30 April 2015

Laurent Mauvignier: Ceux d'à côté (2002)

Laurent Mauvignier sculpts – I think that's a decent word to describe them – internal monologues, meandering, poetic, seemingly endless sentences by pained individuals, people terrified by the slings and arrows of existence, numbed by emptiness and striving desperately to fill in the blanks: they are living in an existential jigsaw without end.

Ceux d'à côté refers in part to the people neighbouring Catherine – Claire and Sylvain, although Claire's fiancé Sylvain has never actually lived there: if he had, there would probably never have been a serious crime that deeply affects everyone concerned.

Slowly, the events in the story come together through two voices, whose thoughts are revealed through alternating sequences. At first there's that of Catherine, a part-time school canteen worker studying for her exams to become a music teacher, although if she passes or not is of no interest here, the substance being far meatier. And then there's the voice of a man whose name is never revealed: to do so would humanise him a little too much perhaps, although he is – somewhat disturbingly – sympathetically portrayed in certain respects.

Internal monologues can be parsimonious, only doling out dribs and drabs of information every so often, and such is the case here. Catherine lives in a block of flats – no doubt an HLM – close to Claire, who takes her out to the beach with Sylvain some weekends, and by this action Catherine can at least attempt to move away from the void that surrounds her, her existence otherwise bounded by the elderly man above moving his chair on his uncarpeted floor and her (unnamed) goldfish who surely lives a life symbolically similar to her own?

And then the rapist overturns everything, attacking Claire and leaving her for dead: only she's not dead, she survives, but has to leave for another town with Sylvain, away from the bad memories, away from her friend Cathy with whom she now largely communicates over the phone. But Catherine, whose sexual life seems for some time to have been reduced to one-off encounters, almost envies Claire.

The nameless man, the perpetrator of the unspeakable (the word 'rape' is never mentioned) is confused, as empty as Catherine, with no self knowledge of why he has – and it certainly appears to be his first time – performed this horrific act. He tortures himself over it, is possibly as empty as Catherine, and haunts the area of the crime where he doesn't know if he committed just ('just'?) rape or murder too.

Towards the end of the novel the two internal voices almost merge, with the rapist seeing Catherine in the same places, such as in the public garden feeding the ducks, or in the bar-tabac near the block of flats where Claire is moving out, where he regularly takes a coffee and fills the ashtray while reading the café paper for an hour, and thinks Catherine doesn't notice him, but she knows all his movements, knows he's behind her in the cinema, although (unlike with Claire) he gives up following her. So they never meet in any verbal or physical way, although there remains a nagging doubt – for me at least – as to whether the two voices come from the same person: in other words, is the man's internal monologue an imaginative creation by Catherine, as there are a few suggestions that point that way?

My other Mauvignier posts:

Laurent Mauvignier: Loin d'eux
Laurent Mauvignier: Dans la foule
Laurent Mauvignier: Tout mon amour
Laurent Mauvignier: Seuls
Laurent Mauvignier: Continuer
Laurent Mauvignier: Ce que j'appelle oubli
Laurent Mauvignier: Autour du monde
Laurent Mauvignier: Une Légère blessure

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