27 February 2016

Oscar Coop-Phane: : Zénith-hôtel | Zenith Hotel (2012)

Oscar Coop-Phane's first novel, Zénith-hôtel – translated into English without the hyphen or the diacritics, but with the title partly hiding the excellent cover photo – was published when the author, who had spent some of the time working in a bar while writing it, was twenty-three years old. And the publisher Finitude sees fit to mention that Coop-Phane read Emmanuel Bove, Louis Calaferte, Henri Calet, Eugène Dabit, Paul Gadenne, Raymond Guérin and Georges Hyvernaud between the author's studies and his small-time jobs. His youth doesn't show through in the novel, though, and this fascinating little work (124 pages) earned the Prix de Flore in 2012.

Zénith-hôtel concerns the life of a street prostitute ('not a call-girl or anything like that'), although the principal point of interest here is Nanou's clientele. Nanou lives on the sixth floor in a grubby room where she makes coffee, uses her neighbour's shower and crashes to bed at the end of a day rather like, she observes, a factory worker, only her factory is the street and the assemble line is populated by cocks.

This is a day in Nanou's life, and after her general introduction there follows a description of the existences of her clients, each followed by the initial exchange of dialogue between Nanou and customer, and then a few pages of Nanou's comments on her lifestyle. As an example of the dialogue, this is particularly interesting, and I translate:

'I have a dog. It is OK for him to come with us?'
'You wanna do things with your mutt?'
'No, I don't want to leave him in the street. He'll die. He won't move. His name is Bâton.'
'So let's go then, and bring Bâton.'

Nanou's clients for this particular day, then:

– Dominique, who is pretty crazy, who imagines that his parents, the maid and a neighbour wanted to kill him by crushing his head between the wooden piano cover and the keyboard. He didn't know why they were out to get him, but he had to stop it, and now he's happy that he gets decent meals and can use the library, and his friend Georges has money put aside for cigarettes, coffee and the occasional dope, even if it means Dominique sucking him off from time to time. And just look at the forty-eighth birthday present Georges has given him: Nanou for a whole twenty minutes.

– Emmanuel is with his fat wife Estelle, and he's OK, and they're both pions, supervising the schoolkids, but Emmanuel (unlike Estelle) doesn't want any of his own. On Sundays Estelle goes to see her mother, so he masturbates and fantasizes, until he goes to Nanou, who also has big breasts the way he likes them.

– Victor is the one with the dog Bâton, who hasn't long left to live, which is one of life's tragedies, especially as Bâton is really all Victor has to live for, and who would like them both to go at the same time. He's even thought of Gardenal as a means of suicide for them both, but...

– But there are always things to live for. Take Luc, who after his marriage collapse moved back to his parents and now lives on the ground floor and repairs mopeds for a living. Luc uses the local bar 'Babylone', where there's the obliging Bouboule who's only too pleased to give regulars a quick blow job in the toilet. Luc's nevertheless a sad case, with his mopeds, smoking his beer and drinking his cigarettes, er...?

– Jipé Végétal (and his father says he and his rather fat brother Antoine should be proud of the surname) is to co-manage the bar 'L'Épervier' and has always been more go-getting, and attracted more girls than his brother. Nanou will help him clear his head.

– Robert, oh, Robert, he's just odd. Very odd. He regularly buys bonsaï trees, but insists on calling them 'dwarf trees', gives them each a name, and is worried about who will inherit them after he dies. And what a pity he couldn't get further than the first sentence of his projected novel: '"Have you never noticed", he said to him, "that an empty cup on your table in a café seems completely normal to you if it's your own, but dirty, indeed disgusting, if it was there before you?"'. Robert thought it a good idea to begin with a small truism, although unfortunately his literary career ended with this sentence.

Here and there I caught glimpses of Oulipo, and certainly this book isn't a story as such, although it's a series of stories in a way. Oscar Coop-Phane, in a video clip in which he's talking about Zénith-hôtel, reminds us of what Céline whom he's fond of quoting said: if you want stories, then read a newspaper.

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