31 October 2021

Philippe Jaenada: La Serpe (2010)

Philippe Jaenada's La Serpe is a book of 635 tightly-filled pages, and although it would be impossible to read it seriously at one sitting, it's very easy to pick it up from where you left off without forgetting anything. Essentially (and only essentially) it follows on from Jaenada's interest in faits divers, particularly outstanding events which happened some time ago, in this case the 1941 savage triple murder by sickle of Henri Girard's father Gérard, his maiden aunt Amélie, and a servant in the Château d'Escoire near Périgueux. The evidence against Henri seems overwhelming: he's the only person in the château to have survived; he's always running out of money and 'borrowing' from his rich family; he's the only heir (but for how long: is his father about to remarry?); he's said to be violent; he's said to hate his father and aunt; who else could have got into the building ?; he recently borrowed a sickle (the murder weapon) from tenant farmer neighbours and it was recently sharpened; etc. What more evidence could anyone want to prove him guilty and sever his head from his body? And yet the brilliant lawyer Maurice Garçon comes along and Henri is found innocent: it's taken nineteen months, in which the imprisoned Henri has had to endure freezing conditions, sharing one water outlet and one toilet facility with a great number of other prisoners, fighting off bed bugs and fleas and so on, but at least he not only retains his head but – in a later life as Gérard Arnaud (his father's first name and the name his mother was born with) – he becomes a successful writer.*

What Jaenada does is re-tell the story, but in an idiosyncratic way which includes a great number of digressions: about his research on the story; what he finds through Googling; going to Périgueux for ten days and staying at a Mercure hotel with a receptionist who looks a bit like Pauline Dubuisson (a 'true story' murderer in his 2015 novel La Petite Femelle); information about his own family; how many whiskies he has before dinner (and how he gets a better measure after the first one: you leave a one euro tip)), and where; we get a multitude of digressions and digressions are very much part of the book, part of Jaenada's writing: this book would in fact be very much reduced, almost be without the sense of humour which carries it and makes it irresistable without those digressions. Even the joke about the hopelessly drunk cop in Pigalle who has an adventure with a prostitute and mistakes his wife for her is par for the course, it's all part of this wonderful reading experience. Since reading Babouillec, I question how many people don't realise they're aspies, or at least – if the internet isn't turning us all into aspies – maybe it's hugely magnifying the aspie element in those of us who were already partly there?

That's not my (or Jaenada's) final word though, as he re-visits the trial in the local archive department, sifts though trial statements and finds glaring lies, omissions and faults, finds the trial already weighted to find Henri guilty, nibbles and bites his way through the insane idea of sickle-as-weapon-used-by-Henri (an intelligent man) and many other apparent givens, he examines much other 'evidence' used against Henri, and more or less comes to the conclusion that it couldn't possibly have been him. So who? Ah, that's the unanswered question.

If I didn't read another Jaenada book, I think I'd be making a mistake.

*Georges Arnaud's first novel, Le Salaire de la peur, was first published in 1950 and released in film version directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot in 1953.

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