Rethinking the detective novel: Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s Reticence

A mysterious narrator, tricks of the mind and admirably pragmatic prose.

Reticence, the fourth novel by Belgian author and filmmaker Jean-Philippe Toussaint, opens with a death. Visiting the fictional Mediterranean island of Sasuelo, the nameless narrator sees a cat’s body floating in the harbour, a fish head on a broken line hanging from its mouth. The mystery of whether its demise was accidental or deliberate haunts him as he reaches his village hotel, hesitant over whether to meet the writer Biaggi as originally intended, constantly drawn to Biaggi’s house but unable to make contact.

Published as La Réticence in 1991 and translated here by John Lambert for Dalkey Archive Press, this is a detective story – albeit an unconventional one. Like nouveau roman theorist Alain-Robbe Grillet, whose first published novel, The Erasers, follows a man investigating a murder that, it turns out, has not happened and which he then unwittingly commits, Toussaint has explored this mode of writing just once. With the reasons for its protagonist’s association with Biaggi never revealed and the issue of who is spying on who, and why, only moving further from resolution, Reticence often rethinks or rejects the genre’s conventions but fits seamlessly into Toussaint’s oeuvre, its lyrical prose, minimal plot and detached first-person narration typical of his work.

As in Toussaint’s preceding novel Camera (1989), which began his departure from Jacques Tati-esque observational comedies Bathroom (1985) and Monsieur (1987), the events are set off by the narrator’s choice to steal: a camera there, four letters from Biaggi’s mailbox here, including the one sent to announce his forthcoming arrival, sitting unopened. Although he leaves two bits of junk post, this inexplicable act makes it far harder for him to call Biaggi, and he returns to his hotel. His encounters with a grey Mercedes and the hotel’s owner make him increasingly concerned that he’s being followed, as he concludes that the cat has been murdered for motives related, but still unknown.

As he realises that anyone at the hotel could be tracking him, the narrator gradually has to overcome his reticence and go to Biaggi. As in The Erasers, events in the world become conflated with tricks of the mind: he imagines Biaggi to die in a similar fashion to the cat, garrotted, and we are invited to speculate with the narrator about who would do this – him? The hotel owner? Why? Then, just as he becomes certain that Biaggi has perished, doubt is raised: is he the driver of the ominous Mercedes that keeps appearing outside his house? The narrator finally has to break into Biaggi’s house in search of answers, but the elements that might provide them – the answering machine, the man raking the garden outside – refuse to yield any certainty about the people at the hotel or the fate of Biaggi.

We learn little about the narrator – all Toussaint offers is that he is 33 and has a small son – so it’s hard for the reader to second-guess what brings him closer to Biaggi. With little dialogue and no direct speech, the movement of people in hotel rooms, the opening of their doors and the accumulation of small incidences, such as the narrator losing one of the stolen letters to the sea and then finding, on returning the other three to Biaggi’s home that those he left have been removed, become ever more significant in determining Biaggi’s whereabouts.

Unusually for detective fiction, Toussaint tends to change mood more than pace. Divided into three parts, the text broken into short blocks rather than chapters, the second ends optimistically: the cat and the lost letter are gone from the harbour, the others have been returned (seemingly without Biaggi noticing) and the narrator realises that his story has gone full circle, raising hope of a reconciliation. The third section opens in the hotel with one of the father-son moments that gives Reticence an engaging tenderness, the narrator watching his child displace water in the bath with a toothbrush glass ‘to see the effect it produced’, wryly contemplating the ‘new pharmaceutical experiments’ that his son conducts each bath time. Then, gradually, we are eased back into the espionage story, the level of intrigue rising until it reaches a non-conclusion, with only the question of the cat’s death being answered.

As the narrator prefers to wander rather than unravel the plot, it is Toussaint’s prose, alternately pragmatic and poetic, that maintains the interest. Recalling Toussaint’s strongest influence, Robbe-Grillet, the locations are described in extensive detail, such as this on the harbour: ‘The sea was still very dark, with hardly a ripple right out to the horizon, and, as the sun rose behind the mountain, slowly lighting up the far side, which was now topped by a distant halo of light, the boats swaying softly in the port started to take on hints of russet and orange, while the contours of the surrounding docks, fishing nets, rocks, trees and flowers slowly shook off the bluish imprint of the night.’

As in classic post-war French texts critically grouped under the ‘nouveau roman’ banner – The Voyeur by Robbe-Grillet, The Inquisitory by Robert Pinget or The Flanders Road by Claude Simon – observations of places and events become enmeshed with the narrator’s mental speculation, Toussaint’s winding paragraphs shifting almost imperceptibly from the imagined to the real, the mundane to the metaphysical. It is a style that he has continued to evolve, later winning the Prix Médicis for Fuir (Running Away) and the Prix Décembre for La Vérité sur Marie (The Truth about Marie) as he established himself as one of contemporary French literature’s most distinctive voices, turning the existential tradition into something into something lighter, warmer and ultimately more open.

 

Belgian writer Jean-Philippe Toussaint. Photograph: Getty Images

Juliet Jacques is a freelance journalist and writer who covers gender, sexuality, literature, film, art and football. Her writing can be found on her blog at and she can be contacted on Twitter @julietjacques.

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The Underground Railroad is a novel which offers hope for the very strong of heart

Whitehead’s prize-winning novel of slavery in America is his finest work yet.

30 DOLLARS REWARD will be given to any person who will deliver to me, or confine in any gaol in the state so that I can get her again, a likely yellow NEGRO GIRL 18 years of age who ran away nine months past. She is an artfully lively girl and will, no doubt, attempt to pass as a free person, but has a noticeable scar on her elbow, occasioned by a burn.

 

“Want ads” for runaway slaves serve as section breaks throughout Colson Whitehead’s searing novel The Underground Rail­road, which takes a familiar story – concerning the manifold injustices of American slavery – and brings it to terrible, terrifying new life. Whitehead does so by revealing, in close view, just how brutal and businesslike were efforts to ignore, obscure and destroy the dignity and humanity of so many men and women for so very long.

The novel begins with an auction:

 

Onlookers chewed fresh oysters and hot corn as the auctioneers shouted into the air. The slaves stood naked on the platform. There was a bidding war over a group of Ashanti studs, those Africans of renowned industry and musculature, and the foreman of a limestone quarry bought a bunch of pickaninnies in an astounding bargain.

 

Thereafter we learn that “A young buck from strong tribal stock got customers into a froth”, that “A slave girl squeezing out pups was like a mint, money that bred money”, and that a mother “maintained a reserve of maternal feeling after the loss of her five children – three dead before they could walk and the others sold off when they were old enough to carry water and grab weeds around the great house”.

Finally – and this is still just in the opening pages of the novel – we discover, through the eyes of a young woman named Cora, what happens when any of these persons resists living as purchased property: “She had seen men hung from trees and left for buzzards and crows. Women carved open to the bones with the cat-o’-nine-tails. Bodies alive and dead roasted on pyres. Feet cut off to prevent escape and hands cut off to prevent theft.”

Whether in spite or because of these consequences – and mindful, even haunted by the knowledge, that her mother managed to escape her own bondage – Cora decides to join a fellow slave named Caesar in running away. In Whitehead’s treatment, a metaphor for the secret network of support that helped black slaves reach the free (or at least freer) American north and Canada becomes an actual makeshift train that travels underground, which Cora and Caesar ride across the South. They are in constant peril, relieved by passing periods of respite: sleeping in a bed for the first time, learning to read and write, and even coming into a small amount of money, which, Cora soon discovers, “was new and unpredictable and liked to go where it pleased”.

Throughout their escape, they are pursued by a vicious slave-catcher called Ridgeway, who is motivated by far more than merely financial reward: “Charging through the dark, branches lashing his face, stumps sending him ass over elbow before he got up again. In the chase his blood sang and glowed.” Ridgeway, Cora and their respective others meet throughout the novel, their positions of advantage and opportunity revolving in ways that make for flat-out suspenseful reading. Many others are grievously harmed in the meantime, as they move through a small-town, 19th-century American world of crafty and hypocritical politesse and ritualised violence. The violence is never rendered more awfully than in the festive, Friday-night lynching sessions that take place at a picturesque park which Cora watches from an attic refuge.

The Underground Railroad, awarded the American National Book Award for Fiction last month, is Whitehead’s sixth novel. Following the more playful novel of manners Sag Harbor and Zone One, a zombie romp, it is his most ambitious and accomplished book since the Pulitzer-nominated John Henry Days of 2001. In fact, the lack of literary showiness – vividly presenting the rudely built underground railway and the hard lives of those riding it – makes The Underground Railroad perhaps his finest work. Although the repeated encounters between Cora and Ridgeway across such a sprawling set will strain the credulity of anyone save a diehard Victor Hugo fan, Whitehead is a confident enough writer to let their lines of escape, pursuit and capture braid and break apart again and again, building to an exciting and rending conclusion. It is one that offers hope for the very strong of heart. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage