The A26 by Pascal Garnier

the a26The wounds of war…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

Brother and sister Bernard and Yolande have lived together all their lives. Yolande remains permanently holed up in their house, every door locked, every window covered, her only viewpoint on the world a small hole in one of the blinds. And for Yolande, the world she looks out on is still in the grip of WW2, a period that traumatised her so completely she has never recovered. Bernard has been the functional one, his job on the railway providing their income. He has given up his own chance of a personal life to look after his older sister. But now Bernard has been told that he is dying, and suddenly all the missed opportunities and disappointments of his life erupt into violence…

Given the novella length of this book, it packs a mighty punch. Ink-black noir, there are no gleams of light or humour to lift the tone. On the surface, Bernard and Yolande are a pair of extremely dysfunctional and disturbed siblings, each with their own streak of madness, and with the potential for violence simmering not far below the surface. The book has a thriller format, seen from the perspectives of the perpetrators of the various crimes that take place.

But it seems to me (though I may be over-analysing it) that the entire novella is a metaphor for a France still bleeding from the wounds inflicted on it in WW2 – the wounds of defeat, collaboration and betrayal – wounds that eventual victory may have covered, but with the thinnest of scar tissue, easily scratched away. The book was written in 1999, and is set perhaps a couple of decades before that, when many people were still alive who had lived through the war. And Garnier shows this couple as having been damaged even before the war began, much as France still reeled from the horrors inflicted upon its landscape and people in the First World War.

‘Row upon row, their white tunics stained with blood like that bastard of a butcher. “I kill you, you kill me.” And the more they killed, the more of them sprang up again, it was truly miraculous! That’s why there’ll never be an end to the war – anyway, it’s always been here, it’s that kind of country, there’s nothing else to do but go to war. The only thing that grows is white crosses.’

Verdun-17

Yolande had committed the crime of having an affair with a German soldier and had paid the price when her countrymen shaved her head to display her disgrace to the world. But Garnier’s description shows that this episode was as much to do with lust and cruelty as justice and patriotism. The world may have forgotten Yolande’s shame but she has never forgotten those who shamed her. There is the chance for Yolande to throw the past aside and go back out into the world, but she carries her prison with her in her mind. She’s not a weak woman, far from it. Her selfishness makes her monstrous and it’s hard to see her as having been a victim. She is a fact, a piece of history, a hidden scandal, France’s shame. And that unresolved shame is shown metaphorically to be still shuddering through the later generations.

Pascal Garnier
Pascal Garnier

Bernard has watched the woman he loved marry another man – a cruel, boorish man who treats her badly, and when he receives his death sentence his pent-up frustrations and anger boil over into a murderous spree. There are some shocking scenes of violence and horror, but they’re not written in an overly graphic way – Garnier is painting impressionistic images rather than drawing detailed pictures. His descriptions are full of craters and mud, and when he describes places he does it in terms of their association with battles and war, this modern landscape scarred still with reminders of France’s violent past. The A26, being built in the book, runs through or past many of the great battlefields of France and close to those of Belgium – Arras, the Somme, Ypres – and Garnier plays darkly with the conjunction of the digging of the road and the history of its bloody surroundings.

To say I enjoyed this would be a total misuse of the word. It is too dark, too upsetting, to enjoy. But it is powerful and gut-wrenching, with Garnier’s compelling writing enhanced by an excellent translation from Melanie Florence. I may have made it sound more metaphorical than it is, though that’s how it struck me. But it works too on the level of being an extremely dark thriller, leading up to an ending that shocked me and left me feeling completely conflicted as to the morality of the tale. Despite the awfulness of their actions, there was some part of me that empathised with each of the dreadful siblings, and that was the most unsettling aspect of all. As entertainment, I enjoyed Garnier’s Boxes more, but for me this one is the more powerful and meaningful, and therefore better, of the two.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Gallic Books.

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53 thoughts on “The A26 by Pascal Garnier

  1. Wow, this sounds like powerful stuff! It’s not my usual type of thing if I’m honest but there is something very compelling about it, I must say. The characters interest me already. Bugger… it’s going on the list FF. Pah!

    • It is powerful indeed! But it’s not the one I was thinking about when I said you’d like my next one – sorry! Today was supposed to be a Tuesday Terror post, but I didn’t get around to doing one, so this has been slipped in. Tomorrow’s is the one I think you’ll like – but don’t let me put you off this one! If you write small, you should be able to fit them both on your list… 😉

  2. I know just what you mean about ‘enjoy,’ FictionFan. Garnier’s like that: too dark and unsettling to use that verb. But it does get under your skin, I’ve found. And I like your idea about this story being a metaphor for postwar France. This is one of those stories that sort of stays with you even when it’s done, just because it’s that unsettling.

  3. This was my least favourite of the Garnier reads, simply because it was so dark, so bleak, not a glimmer of redemption or humour. It’s interesting to think of it as a metaphor for postwar France: that does strike me as a possibility and redeems it somewhat in my eyes.

    • I think I’ve been so steeped in books about the wars recently that I’m seeing connections everywhere – maybe even where they don’t exist! But there was something in the book early on that made me think of the war and then I started seeing links all over the place. And to be honest, that was what redeemed it for me too – as a straight thriller, it was way too dark for my taste.

  4. Awesome review, FEF! Goodness, I’m interested in this one. And it’s a shorter book, so that’s always good. But I don’t know…it seems rather dark and depressing! I’m supposing there’s not a happy ending of any sort?

    Now his glasses are something impressive, I say.

    • Thank you! Yay! An awesome! *dances a bit* All his books seem to be short – I like that idea! But yes, very dark – though more disturbing than depressing, I’d say. Not even the slightest glimmer of a happy ending! Though I did think… but no, that would be a spoiler…

      Yellow glasses are strange things – though I do like green ones…

      • See, you only get stellars when you tell me things you should tell me…

        *stomps feets* Now tell me what you were going to say, or I’ll…huff and puff, mind you! And I’ll tell BUS, who sorta right below me down there.

        Red ones…

        • Oh, I never get stellars any more – the last one was back in 1932! I’ve given up trying! I reckon you’ve never truly forgiven me for Bleak House… (but it’s so much more fun not telling you… *chuckles wickedly*)

          Well… I was going to say that it all depended on how you look at the ending, I suppose. Maybe he deserved it… in which case, despite all the blood, maybe it was a sort of happy ending. But then, there were the rats… *shudders* I hope that clarifies things a bit?

          I’m too pale for red ones…

          • 1932! Why that’s around the time BUS was born. Wow. Now, now. I don’t hold you responsible for BH…just like you don’t hold me responsible for Innocents Abroad…your fav book, I’ve heard. (I shall take revenge, you know, you know!)

            *laughing lots* As much info as I think you’re going to give me. Grr-hoofy. Rats sound interesting. I want to hear more on them, please.

            How can you be too pale for red? That’s silly!

            • I might tell her you said that… *stands back and gets ready to enjoy the fireworks* But… I do hold you responsible for IA! And you can’t compare the incomparable Dickens with… that person, anyway. Though… *thinks*

              Well… let’s put it this way. First, they were hungry and then… they weren’t… *shudders*

              Don’t you call me silly, silly! Or I shall splat you with a giant pot of raspberry jam… let’s see how much you still like red then… *stomps off*

            • BUS likes me, so I’m rather safe, wouldn’t you know. Plus, wouldn’t it be cool to be born in the ’30’s? Imagine. Maybe not, the sudden. You hold me responsible for that?! Meanness! Twain is the man. You just hate him because he was…unruly.

              Oh, rats aren’t scary when they’re hungry. I’ve seen Ratatouille, see.

              I might actually. If you put it right there, I’ll lick it right up.

            • No-one is ever safe around BUS – you can never tell when she might rampage! It would not! Think of the wrinkles! I do – I’d never have read it if it hadn’t been for you, so it’s your fault! And one day you will pay… *glowers*

              These ones were… but they cut down on the recycling…

              *laughs* You would too! But I got Schwarzy to poison it…

            • Which is kinda cool. But I’d be able to tell. I’d hide under a table when she was about to, see. Oh, you just hated it ’cause he was funny. Pay? Pay what? You seriously can’t have your ears back.

              Were they black?

              Schwarz! He might do that. But I think he likes me!

            • You can’t hide from BUS! She has superhuman tracking skills! Depends how you define ‘funny’… Then I shall just have to stick two shells on as replacements – no-one will notice…

              Hmm… I’m not sure he specified…

              He might have done – till you deserted him!

  5. Interesting. I gather there is quite a debate going on in France about how WWII is taught in school, with younger (and therefore post-war) historians urging that France face up to its past – not easy, given France’s national mythos. A bit like GB coming to terms with its colonial past, a process I don’t expect to live to see finished.

    • It made me think about South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation stuff – I guess Europe spent so much time fighting and so little time at peace that countries just had to block off their recent history and stagger on. But it did seem to me that Garnier was suggesting that France hadn’t really come to terms with the Occupation etc – just buried it…

  6. This strikes me what my lit profs called “Universal Human Experiences.” I’ve felt some of that along the way. Some more of some and less of others. I came to a place where I realized that some of my dreams have sailed never to return. One of them was the morning I woke up and realized that I spent 4 and a half years getting a degree in a science in which, as a woman, I would never be permitted to practice where I was raised up.

    Then there was the awaking of reading Our Town.

    It isn’t too late for some things, but others sailed a different boat never to return. I’m probably not going to walk out of the house some day and never return, but I feel like it some times. More often as I get older.

    So, enough of broken dreams. I’m still looking out to the sea.

    • Yes, I’m afraid life rarely works out quite as we expect, even without major diversions like war. But probably if it did, we would still feel that we’d missed some opportunities along the way. I think the secret is to adjust the dreams as we go along. ‘Cos you know, I’m not at all sure I’d have enjoyed the life I thought I wanted any more than the one I got… Haha! That sounds so miserable, but I don’t mean it that way! What I mean is I’m not convinced the grass really is greener on the other side…

    • Hmm… I certainly found it powerful, but I’m not sure whether it would have the same effect on you. Might be too thrillerishly dark and gruesome, plus – nobody else thinks it has much to do with the war, I think! Haha! I think you need to read it actually so you can tell me if I’ve metaphorically lost the plot… 😉

  7. I find I have to alternate between light and dark books otherwise, it’s downright depressing! Just finished a bleak book and need lighter fare, but perhaps this will make my dark list. For some reason, this sounds like I’m discussing meat on a chicken!

    • Me too! That’s why I’m always reading several things at the same time – I can only take so much dark. Haha! Now I really want a chicken sandwich – but I might have to fight Tuppence for the remaining chicken… wish me luck!

  8. Gee, this sounds fairly easy for me to pass on. All that darkness and disturbing images! I know there’s a place for depressing stories, but a steady diet of that sort of thing just isn’t for me. Now I’ll slink off and console my sweet tooth with a spot of chocolate….

    • Oh, I couldn’t take it as a constant diet either, but it’s OK in small helpings. This one is particularly dark though – chocolate is an essential accompaniment! 😉

  9. I really enjoyed your review of this novella, especially your commentary on the story as a metaphor for a France still bleeding from the wounds inflicted on it in WW2. This was the first Garnier, which I read (pre-blog) and so my memories of it have started to fade a little, but I think you might be onto something with that train of thought. It’s not my favourite of his works, but I do recall it packing quite a punch! I’ve seen it compared to something akin to the morbid humour of the League of Gentleman, which I could see in the characters.

    • Thanks, Jacqui! Ha! Yes, I can see that comparison too! This one was definitely more powerful than enjoyable, but I thought it held together better than Boxes, where I felt the ending became a bit silly. These are the only two I’ve read so far but I have Moon in a Dead Eye and How’s the Pain on my Kindle and am looking forward to them, since a few people have rated them as favourites. But though they’re short, I still find I need a bit of time between each one – that level of darkness goes a long way…

    • Haha! Thank you, Wallace! Yes, indeed – but I don’t mind dark and disturbing so long as it’s well enough written to carry it. Looking forward to Moon in a Dead Eye next… 🙂

  10. War. There never are any real winners. All losers. This book sounds intriguing, but intense and grim (much like war), and I’m not sure I’m ready to take it on. Although, on some dark and stormy night, I might think otherwise. Nice review, metaphor and all.

    I do tend to think the mind searches for connections in the snow of data it receives each day, so I’m not surprised you’re finding connections to other books about war you’ve been reading. Not surprising at all.

    • Indeed! We’re still obsessed by the two world wars over here – which might not be a bad thing, since it might stop us doing it again. It is certainly grim, but worth a read nevertheless, sometime when you feel like being harrowed!

      Especially reading translated fiction – we (the UK) kinda see the war as something we ‘went’ to, whereas for the people on the European mainland it ‘came’ to them – a thing I’d never really thought much about, to be honest. I’m guessing both France and Germany are even more screwed up about it all than we are…

  11. Loved your review although I enjoyed this book a little less than the other two I’ve now read, I interpreted it as a metaphor too although maybe on a more individual level than the whole country. Garnier was an exceptionally clever man and there is lots to love in these novellas.

    • Thanks, Cleo! Yes, the fact that they can be interpreted in different ways is an indication of how much deeper they are than they might first appear. I’ve still got two to read – Moon in a Dead Eye and How’s the Pain. But I feel they need a good gap between them…

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