THE MUSTACHE by Emmanuel CarrÉre


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Quite clearly, the US publishers of this short French novel don't quite know what to make of it: assorted blurbs compare CarrÉre to Kafka, Nabokov, Cocteau, and Gogol--but the sales pitch is to ""fans of Hitchcock, Paul Auster, Francis King, and Patricia Highsmith."" And, indeed, this is a slippery item, reading first like a Twilight Zone episode, then like a psycho-gothic, always a little like an existential nightmare--with somewhat annoying yet steadily absorbing (and ultimately unnerving) results. The unnamed hero is a youngish Paris architect who decides one evening to shave off his mustache, a longtime fixture. His wife Agnes, however, doesn't seem to notice any change, makes no comment at all: she must be playing a practical joke. But when neighbors, friends, and co-workers also fail to acknowledge that something's different, the architect is no longer amused--especially since Agnes now insists that he never had a mustache! What's going on? Has Agnes organized a vast conspiracy in order to Gaslight our hero off his rocker (is she unfaithful?)--or is she doing it because she is already insane? Or could it be, the architect begins to brood, that he is indeed mad--a suspicion that grows when other fundamentals of his life (is his father alive or dead?) also become suddenly unclear. . .and eerily unprovable. Understandably unhinged, then, the architect flees, impulsively hopping a plane to Hong Kong--where, in an oddly fetching sequence, he does little but take the ferry back and forth to Kowloon. And finally he winds up in a Macao hotel, again mustached, almost serene--until Agnes materializes in his room, acting as if they'd been vacationing together for weeks. Gogol this isn't: there's little surreal brio in the hero's dilemma; the shaven mustache has none of the metaphorical power or satiric thrust of The Nose. With winking references in the text to classic movie-thrillers, one is all too aware of the artificiality in the nightmare's twists and turns. Nonetheless, the lean narrative remains modestly compelling throughout, strangely affecting in the Hong Kong chapters--and surprisingly disturbing at the grim, opaque fadeout.

Pub Date: April 1st, 1988
Publisher: Macmillan