The Map and the Territory won that famous French literary prize, the Prix Goncourt and popular opinion seems to rank it as among the least offensive o...moreThe Map and the Territory won that famous French literary prize, the Prix Goncourt and popular opinion seems to rank it as among the least offensive of Houellebacq’s novels. It is the story of the life and career of Jed Martin, a successful French artist who is unusual in that he works in a variety of mediums – photography, painting and video. Jed is an artist in the vein of Howard Roark, – so intensely engaged by the process of creating that he is unable to form or maintain meaningful human relationships. Their problem is not that they are unable to feel emotions or attachments, but that they lack any real interest in doing so. Such is Jed’s existence until he reaches out to the French author Michel Houellebecq. His gallery wants Houellebecq to write the program for Jed’s upcoming show, and Jed offers to paint Houellebecq’s portrait in return. A strange intimacy (or what passes for intimacy for these two) develops between the two men. An intimacy Jed hopes will develop into friendship. That hope is disappointed in Part Three of the novel when Houellebecq is unexpectedly and gruesomely murdered.
A moment, please, to savor the irony of Michel Houellebecq writing a book about two men who do not play well with others.
Despite the jacket copy, The Map and the Territory is not a thriller. Nor would I call the book “playful” (also found in the jacket copy. This is a thoughtful, intelligent novel in which a lot happens without anything seeming to . Jed’s quiet existence and intense laser-focus on his work is completely incongruous to our current age of increasingly frenetic distractions. He exists in an existential vacuum and over the course of his life producing only three bodies of work. First a series of black & white still-life photographs of tools; second a series of paintings of tradesmen, which morph into portraits of celebrity businessmen and artists (including the portrait of Houellebecq and one of Jed’s father); and finally time-lapse videos recording the disintegration of photographs exposed to the elements. They are pictures of his friends and family. The works of art are perhaps the most interesting things about Jed.
All of this is in direct contrast to the character Michel Houellebecq – a man who delights in random bits of information and makes desperate lunges at happiness. On first meeting him, Jed discovers a dirty, drunken little leprechaun of a man. Towards the end of the book, prior to his murder, Houellebecq seems to be pulling himself together. He starts bathing, supplements his liquid diet with real food and buys a dog. He retires to his family home in the country. While he isn’t what I’d call a role-model, he certainly is the more entertaining character.
The first two parts of The Map and the Territory (over half the book) deal with the rise of Jed’s artistic career and his relationships. The third part deals almost exclusively with Houellebecq’s murder and the detective assigned to the case. The entire novel is written in the third person. It is my favorite narrative perspective. The first person focuses on character, second person targets the reader, but it is the third person that allows the reader to approach the author and observe him at works. It is the voice of god, a.k.a. the author. For that reason it has always seemed to me the way of telling a story that relies the least on artifice and gimmicks in order to engage readers. And because it is less caught up with an individual character’s development, it creates the space to deal in big themes – something Houellebecq seems to delight in. Along with a gallows humor, the author appears to be something of a nihilist. Everything that occurs in The Map and the Territory trends towards the mercenary (regardless of characters’ intentions). Art, love, filial relationships, murder – nothing is pure. While this is a fascinating, beautiful and cerebral novel, it is not a particularly comforting one.
It bears mentioning that French Slate published an article about The Map and the Territory on its release, accusing Houellebecq of plagiarism. The article showed that some of the factoids – the mating habits of a species of ants is the example cited – are lifted almost verbatim from French Wikipedia. Houellebecq claims that his “approach, muddling real documents and fiction” is all a part of his process and that there never an attempt to mislead readers. I believe him. Houellebecq is too talented a writer and the examples too prominently placed for plagiarism (if we define plagiarism as an attempt by an author to represent another’s work as his own) to be plausible. Plus, the inference is that an author steals because he believes the plagiarized work is somehow superior to his own. From all reports Houllebecq’s arrogance shatters that possibility. In the English edition of the book he goes so far as to thank Wikipedia in the acknowledgements.
This, along with a long list of other controversies and accusations (pornography, racism, anti-Islamic comments, misogyny, etc.) is what makes Houllebecq a difficult person to like or admire. Many critics seem to despise him. Which begs the question: Do we need to like, admire or even agree with an author in order to acknowledge his ability as a writer or to enjoy his book? And if we enjoy the book does that somehow make us complicit in the opinions and actions, or must we be automatically sympathetic to the characters, we are reading about? I bring these questions up in relation to Houellebecq because they are very relevant to his work – at least critics have tried to make them so. Controversies are easy to write about at length, whereas what is there really to say about his writing? If The Map and the Territory is representative of his other work – then it is, simply put, flawless.
The Tuvaches are a family of French shopkeepers who provide a very specific service to the citizens of a post-apocalyptic Paris: selling the implement...moreThe Tuvaches are a family of French shopkeepers who provide a very specific service to the citizens of a post-apocalyptic Paris: selling the implements necessary for suicide. Their motto: “Has your life been a failure? Let’s make your death a success.” In the Suicide Shop you can find handcrafted ropes with which to hang yourself, candies laced with arsenic mixed in jars with regular candies (Russian roulette for the very young), a poison du jour mixed-up by Madame Tuvache daily and – for those of an artistic temperament – a poisoned apple painting kit (complete with a small canvas and a paint set so that you can paint the apple before eating it).
Death has been good to this family. The Tuvaches have successfully operated The Suicide Shop for generations. But that changes with the birth of their youngest son. He is a child who laughs, and smiles and wishes the customers a good day. He has an outrageously sunny personality and it’s beginning to rub off on his older siblings. Such happiness is (forgive the pun) killing business.
Quirky, silly, delightfully light-hearted - the story rolls along with the comic timing of a French cabaret. The author, Jean Teulé, is also a film maker and The Suicide Shop was made into an animated film. The books structure lends itself to a screen adaptation. Each chapter is a set piece, advancing the plot in self-contained scenes that jump forward in years. And just when you think the author has decided to end on a cliché, you arrive at the jaw-dropping last sentence.
My one small, nit-picky criticism is Teulé’s decision to place his family in a dystopian future. While it doesn’t take anything away from the story, it doesn’t add anything to it either. No time is spent developing the world other than to make it clear that suicides have increased with the decline of the society. And so the insistence on events happening in some distant future – when they could have just as easily happened in a manipulated present – feels superfluous.
But, overall, this novel is a quick and entertaining read. Written at roughly a YA level, Sue Dyson does a wonderful job capturing the upbeat swing of the prose in her playful translation. I’d classify The Suicide Shop as dark gray versus black comedy (for example, it’s nowhere near as dark as the 1988 film Heathers) – so everyone from junior high school students up to and including adults should find something to enjoy in the ever-amusing antics of the Tuvaches.
In 1988 Chilean President and General Augusto Pinochet, after a 14-year dictatorship that began with the 1974 military coup which deposed then Preside...moreIn 1988 Chilean President and General Augusto Pinochet, after a 14-year dictatorship that began with the 1974 military coup which deposed then President Salvador Allende and in an attempt to legitimize his regime in the eyes of Western governments, called for a plebiscite. Citizens of Chile would vote – Yes or No – to Pinochet. “Yes” for Pinochet to remain in power and “No” for free elections. Overcoming the public’s fear of instability, unifying the disparate political parties of the left and withstanding government intimidation the “No” campaign miraculously won. The Days of the Rainbow is Antonio Skármeta’s fictional account of the making of that historic No! campaign. The film NO (nominated for an Oscar) by Chilean director Pablo Larraín is an adaptation of Skármeta’s unpublished play El Plebiscito, on the same subject.
If you come to The Days of the Rainbow after seeing the film it might help manage expectations to know that the book and film not only stray from the historical record – they differ significantly from each other. The Days of the Rainbow (the novel) features two protagonists. The first, Adrían Bettini, is a well-respected but unemployed ad executive who has been blacklisted by the Pinochet government. He is middle-aged, happily married with an 18-year old daughter. At the beginning of the book Bettini is approached by representatives from both the Yes! and No! and asked to head their respective campaigns. He, of course, chooses the No!
The second protagonist is Bettini’s daughter’s boyfriend, Nico Santos, who provides a first person narrative to his version of events. In the opening pages Nico’s father, a high school philosophy teacher, is arrested and disappears like thousands of others detained by the Pinochet government. These disappearances had become so commonplace that his father (who Nico refers to as Professor Santos as he is also his teacher) had discussed the possibility with Nico – dividing it into two possible scenarios. The Baroque and Barbarian syllogisms.
After Professor Santos is taken Patricia and Nico are instrumental in helping Patricia’s father develop the No! campaign. They help Bettini to understand that he needs to incorporate joy, laughter and even silliness for the No! to succeed. The Days of the Rainbow is a completely engaging novel, easy to get lost in. The prose, translated by Mery Botbol, is light and simple as is the story. Young love, silliness, good overcoming evil, hope – all of these are present. Like Robert Ampuero’s The Neruda Case (which would pair nicely with The Days of the Rainbow) the goal here is as much to entertain as to educate.
NO (the film) has an entirely different cast of characters. The daughter and Santos family are absent. Bettini is replaced by the much younger and hipper René. René is a successful (and employed) advertising executive. He rides a skateboard, is a single father, and has an estranged wife who is repeatedly arrested for protesting against the Pinochet government. While there are references to disappearances, no one attached to the main characters is made to disappear. The film focuses mostly on the marketing aspect of the No! campaign – the filming of the television spots and the attempts to intimidate the team behind them. The overall tone is definitely much darker than The Days of the Rainbow and the stakes feel much higher with René constantly looking over his shoulder in fear.
Different mediums require different formulas. It’s not surprising that the book, the film and the facts do not entirely line up. I’d argue that the similarities rather than the differences in the two interpretations Skármeta has given us serve to highlight what truly matters: the plebiscite as a historic event; that hope for a future without Pinochet was marketed to the Chilean public as a product (like a brand of soda or a microwave); and most importantly, that when the Chilean plebiscite was over those who voted Yes! and those who voted No! went back to their joint lives without incident.