The future is on its way to Picardy with the construction of a huge motorway. But nearby is a house where nothing has changed since 1945. Traumatised by events that year, Yolande hasn’t left her home since. And life has not been kinder to Bernard, her brother, who is now in the final months of a terminal illness. Realizing that he has so little time left, Bernard’s gloom suddenly lifts. With no longer anything to lose, he be-comes reckless and murderous…
I must confess to having a bit of a penchant for what I dub ‘bijou but perfect’ reads- books that come in at less than 150 pages, invariably foreign fiction in translation and that reveal a whole world of human experience in such a condensed form. The late, great Pascal Garnier is one of my particular favourites with his amoral novelettes that plunge the depths of human sadness and frustration, and ‘The A26‘ is another perfect example of this.
Defying a straightforward classification of genre, I would loosely term this as a noir-esque thriller, but as the plot unfolds, I think maybe this is too simple a defintion. Ostensibly the plot is straightforward with Bernard, a man of mature years employed by the local railway coming to terms with the terminal illness eating away at him. Bernard comes to cope his own impending death by embarking on a murderous course of action. He lives with his sister Yolande, who not to put too fine a point on it is seriously mentally disturbed, having not left the house they share since 1945 when she was exposed as a Nazi collaborator and punished by the local villagers, whilst also trapped in the belief that the war is still on. She observes the world through a peephole, in the clutter and jumble of their ramshackle home, spending her days embarking on nonsensical flights of fancy, and venomous tirades about her persecutors with violent results. Her existence mentally in the past is made even more tangible when juxtaposed with the central motif of progress embodied in the building of the new road, marking the march of modernisation, and the sense of the world moving on without her.Through the murderous intentions of Bernard and the highly confused world of his sister Yolande, the reader is immersed into a dark tale encompassing death, isolation, suspicion and retribution. The violence when it comes is swift and brutal, but underpinning the book are moments of extreme poignancy which helps the story retain a core of decency in its examination of human relationships. Bernard, for example, has a deep-seated platonic relationship with a local woman called Jacqueline, who is married to a violent and boorish man and their lasting friendship is filled with the premise of opportunities lost and the wrong paths taken. Despite Bernard’s less desirable actions his character, certainly for me, illicits an empathy in the reader, that here is a man who through loyalty to his sister has missed out on living to such an extent that his whole character is now defined by the prospect of dying.
Garnier’s books are marked by their integration of strange characters into their French provincial settings as evinced by ‘The Panda Theory’ and ‘How’s The Pain?’ and always retain at their heart a sense of human frailty, despite the blackness of the humour and at times horrific events. Combining the style of Simenon with the visual imagination and humour of the Coen Brothers, there is much to recommend these novellas. They are small works of literary genius, and I would urge you to discover them for yourselves.
(With thanks to Emma Draude at http://edpr.co.uk for the ARC)