It belonged to us

Theo Tait

Tristan Garcia was only 26 when this dazzlingly clever and assured first novel came out in France, published there as La Meilleure Part des hommes and now in Britain and America under the punchier title of Hate: A Romance. With its societal sweep, slick marshalling of grand ideas and extreme sex, it fits neatly into an established category of French novels that have sold well in the English-speaking world, by authors such as Michel Houellebecq, Virginie Despentes and Frédéric Beigbeder. But even by these standards, Garcia’s debut cuts a dash. Hate confidently re-creates the Paris gay scene of the late 1980s and early 1990s, along with the wider political disappointments and subcultural controversies of the period: a time, as the author has put it, ‘of the end of ideologies and the end of history’, but also a time when Garcia himself was a small child. The book was one of the events of the rentrée littéraire, the autumn publishing season, of 2008; it won the Prix de Flore, which rewards younger, avant-garde-ish writers.

Hate is the story of four people: Elizabeth Levallois, the narrator, a cultural journalist at Libération; her long-term lover, a married media academic called Jean-Michel Leibowitz; her friend Dominique Rossi, a gay activist; and William Miller, an unbalanced young man who is Dominique’s lover for a time and then spends the rest of his life trying to destroy him. William’s behaviour drives much of the plot, as he becomes a writer and a minor media sensation, famous for adopting increasingly extreme positions. With Aids ravaging the gay community, he turns into an enthusiastic proponent of ‘barebacking’ (unprotected sex) and sets up ‘conversion parties’, where HIV positive men can ‘fertilise guys who are negative’ – infuriating Dominique, a campaigner for Aids prevention. Though grim in places, the novel is mostly a romp: light and twisty, with William’s nihilistic ravings set against witty cultural observations and Parisian in-jokes. Garcia calls it ‘a story of moral adventure’. Really, it’s a black comedy of ideas – of people driven mad by intellectual squabbles and ideological contortions.

It is also, notoriously, a roman-à-clef. Garcia denies this, arguing in a smart-arsed variation on the normal disclaimer that if ‘the reader feels that in certain ways [the characters] resemble real persons whom he or she knows, or knows of, that is simply because other persons or characters would behave no differently under similar conditions’. However, the many points of contact between his three male characters and three real-life figures are beyond dispute. William and Dominique’s public battle over barebacking is based on that between the writer Guillaume Dustan (the nom de plume of William Baranès) and Didier Lestrade, a journalist who cofounded the French chapter of the Aids pressure group Act Up. And Leibowitz, the rather absurd rentaquote thinker who slides slowly from the radical left to the neoconservative right, is clearly based on Alain Finkielkraut, author of The Imaginary Jew and one of France’s leading public intellectuals. Like Finkielkraut, Leibowitz is the son of a working-class Polish Jew who survived Auschwitz; like Finkielkraut, Leibowitz becomes what some critics would call a Republican fundamentalist or just a racist (Finkielkraut is a long-term opponent of Islamic headscarves being worn in schools who has warned that the multiracial society could become ‘the multiracist society’).

Garcia has altered their personal histories in some important particulars: William is a provincial nobody rather than a member of the Paris elite like Baranès, and unlike his real-life counterpart he does not die of an overdose. He has also invented a complicated fictional interaction between the characters. Even so, Finkielkraut, who is portrayed as a self-important, power-hungry hypocrite, was not amused. ‘I am appalled,’ he told L’Express. ‘I have the unpleasant feeling of having been entirely dispossessed of myself.’ In the past, he complained, literature ‘at least had some relationship with courtesy and the imagination. Whereas today it seems that everything is reduced to boorishness and fantasy. It’s depressing, but what can I do? Duels are outlawed nowadays.’

For the British reader, the web of mischievous references will be hard to appreciate without a great deal of Googling. But even without this, there is much to enjoy. The central plots translate well: there are, after all, plenty of intellectuals in the Anglosphere who have followed a similar trajectory to Leibowitz’s; and the idea that people might agree to infect others or to be infected with HIV is powerful in any language.

Hate is written in a simple, quasi-documentary style; some of the early chapters are dramatised as interviews. Garcia doesn’t attempt to burrow too deep, or to describe his characters’ most intimate thoughts. Instead, he offhandedly offers a few sharp, convincing details, or a few lines of fast-moving dialogue. It’s very effective. This is Elizabeth describing herself:

I’m 33, a journalist. My face is long and, I think, rather pretty. I believe in pills. I know how to dress, but I have a mind of my own. I suppose you could say I’m a bitch. Furthermore, I suppose 90 per cent of the population, if they met me, would roll their eyes and say: ‘One of those.’ Fair enough, I’m the kind of person one comes across in Paris. I have a nice apartment. I’m not rich, but definitely not poor, and I’m left-wing because I still cling to too many illusions to be a cynic.

Similarly, Dominique’s macho Corsican separatist background is summed up by a story he tells about his father, who shelters a rogue resistance fighter for the night, tends his wounds, and is then implicated in his murder a few weeks later. This is Dominique speaking, as it were, to camera – and it’s all we hear about his family:

That’s how it is with this ‘Corsican hospitality’, you know. I never had time for it, all those males playing at manly honour, everyone hugging and kissing, all this business about respect, then they turn round and kill you and it’s all part of the Code. The fucking Code. Compared to that, Communism is feminine.

The setting is also very smartly done. In an interview with Bomb magazine, Garcia explained that he wanted to deal with the ‘nearly contemporary’: ‘an intermediary era between past and present, in a limbo of history and the news, somewhere between the 1980s and 1990s’. While 9/11 novels are mostly disappointing, stepping back and portraying the recent past might ‘express where today comes from’, he felt. Garcia is an academic philosopher, and essentially his book is about the collision of ideas, dramatised in an energetic but fairly schematic way. ‘The 1980s,’ we’re told at the beginning of the story, ‘were a cultural and intellectual wasteland except when it came to TV, free-market economics and Western homosexuality.’ Then we see Dominique and other gay thinkers dealing with Aids, which they initially regard as ‘ideological’, a ‘protofascist creation of the hospital state’ à la Foucault – before gradually accepting that it may in fact be a creation of nature and ‘random bad luck’. As Dominique moves towards integration and prevention, William heads for the wilder shores of identity politics, denouncing his former lover as a collaborator for going ‘whining’ to the state for money for health initiatives. Aids, William thinks, ‘was a real opportunity. I mean it was ours, it belonged to us queers and nobody else.’

The character of Leibowitz, meanwhile, gives all this an intellectual framework: he writes books and articles about the other two, diagnosing in them the ills of the age.

Leibowitz thought that the victims, the minorities – for example, women, blacks, the poor, homosexuals – had become the pretext for a democratic self-satisfaction. He thought intelligence had gotten mixed up with a cowardly totalitarian political correctness, a habit of saying yes to anyone who’d been oppressed, and to agree with anyone who felt they had been wronged in the bad old days.

For example, we were supposed to like rap, we were supposed to think of it as an art.

Inevitably, he starts to think of himself as an oppressed voice in the wilderness. In the interview, Garcia glosses this development:

I have the impression that in the world of ideas one increasingly needs to be wary not to appear as the majority, because the majority is in the realm of numbers, votes. Thus, to assert one’s individual opinions one needs to present one’s thoughts as representing those of the minority. The emphasis on Western debates on the ‘politically correct’ is born out of this logic of the minority.

Thus, he explains, you have white heterosexual men claiming victim status: ‘This is an endless principle of reversal, from the mainstream to the alternative, the dominant to the dominated, which is the fever of Western democracies.’

Like many of Garcia’s theories, this is perhaps more interesting than it is right: you need only consider Sarkozy’s presidency to see that coercive majoritarian politics are alive and well. However, the ‘principle of reversal’ is certainly what drives this book, in which all of the characters – gays, Jews, Arabs, white middle-class people – claim to have been oppressed and end up, invariably, calling each other Nazis. Dominique and Leibowitz fall out, over William. Then Dominique and William fall out, partly over an Arab man. Then Leibowitz and William fall out. And so on, all taking different political positions as the quarrel requires. Early in the novel, Leibowitz compares himself to a footballer taking a penalty:

I’d think the goalie was going to dive left, so I’d better shoot to the right. But then I’d think the goalie would end up thinking that I was thinking of shooting to the right, and so I’d better shoot left. But if he thought I was going to shoot to the other side, then I’d have to shoot to the other side of the other side, precisely where he was expecting me to shoot. I’d shoot to the right – but it had all that thinking behind it, you see what I mean?

As Elizabeth explains: ‘In other words, he was an intellectual.’

The obvious objection to Hate is that it’s a bit diagrammatic, a bit glib. There’s too much facile zeitgeist talk, marching the reader in double-time from the ‘joie de vivre’ period of gay liberation to the Aids era; having a cultural journalist as his narrator only cuts Garcia a limited amount of slack. Some veterans of the Paris scene have complained that the depiction is not up to much. It certainly has a clinical feel. (Garcia is not gay; besides, dramatising powerful emotions and sensations is not his style.) The novel is very good on detailed notation of slogans, fashion and far-out sexual practices, but there is little in the way of lived experience: William and Dominique’s inverted love story, supposedly the heart of the novel, is something of a vacuum. For my English taste, William’s nihilism is presented too fast and slickly for it to be as unsettling as it ought to be. There are too many lines like: ‘Shit, Bataille said love and death are the same.’ One begins to rebel against the grandiose section headings: ‘Hate is Beautiful’, ‘True Love’, ‘Justice’, ‘Happiness’ etc. Compared to some of the books that Garcia raided for material – Hervé Guibert’s genuinely unnerving To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life, for example – it feels like a Cook’s tour of Paris, années Sida. Maybe it’s even a little trashy. In both the original French and the (American) translation, the writing is quick and clever but little more than functional. But it is ingenious, often very funny – and always interesting. The overall impression it leaves is one of envy: that the French have such swashbuckling young novelists, and public intellectuals interesting enough to justify a roman-à-clef.