Crime novel, the 1999 Prix Goncourt–winner, that’s also a whimsical tale of the eternal (and eternally rewarding) midlife search for new partners and a deadpan commentary on its own contrivances.
“I’m going,” Parisian art dealer Felix Ferrer tells his wife Suzanne as he walks out on her in the opening sentence. But before he can get where he’s going, Echenoz—in a fine demonstration of Zeno’s paradox—has to explain how Ferrer’s new assistant, Jean-Philippe Delahaye, beguiled him with talk of a Canadian ship laden with Paleoarctic artworks icebound somewhere off the District of Mackenzie, and how Ferrer shuttles imperturbably from one woman to the next, who’s always providentially right around the corner, and what made Ferrer turn from creating art to selling it in the first place. For quite a while, in fact, it seems that the blandly determined hero, plowing through the Arctic ice fields under eternal summer sun, will never reach the Nechilik, although suspense is short-circuited both by the playfully flat prose, faithfully rendered by Echenoz’s longtime translator Polizzotti, and by the sense of anticlimax with which otherwise decisive actions sneak up on the puppets. Meanwhile, back in Paris, “we’ve just learned of Delahaye’s tragic disappearance”; his funeral is secretly watched by a new agent, one Baumgartner, whose choice of a confederate called The Flounder indicates that he’s obviously up to no good. But that’s the only thing that’s obvious about a plot whose criminal mastermind admits to the influence of TV movies and whose author complains that “the whole thing lacks motivation” and is just plain boring to boot.
Amazingly, the shaggy tale winds up more conclusively than any of Echenoz’s four previously translated novels (Big Blondes, 1997, etc.), though nearly every sentence crackles with enough sly humor to keep the author’s postmodern credentials intact.