29 June 2020

Éric Chevillard: Juste Ciel (2015)

The fictional Albert Moindre has received a number of brief mentions in Éric Chevillard's other novels, and moindre is one of Chevillard's favourite words, but this is the first time he's had the role of protagonist. Here too we learn – in an obscure paragraph which doesn't spell things out but relies on the reader's attention and knowledge of his previous novel L'Auteur et moi – that the 'author' didn't in fact kill him. Although Albert is in fact dead.

Yes, Moindre has been killed in a road accident in which he collided with an olive and dates delivery vehicle, and now speaks as a disembodied voice or ghost, someone waiting to discover his fate as he adapts to no longer having a body, although he still feels the contours of the human he was, and of course he's now a citizen of no country and his 'language' is international.

Generally speaking, as with Chevillard's later books –  I think – there's more of a narrative, and this novel is even divided into five different sections, the final four (following the 'introductory' section) actually being named:

The first is 'Bureau des Élucidations', in which Albert talks to a female – he thinks  voice with a sense of humour: the sign on the door says 'Come in without knocking', and of course Moindre can't knock anyway as he has no body – just a little friendly joke. Albert soon learns that these 'people' know absolutely everything about all the dead, even tiny, apparently insignificant details, all the thoughts the dead have had in life, all the people they've known or unknowingly crossed paths with, even the dreams they've had. He learns that his estranged wife Palmyre once tried to move back in with him with their daughter Sidonie, but as he was in a drunken stupor he didn't answer the door so missed his chance. Back in the sky, he has already met Clarisse, an American who died at one hundred years of age, and who discovers to her horror that the title of Miss Colorado 1931 was rigged for another girl to win.

Together, Clarisse and Albert move to the next section – 'Observatoire' – where they can see anyone they choose to see down on Earth. This is the perfect opportunity for Chevillard to indulge in his love of lists, as Albert zaps through all his former school pals to find out what they're doing. He also sees that Sidonie has his ashes in her room, and can predict that her latest boyfriend will soon die of a heart attack, and although he can tell that Sidonie isn't really serious about him, the young guy is serious about her.

'Service des Réclamations' is where the recently dead go to complain about all the injustices they have received on Earth, and is another chance for Chevillard to let loose about another of his favourite things: saying how completely screwed up the whole world is. Albert rants and rants about the world being run by idiots who make everything hopeless for everyone else, how life is out of joint, there are so many things that need changing. The voice will see what she can do.

The final section is 'Service des Rétributions', where we discover what has been decided. One of Albert's complaints was that he was born several decades too late: when visiting a cemetery one day when he was alive, he notices the grave of an Adèle Mage (1881-1900) and becomes fully convinced that she was the person who should have been his ideal partner. He even writes a book of poems about her, although the injustice that it was never published angers and deeply hurts him. But the voice tells him that the book has been examined and discovered to be rubbish and for this, er, 'crime' he will be punished by being returned to the body he was obviously so unhappy living in.

Those who control the dead can also control time and 'when?' is a question totally alien to them: they can send people back to earth before a disaster happens, and so can prevent it from happening;  in fact they've been emotionally moved by Clarisse's story and sent her back to the States to become Miss Colorado 1931.

Albert learns that he can in fact be sent back to France and his fatal accident avoided. But that isn't quite going to happen. Albert was an expert on transporter bridges and there is due to be serious trouble at Biscaye. Albert asks why they don't send Ferdinand Arnodin (1845-1924), the man who invented transporter bridges. No, these people also have the power to give a person another life as a completely different person: so Albert re-joins the world as Ferdinand Arnodin!

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