21 November 2015

Philippe Labro: Le Flûtiste invisible (2013)

The invisible flautist (or flutist) of the title is culled from a quotation of Albert Einstein's, in which he said that everyone and everything dances to the invisible flautist's music. Chance, things over which we have no control, can and indeed do play a great role in deciding the future for us, can overturn our lives. This theme is taken up in this novel, which is a in three parts: 'Bye Bye Blackbird', 'La Ligne de mire' ('The Line of Fire'), and 'Le Regard de Toma' ('Toma's Look').

In 'Bye Bye Blackbird' the narrator happens to be heard whistling the eponymous song by an elderly man who has very profound memories of it. He invites the whistler for a drink, and the narrator is spellbound by Frédéric's story of his sea voyage to New York after World War II, on his eventual way to Boston, where he has earned a bursary to Harvard. Frédéric was a twenty-year-old virgin at the time, an affliction he claims was normal in those days. But it is at the end of the story that he loses his virginity, although only after being teased through great frustration for several days by a beautiful American girl nicknamed Blackbird, or Blackie, who likes playing the song on her wind-up gramophone. But that's the end of the affair and she won't allow him to see her after the journey. And forever after Frédéric remains unsatisfied, going though four divorces and many women.

'La Ligne de mire' concerns Rick, a man who collars the narrator in a bar and informs him that during the Algerian war, when he was very young, one of his jobs was to kill the narrator. He had him in his line of fire but for some reason he couldn't pull the trigger. After the tale they part, and later Rick – down on his luck – finds employment with two photographers of trouble spots. But they're killed in Vietnam and Rick is left with the very valuable pictures they've taken, and he invites the narrator to his agency's private showing of them. The narrator attends and the woman sitting next to him becomes the woman of his life.

'Le Regard de Toma' concerns the narrator's neighbour Toma, a Jew who was born in Hungary, which he escaped from when the Russians moved in in 1956: but that wasn't chance, it was his own ingenuity that did that. The chance part came some years before when he managed to escape from being sent to a Nazi concentration camp: twice. On the first occasion it was a result of changing floors from the brickworks building where he was living with his mother – the Nazis only took the people on the other floor. And then on another occasion he was in a stifling and vile-smelling cattle truck packed in with many others on the way to Auschwitz, only there's trouble in Vienna and the train is re-routed, it's the end of the war anyway and time for the Nazi troops to flee and leave the prisoners to find their way home.

Three engaging short stories in one novel. Fine, although I couldn't help feeling that there was some artificiality about the whole thing, as if the author had had three stories hanging around and decided to turn them into a novel. Maybe I'm just cynical.

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