This is the first book I've read by Christian Gailly, and although in some respects it's a disarming, dark novel resembling a detective story it's at the same time very funny and charmingly playful. The story is not sequential and plays about with time, we don't discover the name of the narrator – Sylvère Fonda – until the penultimate paragraph, and he says things then frequently qualifies or contradicts them as if writing what he's thinking as he goes along, forgets what he's said and then picks up the thread, frequently repeats himself, tells the reader he'll talk about something later on (which he does), and so on.
Sylvère – although we don't of course know that's his name – is the narrator who describes the painful hazards of driving along a narrow, bumpy stretch of road in the Vendée when he sees his friend Lucien's car and he flashes recognition to him but Lucien's not driving, it's a girl on her own. And she's smeared in blood, and the book he's writing later comes to be called Nuage rouge, or Red Cloud, like the Indian chief, or the war, or for that matter Mondrian's painting or Yves Bonnefoy's critical work. Not that all these are mentioned, but there are many allusions in this book, such as to Gailly's love of jazz. But where was I?
Ah yes, the narrator's friend Lucien, who's really his enemy but we'll come to that later. Lucien's never married, and never will because he picks up a girl on the road – in fact the same girl and the same road that Sylvère's seen her on – as she's blocking the narrow road because she's run out of petrol, so he drives her to get some and drives her back with rape in mind, and then she cuts his sex organs off and throws them into a pond, although we don't find out what happened to them until later. But that's it, that's how she comes to be driving Lucien's car, after doing the cutting and then driving back to her own car and pouring the petrol Lucien bought her into her own tank.
So that's the end of Lucien's sex life. In fact the end of his life really, as he just goes downhill. Then a coincidence happens, and Father Prouteau sees the girl, who's a curator of a museum in Copenhagen, on French TV. She's Rebecca Lodge. But we knew that from the beginning because Sylvère (who of course wasn't known as Sylvère then) has told us so. Prouteau even took photos of her. Instead of the birds he usually takes. He shows them to Sylvère and Lucien. In that order, as a matter of fact: not Lucien first.
Anyway, Sylvère is sent at Lucien's expense to seek Rebecca out, which he does and has a number of conversations with her over lunch, although there's certainly no sex as she's a one-man girl even though her beloved sea captain's dead. Back in France Lucien is feeling suicidal, Sylvère's betrayed him and he wants him to assist him to die. By pistol. Which he does. But did Sylvère kill him, did Lucien kill himself, or was it a joint effort? Academic question anyway: Lucien's sent a letter to the police saying Sylvère killed him.
And no amount of fine arguments about euthanasia will wash. Sylvère is guilty of 'deliberate homicide'. So Sylvère's dead. He actually says it: 'I was born 14 January and I died the day before'. Not the same year of course, but he later makes one of his qualifications: 'Prison isn't death but all the same.' At least he won't be stuttering there, but I forgot to mention that one.