Though it’s been 20 years since his last novel, the clock has stopped in more ways than one on Robbe-Grillet’s latest and (as its title aptly suggests) least novel nouveau roman.
The sometime narrator’s troubles begin even before his train pulls into Berlin in 1949. The untried secret agent wearing a false mustache and traveling on a passport identifying him as engineer Henri Robin returns to his compartment to find that his place has been taken by a man who looks just like him—even more like him than he does, since the double lacks the mustache. Is he a natural twin, a tormentor, or perhaps (here comes the Robbe-Grillet twist) the real narrator? Leaving him behind, maybe, Robin enters the divided city, where he’s to provide an objective observer’s account of a murder scheduled to be committed in the square outside his lodgings. The murder goes off on cue, but Robin’s hopelessly muddled account of it—who’s shot Colonel Dany von Brücke? what’s become of his body? is he actually dead?—portends a more generalized breakdown of the narrative contract. As a carping annotator begins to find more misleading factual inaccuracies, grammatical inconsistencies, and deceptions in his tale of moving in with von Brücke’s widow Joëlle Kast and his nubile schoolgirl daughter Gigi, Robbe-Grillet figures the unreliability of the narrator, now calling himself Boris Wallon and Franck Matthieu, by obsessively referring to the story of Oedipus, recalling not only Sophocles and Kierkegaard but Robbe-Grillet’s celebrated first novel The Erasers (1955), and by returning to the strain of sadistic pedophilia that’s run through his work from The Voyeur (1957) to La Belle Captive (1995).
The self-seriousness of Robbe-Grillet’s early experimental fiction has devolved into a grave playfulness. Mostly, though, the narrator is right on the money from the opening line: “Here, then, I repeat, and I sum up.”