Friday, 4 April 2014

How's the Pain?

How's the Pain? - Pascal Garnier
(Translated by Emily Boyce)

"In which part of Africa was it that people greeted each other every morning with the question "How's the pain?" Simon could no longer remember."

I was inspired to read this by a list of favourite noir books selected by John Banville, and it was not a disappointment. It has many of the reflexes of a genre novel but is also a humdrum existential meditation on death.

An older man, Simon arrives at Val-les-Bains, a spa town in rural France. He strikes up a conversation with Bernard, a simple young man and invites him out for dinner. He then offers him a job driving him to a seaside town and back. He offers good money. There has to be more to it than first appears and, of course, there is.

Indeed we know that it will end with Simon hanging himself and leaving everything to Bernard. For we begin at the end, the first short chapter being Simon's preparing to hang himself in his hotel room. And the second chapter lets us know that Bernard will assist him.
 There is much to enjoy in this book, not least a dark seam of humour. One of the first hints we get of Simon's true vocation is buried in a list of the qualities of the local Spring Water: "These waters... The list of conditions they were capable of curing was both endless and disconcerting: industrial dermatitis, nasal fractures, tropical liver diseases, trigger finger, abnormally large intestines ..." Trigger finger?

Bernard is staying with his mother while he recovers from the loss of two fingers in a workplace accident. "On the walls, dog eared adverts for long gone brands, posters of dead singers, and tourist-office promotions for countries since ravaged by war bandaged the wounds in the peeling wallpaper. Odd remnants of shelving, racks and spotlights bore witness to the owner's many and various ventures, snuffed out one by one by stubbornly adverse fate." His mother was abandoned by his father and then suffered a series of setbacks in her attempts to set up various businesses in Vals-de-Bains. She had, it is hinted, originally moved there to be near famous resident Jean Ferrat. Bad luck, betrayal and booze have aged her and made her life into a dust filled purgatory in the small shop that was once a place for dreaming. "These days she lived off her incurable cough, which brought her a small disability allowance.."

At dinner Bernard begins to find out more about Simon, who tells him that he works in pest control but fails to correctly identify the pests that he 'controls'. He seems weary and cynical, when Bernard comments on the happiness of the other diners he questions their happiness:
"'How do you know they're happy?'
'You can tell.'
'You can't trust appearances. It's usually all for show.'"
We get some warnings that Simon's character has a dark side: "Simon was happy just to finish off the bottle of wine. He could consume huge quantities without showing the slightest sign of inebriation; only his gaze became more intense and unsettling." ....

Simon's ability to enjoy life seems to have been damaged by his experiences, whatever they were. After dinner he was "racking his brains trying to think of the ultimate island." Bernard has never even seen the sea. Bernard heads home to mind his mother while Simon goes for a last drink. "While waiting for his drink Simon inspected the bookshelves and lighted on an old, yellowed copy of Treasure Island. He settled into a cracked leather armchair and thumbed through it, hoping to recapture the pleasure he had felt when he first read it. The island had not changed, but he had." He seems intrigued by Bernard's innocence: "The strange thing about this young blockhead was that he wasn't actually stupid. He displayed a kind of guileless common sense which Simon found refreshing." Bernard is able to enjoy life. It seems that Simon has lost the knack.

The next day Simon offers Bernard a job driving him to the sea. After an interlude at Bernard's mother's ('"Time itself seemed to have deserted this nowhere land, for fear of being bored to death.") the odd couple set off and we find out more about Simon's life and pick up some more characters on the way.

(Jean Ferrat sings Ma môme, which Bernard sings to himself while dreaming of Fiona, a young woman with a baby who they rescue from a abusive partner.)

Garnier's writing is wonderfully terse, drawing characters and place with a minimal fuss. You get a real sense of the lives of all the characters, even those we only glance against.  I will be watching out for his other books, and he wrote sixty plus - more to add to the endless list of books I want to read.

Well - it would be frightening if I could see the end of all the books I wanted to read....


  1. I find some of the themes that you mention characterize this book to be very interesting. The nature of happiness, how some life experiences can taint all that follows, etc. are some things that I tend to think about.

    I actually like the device of a book like this beginning with the ending.

    1. It's spare but interesting and I enjoyed the theme of how innocence can be corrupted but also how certain innocence can seem to survive its environment.

  2. There seems to be a Pascal Garnier frenzy on the Anglophone bloggosphere. I've read several posts about his books recently, so I bought one too. I'm curious.
    I can't believe he wrote a book set in Vals les Bains and involving songs by Jean Ferrat. The combination of the two with the concept of Noir is...odd.

    1. It is an odd book, but wonderful. I'm sure the quality of the covers has helped with the success of the books. The covers really stand out. Val de Bains is just a place to me, and Jean Ferrat a new discovery. I wonder how different it would seem if they were familiar places. I'm sure it would have another layer...

  3. Great review, Seamus - thanks for pointing me in the direction of your post! I read this book at the beginning of the year and was hugely impressed by it. How's the Pain? feels much more meditative and melancholy in tone than Moon in a Dead Eye, but the thread of mordant humour is present in both. Garnier was quite a writer...