Translated from French by Linda Asher
“The world isn’t tidy. It’s a mess. I don’t try to make it neat.”
This epigraph from Garry Winograd, an American street photographer, opens the book. The story is narrated by Elisabeth, a sixty-year-old woman looking back at a particular day in her life.
When we first meet her, she is looking at a photograph of a Jehovah’s Witness from 1955 by Robert Frank in his book The Americans, which she keeps by her bedside, “the saddest book on earth. Dead people, gas pumps, people alone in cowboy hats. Turning the pages you see a parade of jukeboxes, television sets, trappings of the new prosperity. They’re just about as lonely as the man, these oversized new objects, too heavy, too bright, set down in spots unprepared for them.”
These images of disconnection, loneliness and the impossibility to finding order in life, run throughout the book. “People who think there’s some orderly system to life — they’re lucky”, Elisabeth thinks. The events of that particular day in her life bear witness to the randomness of life, to what happens when someone acts on an impulse that most people would have resisted.
Elisabeth and her husband Pierre live in a small apartment in Paris. She befriends their neighbours, Jean-Lino and Lydie. Lydie is a singer and a New Age healer, very flamboyant, unlike Jean-Lino, whom Elisabeth thinks of later as a “Robert Frank character for our times” (again that feeling of loneliness, of a lack of connection). Elisabeth decides to throw a party to which she invites the couple.
All her energies are focused around the party: will there be enough place for people to sit, are there enough wine glasses (no, there are not, and she buys more than she could possibly use). The party goes well until Jean-Lino makes fun of Lydie’s insistence on knowing whether the chicken she was eating at a restaurant had the freedom to roost while it lived. He runs around the room, flapping like a chicken. Lydie takes offence, and the couple leave.
The couple continue their argument in their apartment, things spiral out of control and soon Jean-Lino is ringing Elisabeth’s and Pierre’s doorbell to tell them he has strangled Lydie. The couple go up, try to persuade him to call the police but eventually give up and go home. But Elisabeth can’t imagine leaving Jean-Lino alone with the body. Once Pierre is asleep, she goes upstairs. Things become surreal and almost darkly comic, as Elisabeth tries to help Jean-Lino move the body.
Throughout the narration, Elisabeth seems to be a little detached, as if she was on the outside, watching herself. And once the events of the night are over and their consequences done with, life seems to go on.
I liked the tone of the novel—Yasmina Reza does not dramatize the already-dramatic events, but narrates them in a matter-of-fact way. And throughout the book there is the sense of life happening almost in spite of ourselves.