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The Map and The Territory by Michel Houellebecq


Meh.
I wonder about books that gain notoriety or fame in their own country (i.e. in the country of the language in which it was first written) and which then make their way into English and are seized upon by the literati as the next [insert country / continental adjective here] masterpiece. A good example in my opinion is Alone in Berlin by “rediscovered” German war-time author Hans Fallada. There was a big fuss, lots of column inches and booksellers going a bit funny over this one, whereas when I was asked to read it for a review at the time, ignorant of its origins I found it childishly written and lacking both in pace and believable characterisation. Was this due to translation? Was it actually really chuffin' good in German? Were us Brits only going by what they were telling us?


I was concerned at the time that it was the subject of a cycle of hype that might eventually spin out of orbit with the introduction of a genuinely critical review from someone high up in the literary strata, but none was forthcoming. My own highly critical review was rejected and I was asked to return with something focused more on its many perceived virtues and its similarities to other successful war-time fiction, so that an open-minded and accepting audience might be inclined to view it with sympathy and then feel a collective ownership and thus protectiveness towards it and the many other “rediscovered” novels of Fallada soon to litter the shelves above Sebastian Faulks. The letter F had never made me more displeased.

Are people really that incapable of judging the worth of a novel, I thought, that they would put dubious critical acclaim from the book’s own publishers (who may or may not just be churning out the spoon-fed reviews from his German publishers) and those people whose livelihoods are at stake if it fails to succeed above an experienced reader’s honest and objective views? (Those of you, who at this point might be expecting a self-deprecating remark, leave now.) Is it fear of being seen to be different or just symptomatic of the book-consumer mentality at large, blithely unaware of the merits of a book as long as someone tells them they will like it?

Wow.
Houellebecq, I feared, might be another such author whose brilliance was lost in translation. Of course, The Map and The Territory shit all over that theory. What a marvellous book, full of brilliance, ideas, and so vividly expressed! If one were to believe his own assertion that France hates him (as he playfully inserts as a concept in the book), then perhaps my theory does hold water. Then again, he did win the Prix Goncort. When ma belle-mère sent my wife a copy in the original French, I was enthusiastic and she was suitably amused. The book itself kept her busy for a few days of concentrated reading, during which she made numerous comments on its enlightening portrayal of modern France, a country in which she had not lived for something like 11 years, and so I asked for an English version when one became available - it arrived for Christmas 2011. 


For such a depressing and joyless subject (the subject is a man's own lack of understanding of pretty much anything that isn't precision engineered, including his relationships with father, stunning girlfriend[s], and his collaboration with the author himself playing himself) the book made me happy and filled me with joy. Houellebecq's own highly entertaining cameo role, as the novelist whose painting by the protagonist is his last offering in paint to the art world, could be considered alarmingly bleak, but then he is mercilessly disposed of in a highly visceral manner part way through the book, a point which marks the beginning of a different strand of narrative, for a little while, before the artist, Jed Martin (who incidentally made his own name with an exhibition of photographs of Michelin road maps) returns to casually solve the crime and embark on his own private artistic denouement. All along the way, Houellebecq's astounding observations on everything from digital cameras to French politics are layered on top of a narrative style so cunningly simple-seeming that you could put a tail on it and call it a weasel. The plot wends lazily through to the inevitable ending (it is a story of a man after all) with periodic bursts of activity, but never labours, or races ahead, and is so damned fine that I can't put words together to describe it.


I am incalculably glad that this book both received rave reviews and is an excellent read. It is a rare jewel indeed in translated fiction (up there with The Book of Chameleons and The Discovery of Heaven) but sadly, reminds me that Hans Fallada is still selling, and selling well. Look at me, all graceless and curmudgeonly. 


Next week - I take a pop at Garcia Marquez.

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