Friday, 26 September 2014

Book Review: I'm Off by Jean Echenoz
Art business is tough. Tastes change at the same pace as fashion and buyers always ask for something new at a good price, something that will increase its value with time and that will give the owner the aura of a true connoisseur. Who wants to earn a fortune selling art thus needs to be either some kind of a clairvoyant or a genius in sales or a trendsetter of renown. The lady-killing protagonist of I'm Off by Jean Echenoz, which I'm reviewing for the Books on France 2014 reading challenge, is the owner of a small art gallery in Paris who doesn’t spare costs nor pains to secure priceless objects for his clients almost from North Pole when his assistant baits him with the profits. Then the whole lot is stolen and it seems the end of all dreams, even of the protagonist’s life, but things are never so bad as they look at first.

Jean Echenoz was born in Orange, Southern France, in December 1947. He studied sociology and civil engineering at different French universities. He made his literary debut with Le méridien de Greenwich (The Greenwich Meridian) in 1979 which was followed by the prize-winning novel Cherokee (1983). Many works of this prolific French author have been translated into English, most notable among them Chopin’s Move (Lac: 1989), I’m Off (Je m’en vais: 1999; also translated as I’m Gone), Ravel (2006), Running (Courir: 2008), Lightning (Des éclairs: 2010), and the World War I novel 1914 (14: 2012). Jean Echenoz lives in Paris, France.

With the title words I'm Off the Parisian gallery owner Félix Ferrer leaves his wife Suzanne on Sunday, 3 January. He is a womaniser in his mid-fifties and longing for a change, but he is despite all surprised that Suzanne doesn’t even bother to make a scene. For a couple of months he lives with his young lover Laurence, until she throws him out. Then Ferrer moves into a luxurious apartment in the rue d’Amsterdam where his assistant Delahaye shows up one night with his friend Victoire (who settles down there for a while). Business in the gallery has been slack already for a while and Delahaye seizes the opportunity to talk to Ferrer about a small commercial ship called Nechilik that got stuck in the Arctic ice in 1957 and was recently rediscovered. Among the frozen cargo is Inuit art which happens to be sought for by collectors and seems such a good bargain to Ferrer that he decides to travel to northwesternmost Canada to secure it for his gallery. Before the adventure can begin, Delahaye is victim of a fatal accident. At least that’s what Ferrer and the rest of the world is made believe, while in reality he has taken on the name Baumgartner and waits for the moment to score the prepared big coup. On a day in June Ferrer boards a plane to Montreal and continues the strenuous travel to the remote coast of the District of Mackenzie (Nunavut Territory since 1999) first on an icebreaker and then on dogsled. Even in the isolation of the Arctic he finds women to seduce, the nurse-librarian of the icebreaker and an Inuit girl. The artefacts from the Nechilik meet all his expectations and he takes them back with him to his gallery in Paris. Before he has a chance to even insure his treasure, it is stolen by the junkie thief Le Flétan who was hired by Delahaye, now Baumgartner. For Ferrer the loss is a disaster, since he put almost all his money and hopes into the acquisition. He calls at every bank to get a loan, but his errands are in vain and eventually it is too much for his already weak heart. His life, however, goes on after a multiple heart bypass and it still has some surprises as well as charming women in store for him.

The novel I'm Off is told from the perspective of an all-knowing narrator who doesn’t hesitate to insert his own (sometimes laconic) comments on described events and actions in the plot whenever he considers it necessary or useful. It’s obvious that the main two story lines – Ferrer’s expedition beyond the Arctic Circle to secure the Inuit artefacts and everything concerning their following theft – combine the popular genres of adventure and crime with a character study of the protagonist, a womaniser going through a midlife crisis. Jean Echenoz spiced his novel with a good dash of irony, though, making fun of the established rules of fiction writing which keep being observed above all by authors who (try to) create genre bestsellers in great numbers in as little time and with as little effort as possible. A considerable number of flashbacks and flash-forwards livens up the plot which all in all feels plausible and without loose ends. Despite being caricatured to a certain degree, all characters in the book appear and act like types that can be found in any neighbourhood. With Jean Echenoz the choice of their names sometimes is a pun too, but in general they aren’t translated because otherwise the junkie thief of this novel would be called the Halibut instead of Le Flétan. In style the work of Jean Echenoz is said to evoke Raymond Queneau and Laurence Sterne. Since I haven’t read anything by either of them, I can’t tell it it’s true, though. The author’s language is modern, unpretentious and characterised by the ample use of wordplay as well as unique images which add a great deal to the pleasure of the read. I had no difficulty at all to read the original French version although some of the puns obvious to a French reader may have been lost on me.

All things considered, I'm Off by Jean Echenoz has been an entertaining and interesting cross-genre read. I liked the author’s sense of humour that shows in subtle irony rather than gross jokes and I will surely read others of his (usually) short novels. The first one will be the novella titled One Year (Un an) from 1987 that is included in the English edition that I chose for this review.

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