Chopin’s Move, by Jean Echenoz

Purchased at Amazon.ca

Translated by Mark Polizzotti

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.

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17 Responses to “Chopin’s Move, by Jean Echenoz”

  1. leroyhunter Says:

    Very interesting Kevin. I think I’d enjoy taking a look at M. Echenoz’s work. If I was aware of him at all it was only as a name, I’d no idea of the type of books he writes. The length of his books and restless variety of subjects make me think of another of my current enthusiasms, César Aira.

    “the world might be the over-arching story, the circumstance is the substance” – that’s a very nice way of putting it. I’m sold.

    As regards the plausability (or otherwise) of insect-based surveillance, I’ll offer this quote from a recent article on military robotics:
    “Perhaps more creepy is Darpa’s research proposal to hijack flying insects for surveillance – in other words, harness a biological “UAV” that is already autonomous. According to the proposal, tiny, electro-mechanical controllers could be implanted into the insects during their metamorphosis, although some researchers have said this idea is a little too far-fetched.”

    Full article at http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2010/nov/21/military-robots-autonomous-machines if anyone’s interested.

  2. Trevor Says:

    I keep putting off purchasing anything by Echenoz, Kevin, but I’m glad you keep reminding me just how bad that decision might be.

  3. KevinfromCanada Says:

    leroy:Very prescient of you to mention Aira — I have two of his that I intend to get to in the next few weeks (How I Became a Nun and The Literary Conference) so please stand by to add worthwhile thoughts to my often incoherent mumblings. Both books, incidentally, came to my attention via Trevor. And I am rather hoping that Aira becomes another “Echenoz” for me.

    And that quote is scary, since this is pretty much exactly what Chopin does with his flies. Which makes Echenoz very perceptive, since the book was written some decades ago. Maybe his absurdities are not as absurd as I think — he might just be a man ahead of his time. :-) All joking aside, I think he is an author that you would like. I keep his books at hand for those times when I am contemplating what I think of as a “major” read (Freedom is the one right now) but want a quick, sharp, but very challenging read in the short term. He is perfect for an afternoon or evening of very good reading.

    Trevor: I am no expert but it seems to me that translated works tend to fall into three categories — mid-20th century Europe (usually the repressive stories that led to fascism); contemporary Latin and South America (your area of expertise) and contemporary Europe (where I find most of my translated reading tends to come from). I’m not saying that grouping is perfect, but it does seem to offer a start at categorization.

    What interests me ( and I admit that I am lagging on the South American front) is that contemporary European fiction tends to feature the absurd, while the translations from the Spanish move more toward the spiritual or “fantastic”. And the historical European works, of course, are grounded in harsh reality. All of which takes me back to wondering about Camus who tried to categorize all this and whom I may have to reread (yet again) soon.

    • Trevor Says:

      I hope that despite your opinions on The Literary Conference and How I Became a Nun that you’ll still read Ghosts and An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter — they are my favorites :).

      As for your categories, they certainly sound correct to me regarding what is popular. There is plenty from Asia, but for some reason, even though I have a bit of it on hand, it doesn’t seem to get read. I have a few more Arabic titles thanks to Archipelago (as well as their new translation of Joseph Roth’s Job), so I’m hoping to branch out a bit. I do think you’re right about the “spiritual” side of contemporary Latin American literature, though what I find interesting is the way it is not necessarily religious spirituality as much as cultural — and it is often a perversion. Also, many of the contemporary works deal with the brutality that Latin America has suffered (and is suffering) over the past half century. As an update, my opinion on 2666 has been changing over the past year to “masterpiece.” I watch the news of the border violence and cringe and the terror (and the mood) of that book always come to mind.

      As for Camus, I’ve been putting him off too. Nemesis has made reading The Plague a matter of importance to me.

      • KevinfromCanada Says:

        I have a review of Nemesis coming up and your comment has rather trumped it — because I was (and will) intending to compare it to The Plague. I do think it is a brilliant book, but a lot of that has to do with the way it struck my own history. Stay tuned for more thoughts.

  4. Shelley Says:

    Flirtation via flies!

    That’s a first.

  5. KevinfromCanada Says:

    The fun part (sorry this is a bit of a spoiler) is that the flies have a habit of flying out of open windows — or getting smashed to death on closed ones — which rather disrupts the intelligence gathering.

  6. Trevor Says:

    I see that here in the U.S. Godine Publishers is putting out a new edition Echenoz’s Double Jeopardy soon, Kevin. Have you heard anything about it?

  7. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Trevor: I had not — so thanks for the heads up. I still have I’m Gone on hand and given my strange retrogressive reading of Echenoz I haven’t looked into the availability of his early works. He seems to be quite prolific, so I am expecting that once I get back to square one, there will be new books available.

  8. leroyhunter Says:

    I also have Trevor’s reviews to thank for piquing my interest in Aira.
    Look forward to your thoughts Kevin – I’ve read Ghosts and (just last week) The Literary Conference but Nun remains only a wishlist item for now.

  9. Trevor Says:

    Okay, I have this and Piano on their way to me now. I’m looking forward to them! It looks like Ravel is a bit harder to get, but soon . . .

  10. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Trevor: Ravel is super but you can wait for it. For me, Echenoz is a “stand by” author — when you want a couple of hours of involved reading, he will deliver.

  11. William Rycroft Says:

    I’m a fully paid up member of the Echenoz appreciation society after reading Piano and Ravel. This book and Running will have to go on the pile and I also read a review of his latest book (not translated into English yet) the other day. As you say Kevin, Echenoz is a great author to have on the shelf as an always reliable and interesting standby in times of need.

  12. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Will: I have the impression that Echenoz has a particular appeal to those who know or like theatre. His novels are similar in length of reading time to that of a performed play (so they represent a good evening’s entertainment) and have a similar approach to both plot and character — meant to engage the reader’s mind in completing appreciation of the enterprise. I will be ordering a few more to have on hand since he is a perfect fit for some reading moods (and thanks for the tipoff on his new book — he now seems to get translated quite quickly so it should show up soon).

  13. kimbofo Says:

    Thanks for introducing me to a new author. I’ve made a note of his name and his titles for future reference.

  14. Crake Says:

    I enjoyed your reviews of Echenoz’s books, Kevin.

    He’ll attend the B.A. Book Fair next month so I’ve been coming across his name frequently in the last few days.

    I’ve been meaning to read one of his books for some time but I’ve never got around to do it. Now, I have an excuse. ; )

    Which one will you recommend?

  15. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Crake: Of the four that I have read, my choice would be Ravel, but a lot of that has to do with my liking Ravel’s music and hence the biographical nature of the novella. Chopin’s Move and Piano are probably more typical of his oddball plots — and both are very good. And reading two takes less time than reading a normal length novel — although you do want to read them more than once, I can assure you.

    I have Double Exposre and Big Blondes on hand — intend to get to one of them soon. Given that he is there for the Book Fair, I imagine copies of most will be around somewhere.

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