Strange worlds, bingo
I ‘found’ Emmanuel Carrère in a Guardian summer reads column. I must not have read it too carefully, because I didn’t end up reserving the recommended book at my library, but an earlier work, which I then absolutely tore through. The Adversary is a work of true crime, superbly translated by Linda Coverdale, about a man who annihilates his family. Jean-Claude Romand is a bourgeois doctor, a World Health Organization (WHO) researcher, who lives in France near the Swiss border. He is married, with two children, has a group of friends who have been close since medical school, and he is generally well regarded by all who know him. We learn, quickly, that little of this profile is true, and Carrère charges headlong into a devastating tale of how, given Romand’s upbringing and psychology, lies can accrete until “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold…” (Yeats, The Second Coming).
Carrère isn’t intrigued by the facts of the case, which are devastating and quite straightforward; he reaches out to Romand because he is obsessed with how Romand was possible. With a less skilled writer, this could have been prurient or forgiving; instead, we get a portrait of a man who really isn’t there – hence the strange worlds. He inhabits a terrible world of his own creation. Carrère notes: “How could he have suspected that there was something worse than being quickly unmasked, which was not to be unmasked, so that this childish lie would lead him eighteen years later to murder his parents, Florence, and the children he did not yet have?” Further, Carrère observes that “A lie usually serves to conceal a truth, something shameful, perhaps, but real. He concealed nothing. Behind the false Dr. Romand there was no real Jean-Claude Romand.” These meditations on lies were so thought provoking to me. I tell the occasional white lie and avoid them when I can; I am appalled and bewildered when I observe a serial liar (for example, and not to bring politics in here, but lies about the relative size of crowds at inaugurations). This sense of disorientation I feel is explored in great detail; again, quoting Carrère:
When he makes an entrance on the domestic stage of his life, everyone thought he was coming from another stage where he played another role, that of being a big shot who travels the world, associates with government ministers, dines in official splendor, a role he would resume when he went out the door again. But there was no other stage, no other audience for whom he played the other role. Outside, he found himself naked. He returned to absence, a void, a blank that wasn’t an incidental accident but the sole experience of his life. He had never known any other, I believe, even before that life split in two.
What a nightmare; what a vilely strange world Romand inhabited.