Saturday, 26 February 2011

Caught in a Bad Romance

Hate, A Romance, by the emergent French novelist Tristan Garcia, is a difficult book to read. It is difficult - not because of the writing, or the language, or even the complex socio-political themes - but because, at the heart of the book, is the idea that the human condition is an inherently lonely, isolated state.

Revolving around a close-knit group of friends and lovers (Willie, Dominique, Jean-Michel and Liz), the novel explores the theory that all human relationships are fluid and impermanent. It is unsettling for the reader to consider the possibility that, despite being part of a complex social structure, eventually all human bonds break down. Whether this happens as a result of disloyalty, envy, hate or death is irrelevant – the point is: it happens.

The novel spans the period from the early seventies to the late noughties, with much of the action set against the backdrop of the explosive homosexual revolution of the early eighties. Willie and Dominique are in an apparently loving gay relationship, while Liz and Jean-Michel (Leibo) embark on a decades-long affair. Willie is introduced to Paris’s gay scene by the older and more experienced Dominique, and together they explore and enjoy the burgeoning sexual liberation afforded to homosexuals during that period.

But, nothing lasts forever. Everything changes. A newcomer arrives on the scene intent on spoiling the party; the arrival of AIDS causes the euphoria of the period to give way to fear and suspicion.
Dominique is HIV positive and eventually Willie contracts the virus as well. Not content with eating away their weakening bodies, the disease also consumes all that is good in their relationship. (It remains unclear whether Dominique infected Willie – certainly accusations are bandied about, but the reader remains unsure.) In this insidious atmosphere, we witness the breakdown of friendships and love affairs. Connections that once seemed inextricably linked become disentangled. The bonds between all four protagonists eventually come undone: love turns to hate, loyalty to betrayal, friends become enemies, life gives way to death. Ultimately, as the title suggests, familiarity will always breed contempt in the end.

This novel is not for the faint-hearted. It is complex, multi-layered and challenging, dealing with a wide range of philosophical and political themes. A story of life, love and loss, the novel forces the reader to confront issues that we generally prefer to ignore. The author’s remarkable philosophical insight and brilliant command of narrative makes this a highly readable, if somewhat harrowing, piece of work.

This debut offering has thrust Tristan Garcia to the forefront of the French literary scene. He is undoubtedly the most exciting novelist to come out of France since Michel Houellebecq. One to watch.

Hate, A Romance is published by Faber and Faber.

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