|Oct/Nov 2014 Reviews & Interviews|
The Incorrigible Optimists Club
Atlantic. 2014. 624 pp.
ISBN 978 1 84887 541 8.
This book begins in 1980 as two men, who have not seen each other for nearly 20 years, meet in the Montparnasse cemetery at the burial of a famous writer. We are not told the name of the writer, but clearly it is Jean-Paul Sartre. Sartre plays no significant part in the book, but he and Joseph Kessel, both of whom were known for their Communist sympathies, turn up later in the book as a members of a chess club consisting mostly of men who have fled from communist regimes in Eastern Europe.
I did not understand this first chapter until I re-read it after finishing the book. It prefaces an account of the life of French/Italian teenager, Michel Marin, in the years between 1959 and 1964. This was a time when the "cold war" and the "Algerian question" dominated French media, and the eruption of Rock-and-Roll into the lives of teenagers was the cause of much parental concern. Michel, who is the narrator in this book, does not like school, he cheats at maths, and he likes to spend his spare time at the baby-football (table football) tables in the local cafes. He is a super-star at baby football.
One cafe, in particular, the Café Balto, becomes his favourite haunt and he begins to get to know the older men who meet in a curtained off part of the cafe to play chess and, sometimes, to conduct heated arguments. It is the past lives of these men, especially the experiences of those who escaped from Communist Russia and who are now struggling with problems which this has caused in their current lives, which make up the core of this book. Michel's own life, and his friendship with some of these men, also fills many chapters.
The author, Jean-Michel Guenassia, is a well-regarded and experienced screenwriter, and he knows how to tell a good story. This, his first novel, was awarded the Prix Goncourt des Lycéens, and it attracted accolades from Le Figaro, Lire, and La Parisienne, which now decorate the book's back cover. La Parisienne called it "A debut, a doorstopper, a masterpiece." The first two, it certainly is, and some chapters are exceptionally vividly written. For me, however, it is not a masterpiece.
Although I was gripped by the stories of some of the characters, these are told in chapters which alternate with Michel's own accounts of his teenage trials and angst over problems with school, family, his photography hobby and his love-life. I have to admit that I began to skim through some of these chapters, because I was more interested in knowing what was happening to other people. Michel's relationship with his older brother, Frank, and with his brother's girl-friend, Cécile, was one story I really wanted to follow. Frank runs away from home to join the fighting in Algeria and then deserts and returns to live an undercover life in Paris. Frank and Cécile, however, vanished from the book and left me wanting to know more about what happened to them. The same thing happens with other characters.
My feeling, in the end, was that too many stories were woven into the book and that it was too long. Other readers, however, have clearly thought differently. And the translation from the French, by Euan Cameron, is excellent.