“The saddest thing in the world? A broken violin.”—Frédéric Dard, Le bourreau pleure

‘L’objet le plus triste du monde ? Je crois que c’est un violon brisé. En tout cas, c’est la vue de la boîte à violon écrasée sur la route, avec les cordes de l’instrument s’en échappant, qui m’a le plus serré le cœur. Elle symbolisait l’accident plus encore que la jeune femme étendue en bordure du fosse, les doigts griffant la terre sèche et les jupes relevées sur des cuisses admirables.’

“The saddest thing in the world? I think it’s a broken violin. Certainly, seeing the violin case smashed on the roadway, with the instrument’s strings coming out, is what touched my heart most. It said ACCIDENT more strongly than the young woman stretched out on the side of the ditch, her fingers scratching the dry earth and her dress flopped up to show off her admirable thighs.”

— Frédéric Dard, Le bourreau pleure

What a rare treat it is to pick a book in a foreign language at random from a shelf in a friend’s mother-in-law’s home and read a first sentence like that one. I immediately asked to borrow it and finished the book on the bus ride home. (or The Executioner Cries) is from 1956, and reads like Jim Thompson’s The Getaway, set in Spain.

On a languorous Spanish vacation, the narrator runs over this girl, then fetches her back to his hotel. She recovers quickly from the accident. She turns out, however, to be amnesiac and can’t remember her name, who she is, or what she was doing in Spain, since she speaks French like a native. The narrator promptly falls in love with her and vice versa. Who is she? He traces her through the labels of her clothes to a suburb of Paris, discovers her identity and her past, and then, in best Thompson fashion, exits his own relatively conventional life to join her in the kind of twisted existential misery that could sour you permanently on the notion of “following your heart.”

On a cursory check, I don’t see Le bourreau pleure ever having been translated into English. Dard is best known for his San-Antonio series of spy novels, but this one also is still in print, fifty years after initial publication.

Fortuitously, I recently read this intriguing guide to how to write a novel in a weekend, authored by the legendary Michael Moorcock, famous for his Elric of Melniboné sword-and-sorcery novels and his bizarre and genre-defying Jerry Cornelius novels. Having last picked up a Moorcock when I was in high school, back in the 20th Century, I recall them as being completely impossible to understand or remember after having read, but lots of books are like that to me (a reason why I have such trouble working on this blog; imagine finding books to care about, week after week). Still, you have to give the fellow credit for figuring out a pretty simple formula for novel-writing.

The entire way through the Dard book, I am thinking of how it pretty much fits the model of the Lester Dent master pulp-novel formula, which Moorcock lovingly describes. You could call Bourreau formulaic, with the proviso that Dard uses the formula to the same frightening effect that Thompson did. Take the novel as a metaphor for life. Then reduce the novel to a formula, as in classic Lester-Dent pulp fiction. That’s life as we live it, most of us, according to a formula: one cup oatmeal, three cups coffee, and $2.25 for the subway to work.

Dard’s couple ends up fleeing to a broken-down old house outside an anonymous Spanish town, in a setting that resembles a Krazy Kat comic strip:

The loneliness of the place had something depressing about it. It didn’t exactly resemble Spain; rather it was like the Australian desert, something flat and infinite, with low, flat, black trees. Whose idea was it to have built such a tumbledown house in this desolate spot?…At that moment, I couldn’t stop thinking that if Hell existed, it would resemble where I was now living.

My question is this: who is really living in Hell, the character or the reader? Bourreau comes to its conclusion too soon afterward for the answer to be resolved.

“When we have the money, it’s right back on this road again”—Mr. Slaughter, R McCammon

‘Now don’t think I have the slightest intention of letting him go,’ Greathouse said. ‘That would be a crime against humanity. But listen, Matthew: we can make him believe we’re in accord, and then when we have the money, it’s right back on this road again, across the river and on to put him behind bars. What do you say?’

Mister Slaughter, Robert McCammon, Part II, Chapter 9

Idiot! Of course you say, “No!” Stop! STOP! Of course, he’ll say “OK” (or something less anachronistic).

Of course, this is where the book really starts. All 121 pages previous were just back-story, introducing the characters. Here’s where the protagonists make their choice to let out the insanity that the rest of the book—a serial-killer thriller set in Colonial New York—must by rights encompass. Why the author didn’t start right here, I don’t know. That would have made some kind of sense.

Did people say “crime against humanity” in 1702?

‘What you are describing is an impossible idyll.’ –Ronan Bennett, Zugzwang

He sighed and rubbed his tired eyes. ‘My dream is to have a little house out in the country,’ he said, ‘by a lake or a river, where I could fish, and the sun would be shining and the children would play and in the evenings we would sit down together for dinner and there would only be us, the family—my family. Nothing else, no one else. A simple meal, a light breeze, deer and rabbits running over the fields. And I would sleep for ten hours and wake refreshed and content and the day would start all over again, the sun shining and the children playing.’

 ‘What you are describing is an impossible idyll.’

 ‘I said it was a dream, didn’t I? It’s never going to happen. My life is not like that. It never will be like that. But what’s wrong with having a harmless little dream?’

 ‘Does it help you solve the fundamental problem of your life?’

 ‘Which is what?’

 ‘I don’t know. You won’t tell me.’

—Ronan Bennett, Zugzwang
Admit it, if like Ronan Bennett, you had thought of naming your novel Zugzwang you would have rewritten it so that the title made some kind of sense given the plot, characters, and setting. And Bennett’s historical thriller, which I borrowed from the local library the other day, whips up some kind of intrigue in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1914, right before the October Revolution, involving a chess tournament and a Jewish psychoanalyst. I haven’t finished it yet, but it looks promising.
Zugzwang is a chess and game-theory term for a situation in which (as Wikipedia puts it): “every move would make their position worse, and they would be better off if they could pass and not move.”
The part I’ve quoted is where the analyst, Otto Spethmann, has one of his patients, a high-level Bolshevik called Petrov, on his couch. I like how the overly realistic analysand becomes the romantic, while Spethmann, the protagonist, who is ordinarily kind of flighty, becomes very focused and direct while treating his patients.
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John Le Carré, ‘The Night Manager’

Night Manager

“On it flows, back and forth, a checkered stream of puzzled reminiscence: at home as they sit dog-tired from the plow before their flickering television sets, on fogged-out evenings in the Snug as they sip their third beers and gaze at the plank floor. Dusk falls, the mist rolls in and sticks to the sash windows like steam, there’s not a breath. The day’s wind stops dead, the crows go quiet. On one short stroll to the pub you smell warm milk from the dairy, paraffin stoves, coal fires, pipe smoke, silage and seaweed from the Lanyon. A helicopter is plodding out to Scilly. A tanker is lowing in the sea fog. The church tower’s chimes bang in your ear like a boxing gong. Everything is single, everything a separate smell or sound or piece of remembering. A footstep in the lane snaps like a broken neck.”
John Le Carré, The Night Manager

In the endless stacks of dross paperbacks that pile up in corners of the secret city, there are one or two good ones. The Night Manager, for one, showed up in a box of junk fiction. The story is hackneyed: “Tough guy vs. evil mastermind.” But on a couple pages he’s got some nice bits of writing, including these lines above.