Delightful comic tale about a man who can’t convince anyone he’s who he says he is.
Recovered from a taxi accident that plunged him into a coma for three days, Martin Harris returns to his wife Liz. Entering the apartment they’re sharing in Paris, Harris encounters a man he has never seen who insists on being Martin Harris. Liz, his mate of ten years, also refuses to recognize the returning Martin, whose protestations become so intense the building super, who also doesn’t recognize Martin, ushers him from the premises. Author van Cauwelaert (the Prix Goncourt winner One-Way, not reviewed) thus starts with a premise that could serve a Hitchcock thriller, a Twilight Zone episode, or a heavy-going exercise in Existentialism. But van Cauwelaert nimbly sidesteps cliché and pretense, coming up with a series of sometimes dazzling scenes on the theme of identity. He speeds the hapless Martin through witty, touching, trenchant encounters with the hospital, the police, the woman driving the cab, and, a high point, a psychiatrist who offers Martin and the reader challenging but never heavy-handed theories about the powers of memory. Growing desperate for the most basic validation, Martin sets a private eye to spying on Martin’s neighbors for a shred of evidence that will prove he’s the real Martin. After checking birth, work, and marriage records, the p.i. tells Martin: “You don’t exist.” Martin’s hope now turns to the cab driver from the accident, Muriel Carderet, who comes to believe Martin is the genuine item. Indeed, as their relationship deepens, Martin wonders whether he might after all prefer being this new Martin. Then Carderet locates one of Martin’s former co-workers, who says he can vouch for Martin’s identity. The co-worker does unlock the puzzle, but not in a way one may expect. The swift final scene—a breathtaking jeté—should surprise even the most jaded fan of thrillers.
A little gem.