How we don’t say what we are think­ing

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE - Madeleine Kings­ley is a free­lance writer

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

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