Com­pelling hunt for a ter­ri­ble truth

Sunday Herald Life - - BOOKS REVIEW - Re­view by Les­ley Mc­Dow­ell

The Ac­ci­dent On The A35 GRAEME MACRAE BUR­NET Con­tra­band, £12.99

AS with The Dis­ap­pear­ance Of Adele Bedeau, the first in a tril­ogy of French de­tec­tive nov­els, of which The Ac­ci­dent On The A35 is sec­ond, Macrae Bur­net is merely the trans­la­tor of the work by de­ceased French nov­el­ist, Ray­mond Brunet. Just like His Bloody Project, short­listed for last year’s Man Booker, where Macrae Bur­net was merely the pre­sen­ter of another’s words, the au­thor oc­cu­pies a much more in­no­cent po­si­tion. He’s no pup­pet-mas­ter pulling char­ac­ters’ strings.

Ex­cept, of course, that he al­ways is. The “death of the au­thor” takes on a neat twist when Macrae Bur­net’s name lights up the cover, only for him to re­treat be­hind his “real” au­thor, Ray­mond Brunet (the French­man’s sur­name a nice ana­gram of Bur­net, too). This post­mod­ern play­ful­ness with “truth” in­forms all Macrae Bur­net’s work to date and the seek­ing-out of the “truth” is what un­der­pins a mur­der mys­tery like His Bloody Project, or a de­tec­tive novel. Who com­mit­ted the crime, how and why: the rai­son d’être of the de­tec­tive novel is to an­swer those ques­tions.

So be­gins the fun in this truly su­perla­tive tale, be­cause we don’t even know if a crime has been com­mit­ted. As in The Dis­ap­pear­ance Of Adele Bedeau, In­spec­tor Ge­orges Gorski is our seeker of “truth”. A car has crashed on the A35 be­tween Stras­bourg and Saint-Louis, where Gorski lives and works. The driver, Ber­trand Barthelme, is killed out­right. At the scene, Gorski notes ex­ten­sive scratch marks down one side of the car, as though it had been dragged be­fore right­ing it­self. When Barthelme’s beau­ti­ful widow asks Gorski to in­ves­ti­gate, he agrees, partly to sat­isfy his own cu­rios­ity, partly be­cause he finds him­self at­tracted to her.

The dead man’s son, Ray­mond, is also dis­turbed by his fa­ther’s un­timely death, but for dif­fer­ent rea­sons. Never close to his fa­ther, he prefers to read Sartre and con­duct in­tel­lec­tual ar­gu­ments with his two school­friends, Yvette and Stephane. But af­ter he finds a strange ad­dress in his late fa­ther’s desk, he be­gins an in­ves­ti­ga­tion of his own. Both Ray­mond and Gorski are look­ing for an an­swer to the same ques­tion, if for dif­fer­ent rea­sons: what was Ber­trand Barthelme do­ing on the night of the car crash? The out­come of their ques­tion will af­fect each dif­fer­ently, of course. And that out­come will show the reader that the story she thought she was fol­low­ing isn’t the story she was fol­low­ing at all.

This play with out­comes and in­ves­ti­ga­tions means that par­al­lels are in­evitably drawn be­tween the de­tec­tive and the writer of de­tec­tive fic­tion, but they are drawn by Gorski’s un­re­li­able and cor­rupt coun­ter­part in Stras­bourg, Chief In­spec­tor Lam­bert. It’s Lam­bert who tells Gorksi con­fi­dently: “You think po­lice work is all about brain work. It’s not. It’s about telling a story.” Gorski replies that what­ever Lam­bert comes up with might make for a good story, but “that doesn’t make it true”. Un­like Gorski, Lam­bert has lit­tle in­ter­est in the “truth”. He tries to make the de­tails of a crime scene fit a par­tic­u­lar sce­nario; Gorski wants to avoid that method.

And yet, that is the essence of the de­tec­tive novel. De­tails com­bine to con­struct a pic­ture, tell a story. What is par­tic­u­larly fas­ci­nat­ing about what takes place in the writ­ing of The Ac­ci­dent On The A35 though is how the de­tails op­er­ate dif­fer­ently from their usual func­tion in the genre. De­tails dis­turb us in crime fic­tion: they pro­vide grisly foren­sics into the method of killing, or psy­cho­log­i­cal in­sight into a mad­man’s meth­ods. It’s the de­tec­tive who re­stores our equi­lib­rium, who set­tles and do­mes­ti­cates those de­tails with his dis­cov­ery of the “truth”.

What hap­pens here is just the op­po­site. De­tails re­as­sure in this de­tec­tive novel. They re­as­sure Ray­mond later in the novel, as they al­most lit­er­ally ground him. “He be­came aware of an as­sort­ment of footwear around where he lay on the floor. He recog­nised the black slip-ons of the pock­marked man …” They re­as­sure Gorski be­cause they point the way to the “truth”. What dis­turbs in this novel is some­thing else en­tirely: the pos­si­ble ab­sence of a crime. Surely though, the ab­sence of a crime should be re­as­sur­ing in it­self, we won­der? But for the de­tec­tive novel, no crime means no search for an an­swer, and no search means no-one search­ing for one. With­out a crime, the de­tec­tive and the novel both cease to ex­ist.

And that is where our real fear lies. You could ar­gue that the urge to jus­tify its ex­is­tence, to help us fight that fear of non-ex­is­tence, per­me­ates The Ac­ci­dent On The A35. Its

pared-back prose, so redo­lent of Macrae Bur­net’s lit­er­ary hero Ge­orges Si­menon, is com­fort­ing in its so­lid­ity; the slow dis­so­lu­tion of Gorski’s mar­riage is eased by Mme Barthelme’s at­trac­tion for him; his el­derly mother’s for­get­ful­ness is coun­ter­pointed by Gorski’s re­trieval of the past. Even the ter­ri­ble dis­cov­ery that young Ray­mond Barthelme makes is one that fights ab­sence, for in its dis­cov­ery lies the “truth”. A “truth” that can­not com­fort, but which may jus­tify the novel’s ex­is­tence, and in do­ing so pro­vides another kind of com­fort al­to­gether.

The Ac­ci­dent On The A35 is not only one of the most clever and com­pelling nov­els to be pub­lished this year. It also un­der­stands that what makes a nar­ra­tive nec­es­sary and plea­sur­able, is what also makes life nec­es­sary and plea­sur­able. Life may be ter­ri­ble at times; our near­est and dear­est may lie to us, or leave us. But it is life and not obliv­ion and that is what counts.

Graeme Macrae Bur­net’s trans­la­tion of The Ac­ci­dent on the A35 re­tains Ray­mond Brunet’s com­pelling tale of the hunt for ‘truth’.

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