28 February 2015

François Gravel: Benito (1987)

I was finding this book particularly interesting, especially up to the first half. Benito Brouillard (the thirteenth – or fourteenth if you include a miscarriage – child of the family), as his surname name suggests, is something of a foggy character. As a child of such a large family even his parents don't recognise him, although he does his best to hide himself away in any case.

Benito has something of the Forrest Gump in him, an innocent in a world he doesn't understand, or maybe understands too well. He decides to skip school as it's of no help or interest to him, and it's particularly maths that he's bad at: he has an almost total block on numbers. In his truant wanderings he's welcomed by the kindly Adrienne, the local brothel keeper who sees his very young eyes are aimed at her prostitute Nancy, and imagines him as a future customer.

This is not to be, though, as Benito has no interest in sex. He sees his future as designing plaques for trophies, walking in his father's shoes, although his father takes to the bottle big time and dies, leaving Benito with debts that his brothers and his mother are only too willing to have the clueless young man sign as his own. So they leave as soon as the deed is done, with Benito rattling around a huge house, with many demanding letters that he can't understand so ignores.

But Benito has a gift: he can listen. And many people come to tell him their problems. He listens, but doesn't advise, although he's seen by many people as being extremely wise. (There's an obvious criticism of psychiatrists being paid for nothing here.) And his clients pay him with a great deal of food and alcohol (although he doesn't drink), and even pay him money (which he doesn't understand the meaning of). He gives much of the food and alcohol away.

And then Nancy needs somewhere to live and she moves into the Brouillard home on a strictly platonic basis with her daughter Éléonore, whom she's protecting from the life that Nancy's had as a prostitute, and even tells her daughter that all men are out for only one thing and must be avoided, with the single exception of course of the sexless Benito. And Nancy doesn't take financial advantage of this (somewhat autistic) kindly man, becomes his unpaid secretary, regulates his appointments now that he's a kind of professional advisor, and looks after the money for him that he can't look after himself.

Then along comes the sexually innocent middle-class Raphaël who's fallen in love with the lovely innocent Éléonore who now works in a chocolate factory, and initially there's embarrassment all round, but the story still seems to work fine, although... Although the centre of gravity has shifted, the fascinating Benito now takes a back seat in the novel, in fact it's no longer his novel, and the impression I'm left with is just disappointment: what started out as a really promising book just drifts into, er, fog, just implodes. Which is a great shame considering that it started out so promisingly.

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