Wednesday, September 26, 2007

"Look, idiot of the trenches," or Fred Vargas' gentle humor

I've alluded from time to time to the humor that runs through Fred Vargas' work, but I'm not sure I've given any examples. So, how about this, from Seeking Whom He May Devour, about a hill-dwelling loner whom the locals believe is a werewolf and thus, in his human form, smooth all over:

"He can't have much fun up there on his own without any hair."
Or what about the novel's African co-protagonist, a foundling raised by a loving French mother who bedeviled his youth by forcing him to watch serious television documentaries about Africa? The character, nonetheless devoted to her, develops a habit of meeting any contingency with a dubious if not outright made-up piece of African folklore that inevitably makes his listeners roll their eyes and cut him off with gentle admonitions such as "The pond story is not strictly gospel, you know."
And this exchange of insults between a historian of World War I and a medieval historian in The Three Evangelists:

"What do you mean madness, you no-brain soldier?"
"Because, you no-brain worshipper of courtly love ... "

"Look, idiot of the trenches ..."
For reasons I cannot entirely explain, I find those last two lines, especially, among the most engaging I have ever read in crime fiction. They capture the gruff affection and exasperation that exists between Lucien and Marc, two of the three evangelists of the title, and extends to the third of the group, named, naturally, Matthias, and Marc's uncle and godfather, Old Vandoosler.
Three of the four Vargas novels that have appeared in English feature eccentrically endearing types, some of them down-and-outers, as protagonists or co-protagonists. Temperamentally, this relates Vargas to Daniel Pennac's Belleville novels and, more generally, to a gentle brand of French humor about loveable and not-so-loveable outcasts and waifs that can teeter on the brink of (Boudu Saved From Drowning) or tumble over the edge into sentimentality (Audrey Tautou's "cute" roles). The successful examples manage to keep humor and sentiment in play at the same time. I recommend Vargas.

© Peter Rozovsky 2007
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