6 October 2015

Emmanuel Carrère: La Moustache | The Mustache (1986)

This Folio edition of Emmanuel Carrère's La Moustache has a picture of Otto Dix's painting Le Roi des coiffures ('The King of Hairdressing') on the cover, and seems to indicate a quite amusing book. In fact the book is very amusing – most of the way, at least. The author moves the reader through an atmosphere of unease, and there really can only be one answer to the mysteries in this book. But there can be no way of knowing that the book turns into something very disturbing, in fact into a horror story at the very end.

But to the beginning of the novel. The narrator has access to the thoughts of Marc, an architect who's been married to Agnès, who's in publishing, for five years. When she goes to the shops on one occasion, Marc decides to shave his mustache off, and the excessively fussy narrative goes into great detail describing how he goes about this. But when Agnés returns she disappoints Marc by not saying a word about her husband's changed face. And when they go for dinner with their good friends Serge and Véronique, neither of them says anything about it either.

When they get home that night Marc introduces the subject of the silence surrounding the lack of hair between his chin and his upper lip, only to be told that he's never had a mustache. This even leads to Véronique being urged, in spite of the late hour, to phone Serge and Véronique, although they only verify the absurdity: Marc has never worn the mustache that he knows he's worn for many years. Marc knows that his wife's given to practical jokes, although he's never been the subject of one before, and her continuation of it is a little too much.

Furthermore, when he goes to work Jérôme (his  best friend) and Samira say nothing about his facial change: surely Agnès hasn't made them join in the joke too? Well, he thinks of all manner of reasons for this mystery, his marriage is suffering, maybe he should just play their game in order to bury the problem? Easier said than done.

His obsession continues, even to the point of pretending to be blind and asking a passerby if it's his photo on his identity card or he hasn't got someone else's by mistake. Yes, it's him – and he's wearing a mustache. This is a great relief, and proves that he's not the one who's going mad but his wife, so she's the one who needs the psychiatrist they've been talking about. Especially as she tries to scratch off the mustache she's convinced he's drawn on his identity card. And then she seems to have hidden the photos from their holiday in Java which prove his point, although she says they have never been to Java! And then, truly bizarrely, she claims they don't know anyone called Serge and Véronique, and Marc's parents, whom they regularly see, according to Agnès is in fact now just Marc's mother as his father died the year before. Agnès is clearly howling mad and needs urgent help.

But for some reason Jérôme too thinks the mental problem lies with Marc. How can this be? They must be having an affair and want to see Marc locked away. But why so when Agnès can so easily just ask for a divorce? Marc seems to be in a cleft stick and there's nothing for it but to run away in order to avoid the padded cell. So on an impulse Marc lands in Hong Kong, for relaxation taking the ferry backwards and forwards to Kowloon all day. But what to do with his life? How about Macao? Then he finds Agnès in the hotel room waiting for him as if nothing's happened. And so the story ends as it's begun – in a bathroom, only this time it doesn't end with shaving off a mustache, but with a final few pages of graphic self-mutilation.

The back cover tells potential readers that they're strongly advised not to peek at the last pages of the book. But there's no warning to the squeamish to avoid this truly weird, horrific book at all costs: it should be given an 18 certificate, just like movies that take things a little far. Personally I found it unputdownable, although I can understand any negative reactions.

My other posts on Emmanuel Carrère:

Emmanuel Carrère: La Classe de neige
Emmanuel Carrère: D'autres vies que la mienne | Lives Other than My Own
Emmanuel Carrère: Un roman russe

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