One of my pleasant reading discoveries of the last two years has been the translated work of French author Jean Echenoz — it started in spring 2009 when his Ravel was shortlisted for the IMPAC Award. I loved that short novel and followed up with readings of Piano and Running; he never let me down. (Reviews of all three can be found here). I am most happy to report that I can now add Chopin’s Move to my list of Echenoz successes, even if it seems I have inadvertently fallen into reading his work in reverse chronological order.
For me, these novels are like a very good crossword puzzle. They are short — at 135 well-spaced pages, Chopin’s Move was just over a two-hour read. Yet, they demand concentration and involvement. The plot twists frequently, although always with some rationale, and for concise works there tend to be a lot of characters. The interior structure is complete and consistent, but it usually takes a second reading without the headscratching and backtracking to confirm that. Indeed, that is one of Echenoz’s strengths — the book can be read at one sitting today, and re-read again tomorrow or a few days down the road, to even greater effect. The prospect of a two or three day “adventure” of a read and reread is one that sometimes appeals to me and Echenoz has always delivered.
First published in French in 1989 and in English translation in 2004, Chopin’s Move was also the first winner of the European Literature Prize (I am not even going to try to describe that strange award). In plot terms, it is a “spy” story (not unlike John le Carre’s Our Kind of Traitor, recently reviewed here). It is a much quicker read, but an equally enticing one, perhaps even more so.
Franck Chopin is a “bug man” — he raises and studies flies, works at a scientific museum and writes monographs about his work. That is not a particularly lucrative trade — indeed, it hardly provides enough for survival — so he has also accepted being recruited as an agent in a shadowy undercover intelligence agency. Rather than describing him and his work, let me offer instead Echenoz’s description of his contact, who introduces Chopin to the specific enterprise of this book. He is Vito Piranese, a one-legged veteran who has also backed into espionage as a path to economic survival, described here seated on a Paris park bench:
Before the one he was now practicing on the bench, Vito Piranese had held other professions: basketball coach up until his accident, then broker in nonferrous metals, travelling salesman before Martine’s departure, and finally photograph retoucher. None of these had ever worked out except for one, the retoucher, when he’d done a favor for some discreet important persons: they had taken an interest in him. He’d had two interviews. Now, thanks to these persons whom he hadn’t seen since, Vito regularly watched the people he was asked to watch, following the same protocol established once and for all: the interminable phone rings and the three numbers, the bus, the swapping of bags, never the same bus, always the same bags since the time of Mata Hari. Deriving from this employment just enough to live on, with an occasional movie, newspaper, or weekly television series into the bargain, Vito spent the rest of his life trying to forget Martine.
No James Bonds in this spy novel, eh? I quote that at length because it illustrates why I find Echenoz’s work so interesting (and why, I suspect, others might not). While the four books that I have read all have a strong plot stream, that is not what is so good about them — rather, it is the tangential observations that the author makes, supported by his story. Vito (who pretty much disappears from the book after that excerpt) has fallen into this world of subterfuge through circumstance — the world might be the over-arching story, the circumstance is the substance.
In Chopin’s Move, Vito is the agent who recruits the title character into a surveillance scheme that is the driver of the plot. Chopin’s skill is that he can implant mini-transmitters on flies so that those under observation can be recorded. Okay, a willingness to accept implausibilities is a necessary condition for appreciating Echenoz. Rest assured, as a reader, you do get rewarded. Those weird developments are merely support devices for what the author is best at.
The author also likes to have a femme fatale (often more than one, but only one is this work) who adds some erogenous spice to the work. In Chopin’s Move that femme is Suzy Clair, first sighted by Chopin in a Paris park but met only later at a reception (and this is representative of a typical Echenoz character introduction):
As she smiled, he told her about some of the flies he studied for a living: the brown ones, reddish brown ones, red ones, orange ones, and violet ones; about the vitreous ones and the ferruginous ones with yellow knees and green or bright blue eyes; and about the more comical aspects of their behavior. And as she deigned to smile some more at his tie, which bore a minuscule embroidered elephant, nothing was simpler for Chopin than to evoke the habits of elephants, those who crossed the Alps or tromped on foot down Rue Saint-Denis; those whose tusks they used to carve in Dieppe when he was a teenager.
Suzy Clair’s childhood, back when she was still Suzy Moreno, was spent in Blois. At present, Blois was no more than a small, overexposed, black-and-white memory, even thought at a very young age Suzy had become the princess of the high-rises: nothing was decided without her say-so in the parking garages and sub-basements of housing developments, standing near the river or leaning over the pinball.
Suzy becomes a major character in the story — and there are some others. One of my objectives when I started writing this review was to give away as little of the plot as possible and (patting myself on the back) I think I have succeeded in that aim. In fact, I have told you nothing, but you can assume there is a complete, concrete, spyish story. Echenoz uses plot as the trunk of his Christmas tree; the beauty of his writing lies in the baubles that he hangs from the branches and the light strings that he hangs around that structure.
He has done that in each of the four books that I have read so far: Ravel is the interrupted biography of the final days of the composer, Running considers the conflicts faced by an Olympic athlete, Piano is about the demise of a concert performer. All of the story lines are interesting — but the worth of the short novels lies always in the digressions that the author explores for Echnenoz’s interest is primarily in what lies behind the obvious. The novels are a divertissement, yes, but an entirely worthwhile one; the author’s point being that, even in the absurd, there is more at stake than what appears on the surface.
Echenoz’s ability to draw the reader into “big” circumstances and then explore the minutiae that is essential to that larger pricture is a rare talent. After reading four of his books (and with a couple more on the shelf), he has become for me a very reliable author — when I want to get away from heavy work, but still want my mind to be engrossed in a challenging volume (but only for a few hours), Echenoz can be counted on to succeed. He certainly does that in Chopin Moves.