How we don’t say what we are thinking
HAPPY ARE THE HAPPY By Yasmina Reza Harvill Secker, £12.99 REVIEWED BY MADELEINE KINGSLEY
Among the Parisiens of Yasmina Reza’s outré and witty new novel, happiness is rare and random. But “novel” is not perhaps the mot juste as it’s more a sheaf of monologues spoken by the assorted lovers, families, friends, patients, doctors and colleagues of a loosely-knit, largely Jewish, social group.
In effect, it’s a play for multiple voices that weave in and out of the episodic action, sometimes meditating on disappointment or dreams, sometimes celebrating a shared confession. Hap- piness is a quality her rum and privileged characters once knew, desired and lost.
Joy appears in the most unlikely settings — in the cancer clinic, for instance, where an elderly patient puffs up at the compliment that her lynx hat has ennobled the waiting room. In that brief moment, her dread of dying with a shaven head (as if at Auschwitz) and the galling memory of her husband wanting to leave his money to Israel is blessedly eclipsed.
Young Jacob Hutner lives out his delusion of being Celine Dion, blissfully unaware that his parents are destroyed by grief. He signs autographs in the foyer of the mental health hospital and shrouds his neck in scarves, thus saving his voice for a world tour. His Maman, Pascaline, fears she and his father have brought this tragedy on themselves, laughing as they did at his hilarious small-boy imitations of the iconic chanteuse. How long can they pretend to friends that Jacob is doing an internship abroad, with a record label?
Reza’s humour is of a noir variety that sets you clapping a shocked hand over your mouth as you smile. She invites a laugh at a mortified bridge player chewing up the king of clubs, at the inauguration ceremony of the Jewish Memorial in Skopje — a grotesque affair of plastic chairs, brass band, and Macedonian solders, “like skinheads in cloaks” parading an urn full of the ashes of Treblinka victims. Or at Odile’s desire to queue for gruyère against Robert’s higher need to get home and file his financial news story. Neither seems sure if their scuffle is playful or in deadly earnest.
Reza reportedly once said that “theatre is a mirror, a sharp reflection of society.” Her fiction has that very same looking-glass feel. The prose (beautifully translated by Sarah Ardizzone) is stream-of-consciousness staccato, delivered entirely without quotation marks. So you’re required to work at distinguishing thoughts from speech, one character from the next.
It’s said that each of us has 80,000 thoughts a day, of which we speak only a tiny fraction. Reza brilliantly points up the dissonance between all that we think, what we actually say — and the loneliness that lies between.
Yasmina Reza: it’s all in the head