols strewn everywhere, some explained and others not, threads of allegory and imperfect fulfilments of foreshadowing (at one point Tiffauges, a mechanic, makes fun of the military requisition of diesel cars, joking that people are travelling backwards through time and will eventually discover the peak of travel – the horse – and his own journey through soldier to prisoner to gamekeeper to janitor finds him following broadly the path back through time that he sketches out here, culminating in his horse, Barbe-Bleue). Tiffauges spends the whole book letting life and destiny take him where it will, knowing that everything is leading up to his sublime destiny and nothing will get in the way of that, and I can say that when the end arrives and he fulfils that destiny, clear at last and somehow reflected backwards all through Tiffauges’s life, it feels immensely satisfying and awful in equal measure.
The final sequence in particular, from about where Tiffauges finds the two ginger twins and the blond kid (and I realised oh shit, it’s the pigeons all over again!) is amazing. The parallels everywhere – from within Tiffauges’s own life, from the sacrifice of one type of human being to the sacrifice of another, from that knack for coincidence that suddenly becomes malignant – hit like punches. Everything feels heavy with meaning. Colours, actions, the unspooling of history that we all know is coming. Symbols and ciphers reflecting only themselves. The end of the world. The fall of the Napola was an incredibly intense scene, as if I’d spent as much time there as Tiffauges himself. And even though the place was used only for terrible ends, the sheer scale of destruction, the earth-shattering change, the end of war as violent as war itself, was hugely affecting.
I don’t want to say too much, and honestly if I say much more then it’ll just be me pointing out how clever I am to notice this or that reference, so I think I’ll stop here. In conclusion, I didn’t think I was going to enjoy this book at all, and it wasn’t a pleasant experience, by any means, but I don’t think I’m going to forget it in a hurry.