In Other Words

Happy Are the Happy by Yas­mina Reza

Pasatiempo - - NEWS - — Priyanka Ku­mar

Happy Are the Happy by Yas­mina Reza, trans­lated by John Cullen, Other Press, 148 pages

Hu­mor is not easy to carry off in a dra­matic piece; for that rea­son alone we should be grate­ful to French au­thor Yas­mina Reza for the sparks that shim­mer through her melan­choly novel Happy Are

the Happy. Per­haps a pre­con­di­tion of hu­mor is that a par­tic­u­lar in­sti­tu­tion gets skew­ered. Reza tar­gets mar­ried life. It can some­times feel that the au­thor is look­ing at mar­riage from the out­side, but the laughs keep com­ing — and many of the char­ac­ters, mar­ried or not, get a chance to be ridiculed by the end.

Happy Are the Happy starts off with a jolt of fa­mil­iar­ity. A man finds him­self in a gro­cery store, hav­ing an im­pos­si­ble ar­gu­ment with a fam­ily mem­ber over the pur­chase of some cheese, and he wants to get the hell out of there. Usu­ally such ve­he­mence is the domain of par­ent-child re­la­tion­ships, so it’s a sur­prise to find out that this man, whose name is Robert, is fight­ing with his wife, not his mother. Robert has a dead­line for a news­pa­per ar­ti­cle he’s writ­ing, and he needs to leave im­me­di­ately. Mean­while, his wife, Odile, dis­ap­proves of his choice of cheese (Mor­bier) and re­joins the long cheese line to buy Gruyère. The cou­ple’s phys­i­cal strug­gle over Odile’s bag, which con­tains the car keys, is fright­en­ing but laugh-out-loud funny at the same time.

Later, Odile notes about Robert, “Ev­ery­thing gets on his nerves. Opin­ions, things, peo­ple. Ev­ery­thing. We can’t go out any­more with­out the evening end­ing badly. … We ex­change id­i­otic jokes with our hosts, we laugh on the land­ing, and once we’re in the el­e­va­tor, the cold front moves in. Some­day some­one should make a study of the si­lence that falls in­side a car when you’re re­turn­ing home af­ter hav­ing flaunted your well-be­ing.”

In Reza’s view, there is al­most con­stant fric­tion be­tween mar­ried cou­ples. Hus­bands and wives live to­gether in an at­mos­phere of re­signed mis­ery. The na­ture of their charges against each other range from petty (whether or not Odile turns off her night lamp when Robert is hav­ing trou­ble sleep­ing) to ma­jor-league. Jean­nette, Odile’s mother, be­lieves that Ernest, her hus­band and Odile’s fa­ther, has ru­ined her life: “Women are se­duced by fright­ful men, be­cause fright­ful men present them­selves in masks, as at a cos­tume ball.”

Oc­ca­sion­ally, a char­ac­ter slips into pre­cious­ness and clichés, as when a char­ac­ter called Doc­tor Chemla con­sid­ers how an abu­sive brother and an inat­ten­tive mother have for­ever colored his pri­vate life. But the au­thor soon dis­cards vague nar­ra­tives and re­turns to her brisk speci­ficity. Dur­ing an an­nual bridge tour­na­ment, a hus­band be­comes so ir­ri­tated with his wife — also his bridge part­ner — for not play­ing her cards right, caus­ing them to lose, that he eats one of his cards.

Un­til the last cou­ple of chap­ters, the book feels not so much like a novel as it does a se­ries of vignettes with re­cur­ring char­ac­ters. De­spite its struc­tural short­com­ings, the bursts of plea­sure

Happy Are the Happy serves up are enough to make you put ev­ery­thing aside un­til you’ve read it all the way through.

The novel gets its ti­tle from an ob­ser­va­tion by Jorge Luis Borges: “Happy are those who are beloved and those who love and those who can do with­out love. Happy are the happy.” Maybe it says some­thing about the joy­less­ness of Amer­i­can “dys­func­tional-fam­ily” lit­er­a­ture that read­ing this book is like drink­ing iced gin­ger ale when you’re hot and thirsty.

The story en­ters poignant ter­ri­tory with the fu­neral of Ernest, who had once been a bank chair­man. The fam­ily, in­clud­ing Odile and Robert, jour­neys to his home­town to scat­ter his ashes. Ernest and Jean­nette’s re­la­tion­ship has been so strained that, even in the face of this tragedy, we can’t es­cape Reza’s re­lent­less por­trayal of mar­riage as a waste­land — some­thing that’s put on for show and con­ve­nience, a prac­ti­cal mat­ter that only gets sen­ti­men­tal be­cause it’s nice to have a hand to hold in old age. Whether or not this is the French view of mar­riage is de­bat­able, but the au­thor glee­fully makes her bias clear.

Reza’s other tar­gets in­clude il­licit lovers and the ways in which par­ents moon over their chil­dren even as they must deal with the frus­tra­tions they bring. Robert and Odile have two boys who defy their bed­times and want a sec­ond din­ner right when Robert is try­ing to bond with two old bud­dies over a late-night meal. An­other set of par­ents has a son who be­lieves he is Ce­line Dion — a charm­ing af­fec­ta­tion when he was a child, but dis­tress­ing enough once he’s a teenager to re­quire ad­mis­sion to a psy­chi­atric fa­cil­ity.

Maybe it’s be­cause th­ese sto­ries are set in France that fam­ily bonds mirac­u­lously en­dure the times when ir­ri­ta­tion grows into bit­ter­ness. Mother Teresa once said, “There is hunger for or­di­nary bread, and there is hunger for love, for kind­ness, for thought­ful­ness; and this is the great poverty that makes peo­ple suf­fer so much.” Happy Are the

Happy’s char­ac­ters mostly have a fine time, go­ing through the mo­tions of their lives and nav­i­gat­ing fi­nite plea­sures, but there are yearn­ings in their deep­est selves that re­main un­re­quited. Those in­tel­li­gent enough to be aware of that in­ner hunger are any­thing but happy.

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