Thursday, September 27, 2007

Review: The Little Girl and the Cigarette

trans. Charlotte Mandell
ISBN 978-1-933633-12-1
$14.95 US / $20.95 CAN
Melville House Publishing
Hoboken, New Jersey 2006

“The law said the condemned man could have a final cigarette. Another law said it was a no-smoking prison. Welcome to the future.”

Originally published in France as La petite fille et la cigarette by Librarie Arthème Fayard in 2005, the essence of Benoît Duteurtre’s The Little Girl and the Cigarette was perfectly captioned by Milan Kundera who blurbed “…the clarity with which this novel unmasks the fundamental stupidity of our modern world; the black humor that transforms horror into a fascinating danse macabre.”

The opening line cleverly foreshadows the fates of the two men the story concerns, with

“Each of the two texts seemed indisputable… except that they led to opposite conclusions.”

The first man, Désiré Johnson, is “a tall young black man” on death row for the murder of a policeman. The second man (whose chapters are writ in first person, making him our sometime narrator) remains nameless. Furthermore, he works for the government of a nameless country.

The first chapter covers what was to be Johnson’s execution day, but we quickly learn that is not to be when his final wish to smoke a cigarette uncovers a life-saving loophole via conflicting articles between Government law and prison policies:

According to Government law, the condemned man, Désiré Johnson, was acting entirely within his rights when he invoked Article 47 of the Code of Application of Punishments, which authorized him to have one last smoke before execution. Whereas on his side, Mr. Quam Lao Ching, warden of the penitentiary, strictly applied paragraph 176.b of the prison policies, which prohibited Johnson from lighting that cigarette. Added a year earlier under pressure of the Associations for Defense of Public Health, this addendum banned consumption of tobacco within the confines of the prison. Obviously, the idea of defending the health of a man condemned to death could be considered puzzling, unless you viewed it as a refinement of cruelty; but such a measure, made for the benefit of the majority, would admit no qualification. From another point of view, Article 47, although it had fallen into abeyance, unquestionably authorized the prisoner to drag on the last few puffs through which his final wish was breathed out.

A perfect example of “the fundamental stupidity of our modern world”, the stupidity of extreme logic exercised on the trivial concerns of adult humans, this loophole serves to postpone Johnson’s execution until the conflict is resolved by the Supreme Court.

Meanwhile, we learn more of Nameless’ life. He is a middle-aged heterosexual clerk who has lived for three years in a “pretty, modest little house” that he shares with a lithe and liberal companion named Latifa, and their spaniel called Sarko (nickname of France’s current president). Here Nameless describes his relationship with Latifa:

Latifa and I have in common a lack of ambition. My diplomas pointed to a brilliant ascension to the ministerial cabinets, provided I devoted the necessary amount of time to scheming. Instead of that, at the age of forty-five, I remained a modest technical advisor to the city. Latifa, with her intelligence and her charm, could have become a fashionable journalist… We both made the same calculation: namely that with a little inheritance (which she had from her mother), my decent salary, a keen taste for life, a curiosity for art, pretty landscapes and all the good things in life, it would be possible to lead a much more interesting existence than the one that consists in tirelessly conquering ever higher positions and better salaries to pay the previous year’s taxes.

Nameless also notes several times that Latifa “…prefers men to kids, even though, from time to time, the wish for a child gnaws at her despite [his] efforts to divert her from those evil thoughts.” This brings me to if not the most important then certainly the most emphasized element of Duteurtre’s anti-hero: his aversion to children. I’ll now provide some insight into the inspiration of Nameless’ frustrations, and the role that children play in this modern drama.

“…from now on, in this country, children represent the law.”

Administration City, the government offices where Nameless is employed, has undergone one major change since the city’s present ultra-neo-Marxist mayor came into office-- it opened its doors to children:

Our mayor-- who is also my boss-- shows genius everytime it’s a question of soothing public opinion about “more equality between the sexes,” “more room for bicyclists and the handicapped,” “a more humane city and a more transparent management,” and, naturally, “more attention paid to children.” Before his triumphal election, he had added to his program a plan aiming to transform a part of Administration City, where the main services of the city have their headquarters, into a daycare center. A few months later, the whole left wing of out office building was converted into a nursery, complete with a special entrance reserved for moms and their progeny.

Nameless goes on to disdainfully describe the chaotic reign of the children over his place of employment, as well as the altered adult attitudes in the presence of children, most notably “the mistrustful looks when the personnel came in, when [the childcare attendants] briskly demanded to see our badges, without making the slightest effort to recognize us from one day to the next.” It is this mistrust that naturally prevents these two worlds, adult and child, from harmonizing. It is this mistrust that leads Nameless to the heights of his disdain, this mistrust which will eventually destroy his life.

I fear I have already divulged too much, but when Nameless rebels against building policy and smokes a cigarette in a toilet cubicle, his pants down in the name of realism lest anyone catch sight of his ankles from the opposite side of the door, and when a little girl wanders into the bathroom, and, caught in the act, Nameless exclaims “Get out of here, you stupid idiot!”, all hell breaks loose. Hell-Breaking-Loose equation: a money-hungry mother, an impressionable little girl, and a justice-crazed administration. Suddenly our narrator is a social outcast and deemed a criminal of the most unsavory sort, seeking help from the same mediocre lawyer as Johnson, and the simple (and seemingly-sturdy) life and love he shared with Latifa is instantly shattered as she too turns zombie with mistrust.

What follows is a side by side two-sides-to-every-story misadventure, the playing out of the cigarette-spurred cases of both Johnson and Nameless, told with great sportscaster-like irony. It would be insufficient to call the approach desensitized. It is chilling, a modern nightmare, a grim picture of what we call “civilization”. Readers witness the dance of death in a starkly literal sense, and feel themselves a part of a great tragedy, kin to Othello. The Little Girl and the Cigarette questions our good intentions, and leaves us godless on that road to a hell we govern ourselves.

--Simone dos Anjos, September 2007

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