15 January 2015

Daniel Pennac: Au bonheur des ogres | The Scapegoat (1985)

Au bonheur des ogres (1985) is translated into English by Oulipo member Ian Monk as The Scapegoat, and this is the first of the 'la Saga Malaussène' series, which also includes La Fée Carabine (1987), La Petite Marchande de prose (1989), Monsieur Malaussène (1995), Monsieur Malaussène au théâtre (1996), Des chrétiens et des maures (1996) and Aux fruits de la passion (1999).

Some have called Au bonheur des ogres a crime novel, which for me doesn't really hit the descriptive spot: I'd hesitantly call it a superior comedy within the framework of a crime novel, or maybe a crime novel lost inside a comic novel.

Descriptions are therefore not easy for this book, which has a multitude of characters and of course bows to Émile Zola's Au Bonheur des dames, set in a large department store in the late nineteenth century and pointing to a future when the small shop will almost be swallowed up. But Au bonheur des ogres is set at the end of the twentieth century, and although the plot involves a series of bomb attacks on the department store Magasin, a great deal of the interest is on the dysfunctional  Malaussène family.

Bernard  Malaussène is the narrator, who works at Magasin and lives in Belleville in the 20th arrondissement, earning enough money to keep his brothers and sisters alive: in fact they're half-brothers and sisters because the absentee mother spends most of her time with a different partner and seems to return home pregnant at the end of each amorous adventure.

I was in some doubt as to whether Bernard's sexual equipment was also dysfunctional because in his first sexual adventure with the very big-breasted and highly desirable 'Aunt Julia' he only has a 'mollusc between two sea shells', although he fully rises to a later occasion.

Aunt Julia isn't an aunt at all but a journalist he caught shoplifting and rescued from the store detective: the aunt tag could be seen as a compensatory device because he has unexercised incestuous desires towards his beloved sister Clara, a girl who photographs everything she sees and has her bac exams coming up soon.

Of the other siblings there's Louna, who's pregnant by a doctor, decides not to have an abortion and gives birth to twins at the end, causing potential strain on the Malaussène budget; Thérèse who can predict the future and works out that the people who died in the bombings had it coming astrologically; Jeremy is twelve years old and experimenting with explosives; le Petit, as his name suggests, is the youngest and draws ogres. I mustn't forget the remaining member of the family: smelly Julius, the epileptic dog.

Bernard's job is in the complaints department, although he describes himself as a professional scapegoat: he's really good at sending customers back home after they are emotionally blackmailed into withdrawing their complaints about faulty goods – Bernard feigns really wild panic attacks, pretending to have the threat of dismissal hanging over him, leading to poverty for his large family.

I could go on about the riot of characters who work in the shop, or the murders that aren't quite what they appear to be, but this is probably enough to give more than a sprinkling of an idea of the novel's content and its style, which is by the way breakneck because all the characters and the events are shovelled (I think that's an appropriate term) into under three hundred pages.

I'll probably not make it through all the seven novels of the saga, although I'm certainly giving myself a clearer idea of what Pennac is up to by reading the second volume next. Au bonheur des ogres is very liberally peppered with various slang words, and there's a slight feel of Queneau (à la Zazie dans le métro) to it, although Pennac's main intertextual reference – apart from Zola – is Carlo Emilio Gadda's Quer pasticciaccio brutto de via Merulana (1944), which is translated into English as That Awful Mess on the Via Merulana, and into French as L’Affreux pastis de la rue des Merles.


My other posts on Daniel Pennac:

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Daniel Pennac: La Fée carabine | The Fairy Gunmother
Daniel Pennac: La Petite marchande de prose | Write to Kill
Daniel Pennac: Journal d'un corps 

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