10 November 2013

Jean Teulé: Le Magasin des suicides (2007)

The subject of Le Magasin des suicides is just that: a suicide shop, a place where all manner of items – nooses with ropes of different lengths, sharpened sabres and ceremonial kimonos for sappuka (hara-kiri being considered a vulgar expression), heavy weights for drowning or defenestration, poisoned sweets or liquid concoctions, etc. The shop's motto is 'Vous avez raté votre vie? Avec nous, vous réussirez votre mort!' ('You've failed in life? With us, you'll succeed in death!').

The book is set in France in the city of Religions Oubliées ('Forgotten Religions') at some vague future time when the currency is the euro-yen and ecological disasters are commonplace occurrences. Depression is rife and suicide a normal fact of life, given government approval with few provisos. Nearby commercial outlets are named after famous suicide figures: the florist's is called Tristan et Iseult after France's star-crossed lovers, the restaurant François Vatel after the famous cook, and the disco Kurt Cobain after Nirvana.

The Tuvache ('Kill Cow'? 'You, cow'? No, I give up) family has held Le Magasins des suicides for ten generations, and is proud of its emotional investment in the depressive, the sombre, the pessimist, in anything morbid and joyless. The family are all named after famous suicide figures: the father is Mishima (after the writer Yukio); the mother is Lucrèce (after the legendary Roman figure Lucretia); the elder son Vincent after Van Gogh, and he's anorexic and has his head in bandages because of his pain; and daughter Marilyn's name of course needs no explanation, although Marilyn Tuvache is rather fat.

So the family thrives, or rather gets by very well, on profound miserabilism. But then along comes the latest addition to the family – Alan, who becomes the family's Polyanna, full of optimism and seeing positive in everything negative.* He is obviously the bane of the family.

However, Alan's optimism begins to spread contagion in the family, he sabotages the Tuvache's suicide goods, turns the family concern into a thriving joke shop, and transforms his relatives: Marilyn becomes desirable and gets engaged to Ernest (named after Hemingway, of course), Vincent starts eating and can't get enough pancakes, the whole family would rather die than lose Alan, Vincent even takes off his bandages to save his life, although the final four words – perhaps necessarily – change the climax.

I didn't particularly find the end disappointing – more the whole thing, in a way: this is inventive, full of imagination, even gripping, very funny; but it's also predictable, awfully contrived and artificial, totally unbelievable but then that's part of its attraction. I'm very glad I read it, and shall read more of Jean Teulé. But there's just something irredeemably silly about it. I suspect that's the point. 

*It takes more than a third of the way through this short novel to discover that he's named after Alan Turing, who died from an apple he'd poisoned because society wasn't then ready to accept homosexuality. The Tuvache family sell kits with a poisoned apple and painting equipment only on the condition that the buyer wills the apple painting to the shop – they have a large number of apple paintings on display, including one in the Cubist style and a blue one executed by a colour blind suicide case.

My other Jean Teulé post:

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Jean Teulé: Le Montespan | Monsieur Montespan

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