Monday, June 20, 2011

Bad Intentions Squared: Fatale and The Death of the Adversary

I’ve fallen behind on posting so this week I’ll write, briefly!, about two books: J.P. Manchette’s Fatale, translated from the French by Donald Nicholson-Smith, and Hans Keilson’s The Death of the Adversary, translated from the German original Der Tod des Widersachers by Ivo Jarosy.

Fatale is an evil sliver of Euronoir that brings a killer antiheroine who calls herself Aimée to the French seaside town of Bléville. Manchette sets the tone for violence on the first page: hunters are cranky because they’ve been out for hours and haven’t killed anything. But Fatale’s first death, on the second page, involves a human, setting us up for a high-stakes account of survival of the fittest. The killer, of course, is Aimée, who boards a train in the next chapter: she dyes her hair and feasts on choucroute, with “great chomps” in her luxury compartment. I wrote “very prole” in the margin: Aimée has a case full of cash but is surrounded by the nasty aromas of her money and food, which is said to smell like bodily fluids that I won’t name, lest I spoil the fun for anyone.

Fatale is a supremely class-conscious novel. Beyond the food, Aimée is a scam artist looking for powerful, well-heeled marks in Bléville. The novella ends with a spate of deaths that feels campy, and Aimée’s bad end is accompanied by an address from Manchette to his female readers. Fatale is filled with weird moments. My favorite is probably when Aimée is at a gathering, sitting on a settee in a hallway of what sounds like a swanky house, when, all of a sudden, a man comes out of the bathroom and begins urinating against the wall. I’ll leave things at that and just say that I thought Fatale was an oddly enjoyable book.

I thought The Death of the Adversary, though, was odd without being particularly enjoyable, despite some occasional comic relief: a first-person narrator discusses his hatred for a figure named B. B. strongly resembles Hitler, and the narrator seems be describing life in Nazi Germany. Part of my difficulty with The Death of the Adversary is that some of the book’s passages depend heavily on an interiority that felt repetitive and cramped; it must be difficult to carry so much hatred. For my taste, a scene in which a young man describes desecration of a cemetery is one of the strongest in the book: the narrator’s tension is palpable, in trembling and sweat, when he is faced with a real adversary, in a real-life conversation. Seeing B. at a parade, though, leaves the narrator “tired and depressed. I felt like lying down on a nearby park bench and going to sleep.”

Though The Death of the Adversary felt a little uneven to me as a novel, it felt important as a portrait of hatred and the role of enemies in our lives because Keilson’s characters and their actions and reactions felt so authentic. Keilson’s use of abstraction weakens the book in one sense – the shadow of Hitler always looms and I think it’s natural to want to identify him definitively – but it also strengthens the novel by opening the possibility for universality.

Keilson died recently, and his obituary in The New York Times, written by William Grimes, notes Kielson’s background and the circumstances of writing The Death of the Adversary. Grimes also calls the translation “stilted.” I don’t know if the translation reflects Keilson’s German-language style or not but I agree with Grimes’s thought: the language of the English translation sometimes felt cumbersome to me, too. Though the awkwardness made the novel a touch more difficult to read, intentional or not, it felt almost organic to the story of a man trying to figure out his place in life when faced with adversarial conditions.

Up Next: Thomas Pletzinger’s Funeral for a Dog.

Disclosures: I received a review copy of Fatale from New York Review Books at BookExpo America. I always enjoy speaking with NYRB about translations. I received my copy of The Death of the Adversary from fellow blogger Amy Henry, who wrote about the book here; Amy got the novel from publisher Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Thanks to all for the books!


  1. I love your reviews, you cracked me up about the bodily fluids!

    Great observations on both!

  2. Thanks so much, Amy! Fatale is so filled with unexpected occurrences and descriptions... those mentions of bodily fluids mean I will never think of my cooked cabbage dishes the same again!