Lights by the Ton

John Sturrock

  • Lake by Jean Echenoz, translated by Guido Waldman
    Harvill, 122 pp, £8.99, June 1998, ISBN 1 86046 449 1
  • Un An by Jean Echenoz
    Minuit, 111 pp, frs 65.00, September 1997, ISBN 2 7073 1587 7

The weightless characters who track about in Jean Echenoz’s novels are granted a sense now and again that that’s where they are, in someone else’s story, fulfilling burlesque routines not of their own devising. They’re not great thinkers, merely see-through functionaries of the plot. There’s a droll exchange marking one of these twinges of self-awareness in an early novel called Cherokee – named for the Forties song, not for the Native Americans as such – between the driver of a Deux-Chevaux and his captive passenger: ‘ “We could take you somewhere.” “That’s it,” said Georges, “take me somewhere.” ’ Which is what they do, and what Jean Echenoz with obvious pleasure does to us, taking us on what feels like a random tour, as guests of a narrative itself showing enough wear to count as the equivalent in print of a dented Citroën. For such are the cheerfully vagrant and pastiche plots of this by now experienced farceur, who keeps Georges – a man whose congenital blindness in respect of his future extends to falling asleep while having his fortune told – and his obliging backseat kind hurrying in this direction and that, while denying them the inner life any intrusion on the mechanics of which would not only hold things up but undermine the novels’ serene superficiality.

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