The it’s your whole life

Iain Bamforth

  • The Adversary: A True Story of Murder and Deception by Emmanuel Carrère, translated by Linda Coverdale
    Bloomsbury, 183 pp, £14.99, January 2001, ISBN 0 7475 5189 8

In the small hours of Monday, 11 January 1993, Luc Ladmiral, a GP in Voltaire-Ferney, a dormitory town for Geneva on the French side of the border, received a call to say that the house of his closest friend in the neighbouring town was in flames. When he got there, the firemen were bringing out the charred remains of the two children, Antoine (five) and Caroline (seven), and their mother Florence. Only Jean-Claude Romand, the father, still showed signs of life. He was rushed away in an ambulance, unconscious, to a burns unit across the Swiss border.

The two men had been friends for nearly twenty years, since university; both were doctors; they had married almost at the same time; their children had grown up together; Luc’s eldest child was Jean-Claude’s goddaughter. And now this. A boiler had caught fire in the night, and a family had been destroyed. In the early morning, the distraught Ladmirals prayed together that Jean-Claude would never come round from his coma.

When Luc arrived at his surgery later that morning, two policemen were waiting to speak to him. The three victims of the fire had in fact been murdered, the children shot, the mother’s skull staved in. Jean-Claude’s uncle had gone to break the awful news later to his parents in Clairvaux-les-Lacs, in the Jura, and had found the house silent. They, too, had been shot, along with their dog. The police asked Luc what he knew about Jean-Claude’s life outside his family. Did he have any enemies? Debts? Suspicious activities? They wanted to know more about his job as a researcher at the World Health Organisation.

Luc knew very little about his friend’s professional life. Jean-Claude had always been the soul of discretion. His wife proudly told her friends he was a ‘superdoctor’, working quietly away in the neon-lit lab in Geneva to make all those wonderful treatments possible. Yet there was no official record of Romand at the WHO. Nor was his name registered with the regional medical council. The Paris hospitals where he claimed to have done his internship had never heard of him. Stranger still, there was no trace of him as a graduate of the University of Lyon-Nord, where he and Luc had trained. There had to be some mistake: this was his best friend. Hadn’t they trained together?

A note, a confession of sorts, was found in Romand’s car; it referred to an ‘injustice’ connected with his children’s school. Someone had wanted to ‘punch his face in’ after a dispute at a governors’ meeting. Surely this couldn’t be a reason to massacre a family? Then a former lover, a divorcee who had once lived near Ferney, phoned the police. Romand had met her in Paris on the Saturday evening (the post-mortems showed that the family had been killed in the morning): they were supposed to be dining at Fontainebleu with Bernard Kouchner, who Romand claimed was a friend; on the way there he had attacked and tried to strangle her. All she had wanted was the return of her savings – 900,000 francs she thought she had invested through him in a Swiss account. Hers was the last in a series of nest eggs he had used to fund his middle-class lifestyle. A million francs had come from his wife’s family, and now questions were being asked about the death of Romand’s father-in-law several years before, after a fall down a staircase while alone with his son-in-law.

Three days after being rescued from his burning house, Romand came to. He was suffering from the effects of smoke inhalation and the barbiturates he had taken before setting the fire on his return from Paris. The police began a detailed investigation while the French papers had a field day. Having first read about the murder that week, on the day he finished a biography of the science fiction writer Philip K. Dick, Emmanuel Carrère, writer, père de famille, and Romand’s contemporary, finally decided that the only person who could answer the questions that had begun to trouble him was Romand himself. Six months after the murders he wrote to Romand in jail:

I should like you to understand that I am not approaching you out of some unhealthy curiosity or a taste for the sensational. What you have done is not in my eyes the deed of a common criminal, nor that of a madman, but the action of someone pushed to the limit by overwhelming forces, and it is these terrible forces I would like to show at work.

Along with this obsequious contention that Romand was the victim, rather than the villain, of the piece, Carrère sent a copy of his Dick biography, realising only after posting it that the title might not be an altogether happy one in the circumstances: I Am Alive and You Are Dead.

Two years later, having meanwhile written a novel about a murderous father (published in English as Class Trip) and almost forgotten his obsession, Carrère received a reply from the prison in Bourg-en-Bresse. Romand had read his novel; it greatly impressed him; he was keen to co-operate. Thrown into a quandary, Carrère decided he ought to reply. There followed an odd exchange of letters, Carrère adopting a deferential tone because of his ‘guilt about not being guilty’, Romand dilating on the meaning of his suffering: he had begun reading Lacan. He sent Carrère a clipping from a psychiatrist’s report: ‘he was part of them’ – his family – ‘and they of him in a cosmogonic system that was all-embracing, undifferentiated and closed. At that level, there is no longer much difference between suicide and murder.’ Carrère’s intervention in his life was a ‘sign’: he was counting on the writer to explain his story to him better than the psychiatrists had been able to.

The trial was set for June 1996. Carrère went off for a week to visit the places where Romand had played out his double life. The itinerary had been drawn up by Romand himself. Carrère saw the hamlet in the Jura where he had grown up as the single son of a forester, the burned-down house in Prévessin, the parents’ cottage in the woods. It was a desolate experience. ‘And here I was again, chosen (a strong term, I know, but I don’t see how I can say it any other way) by that atrocious story, drawn within the orbit of a man who had done that. I was afraid. Afraid and ashamed. Ashamed in front of my children, that their father should be writing about that.’ All France’s crime reporters were at the trial. ‘It’s not every day you get to see the face of the Devil,’ Le Monde remarked. Catching sight of the strained faces of Florence Romand’s family, Carrère realises he is parti pris for the accused: ‘It was to him that I felt I owed consideration because, wishing to tell this story, I saw it as his story.’

The story that unfolded in the courtroom was conventional enough for a bright boy growing up in a quiet part of rural France which had been transformed by the country’s postwar boom: France’s flight from the land was accomplished in living memory. The Romands had been foresters in the Jura for generations, were almost a clan. Jean-Claude’s father, Aimé, was a timber manager, respected in the trade, a man of probity, quiet and undemonstrative. His mother, Anne-Marie, worried constantly, and often took to her bed. Jean-Claude learned to ‘mislead’ her so as not to make her worry even more. Purely emotional distress was considered a caprice in the family, whose motto ran: a Romand tells the truth and shames the Devil. That left white lies: ‘And when you get caught in that endless effort not to disappoint people,’ Romand explained to the presiding judge, ‘the first lie leads to another, and then it’s your whole life.’

He was an exemplary child. He received an A grade in the first part of the baccalauréat. His parents wanted him to follow in the family line of business; he admired his father and had a real love of the forest. In order to cram for the Forestry Commission’s competitive exam, he went to a preparatory class in Lyon, arriving, if Carrère is to be believed, like a Kaspar Hauser among the snobbish sons of the middle class for whom a forester was a hick. It was a breach with his background and Jean-Claude suddenly felt a need to climb the social ladder. He announced to his family that he wanted to study medicine, but what might have seemed to be a young man striking out on his own was actually the reverse. He never had the slightest interest in patients, he later told Carrère, and touching bodies repelled him. He was paying obeisance to a social idol. Yet rather than being taken aback or disappointed by his decision, his parents were delighted: Aimé’s son, the village boy, was making good.

At the Lyon-Nord medical faculty, he got to know Florence, a distant cousin. She was a down-to-earth girl who seemed destined for an uneventful life. Soon it was understood that they were a couple, though Florence was notably reluctant to embark on the relationship. He was a big lad, but flabby and unprepossessing. Together they were part of a clique that included Luc Ladmiral. Then the big lie happened, the one that led to all the others. He failed to turn up for his crucial second-year exam, the ‘barrage’ for clinical placements, and though he could have saved face in a number of different ways he told his parents he’d been accepted into the third year. He’d met a dead-end, as Carrère says, even before he’d got started. ‘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 18 years later to murder his parents, Florence, and the children he did not yet have?’

He spent the first term of that third year shut up in a studio apartment his parents had bought him. Weeks went by before Luc managed to get through to him, assuming that his absence was due to a quarrel with Florence. What was wrong? Instead of coming clean, Jean-Claude let the lie metastasise. He told Luc he had a Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a tumour of uncertain prognosis which allowed life to continue more or less normally, but was liable to flare up unpredictably. Luc had to promise not to tell Florence. Jean-Claude patched up his relationship with her, and sent in a doctor’s certificate to explain his absence from the exam. Soon he was expertly manipulating the anonymity of French university bureaucracy: for 12 years in a row, he registered as a second-year student, thereby obtaining a student ID, a charade which continued until 1986, when a new dean asked the phantom student to visit her in person. (Student status was a useful let-out from paying income tax, one later supplanted by his new identity as an international civil servant.) He tagged along to classes, used the library, photocopied notes: in short, did everything his fellow students were doing in order to become doctors. Florence had failed the second-year exam, and decided to do pharmacology instead, so they weren’t in the same classes any more, but that didn’t stop them studying together. Jean-Claude was bright and ambitious; Florence thought he would go far. He avoided the small clinical teaching groups and of course the exams, though he often mingled in the nervous crowd outside the hall. Nobody noticed he never went in.

Romand put as much energy into being a sham doctor as he would have done into being a real one. He went to Paris for the competitive training exams, and then told everyone he had secured a post as a researcher in Lyon. Soon he and Florence were settled in Voltaire-Ferney, which was an ideal location for his new WHO posting. The children were born, ‘Caro’ and ‘Titou’. Romand never invited colleagues home, or put on airs: he didn’t want the children to think they were anything special. Indeed, he refused to be disturbed at work: not even his wife had his office number. If absolutely necessary, he could be contacted through an answering service. It was a shaky façade, but nobody ever disturbed it. Every morning he dropped his children off at school, and then drove to the WHO car park. Sometimes he used the ground-floor facilities such as the bank or travel bureau, but he never ventured to the higher floors, where security was tighter. That was in the beginning; then he moved on to sitting in cafés, reading the papers, or walking aimlessly through the forest. On Thursdays he supposedly lectured in Dijon. He would also fake overseas trips, holing out in the airport hotel before returning home to complain of jet-lag. He never forgot to bring appropriate presents for the children.

What finally brought about the implosion was Romand’s defence of the headmaster at his children’s school, who had been dismissed after having an affair with another teacher. He drew attention to himself in the community: for the first time ‘he had said what he thought.’ He was already under pressure: his former mistress in Paris wanted her money back. One week before the murder of his family, the president of the school board met Florence in the street and told her he couldn’t find her husband’s name in the WHO directory. Then Jean-Claude’s mother phoned, upset that the bank had reported that their account was substantially overdrawn. He promised to see to it, reassuring her that it must have been a mistake. Later that week he obtained a phenobarbitol solution from the local pharmacy, no questions asked. In a gun shop, he bought a silencer and cartridges. Later in the week he filled some canisters with petrol. Which is where we came in.

Carrere is like one of those ‘no apparatus’ divers who get lowered into deep water, and practise a kind of brinkmanship, going down as far as possible while retaining enough air in the lungs to prevent fatal loss of consciousness on the way up. His sober style recaptures the nightmarish atmosphere of Kafka’s ‘world-order built upon a lie’, while his willingness to suspend his judgment and let the narrative lead him suggests a weird complicity with the murderer. What kind of revelation is he expecting? There is no floor to Romand’s personality. If Carrère writes guiltily, it is in the knowledge that his book will be one of the narratives Romand uses to reconstruct the meaning of his life.

The most unsettling moment in Carrère’s account is when he decides to visit the Jura and explore the setting of the subterfuge for himself. The sense of dread he conveys is authentic – it is a loss of self, of connection to the world. Romand’s actions seem an extrusion of this vacuity, a radical kind of thoughtlessness. Yet Carrère largely eschews forensic speculation: had he presented Romand as a psychopath with obscurely Oedipal fears and a megalomaniac sense of his own worth, the narrative would have been far less compelling. What is remarkable about a man too abject to recognise that the outcome hidden in his dismal first lie was actually suicide? In prison, Carrère observes, Romand has acquired a new identity as ‘the lowest possible thing in society’ and consequently – with the support of Catholic prison visitors – has ‘“condemned himself to live” so as to dedicate his suffering to his family’s memory’. Carrère suspects this is another form of deception, the work of the title’s adversary, Satan, who is introduced figuratively in order to dramatise the terrible moment when Romand betrays his parents’ trust. Satan could be more pointedly understood here as the prince of mimesis, the force behind the social order as idol. The young boy from the woods who hasn’t woken up to the meaning of responsibility chooses the one profession that might put him beyond reproach: medicine. Altruism is twinned with egoism, or recruited as a kind of immunity against its effects. Romand counterfeits the virtues: all it takes for him to be a doctor is to act like one.

Most of the action in The Adversary is situated in that part of the world where Rousseau’s Savoyard Vicar tormented himself with the distinction between amour de soi, healthy love of self, and its corrupting double, amour-propre or self-esteem, an invidious feeling derived from comparison with others, a quality both relative and reactive. A century later, Nietzsche, fascinated by the same moral dichotomy, came up with a maxim which illustrates almost too well the case in hand: ‘The most dangerous doctors are those born actors who imitate born doctors with perfect deceptive art.’

The Gex region, where Romand set up home, now straddles one of Europe’s internal borders. It dismays me that the zone around Strasbourg, where I live, offers a parallel: bureaucrats working for an abstract set of values (affluent Europe rather than suffering humanity) seem to be peculiarly at risk of turning into moral exhibitionists. Why? One form of bureaucratic organisation allowed Romand to assume the guise of a minor Schweitzer, even though his fictitious job had nothing to do with patients. Another allowed him to go about in full view while remaining hidden: individualism and bureaucracy need each other, however much they dislike the fact. For all his stunted development and psychopathic drift, Romand had grasped how to exploit what looked like autonomy, and if nobody caught on to his imposture it was because he took its claims on him to the letter.

In its demoralising way, The Adversary seems like a relic of the dystopian mood that descended on France in the 1990s, when the pressures of the global market threatened to sever traditional ties and allegiances completely, leaving a society in which the rule of law was merely a brake on egoism and self-determination the sole measure of social legitimacy. It is as if, in Carrère’s mind, the May ‘68 slogan, sous les pavés, la plage, has flattened out into the vision of Romand’s null existence, as he drives round the countryside: ‘a vast beach of dead and empty time’.