The caustic tale of getting a French education the hard way.
British journalist Clarke has camouflaged the particulars, but the gist of this work (originally self-published in France) is apparently drawn directly from his own experience. Here, “Paul West,” his 27-year-old narrator, is hired by a French firm to open British tearooms in Paris, improbable as that sounds. And doomed, too, as Paul goes merrily about poking fun at France’s farcically inefficient businesses, home to the most coddled workers in the universe and plagued by strikes seemingly every day. Paul is the object of some impressive snootery for his woeful French, though he soon learns that living in Paris requires much more than the right accent. The ville lumière is for sharks; you mustn’t worry about people liking you, “you’ve got to show them that you don’t give a shit what they think.” This isn’t difficult when it comes to his co-workers, who “don’t give a shit” either. Paul does, however, feel some loyalty to his boss, until he discovers that Jean-Marie is a marauding opportunist with a soupçon of his venality aimed at the new guy. (He tries to sell Paul a bijou cottage in Normandy, undeterred by the fact that a nuclear power station will be built next door.) With much time on his hands, thanks to the French lack of work ethic, Paul spends much of it in the comical pursuit of women. They bring some fresh air into the narrative, allowing Paul to laugh at himself for a change. Despite the country’s economic and political self-absorption, he does fall for France, its style and especially its food. His affection radiates here, a comforting balance to the wicked mordancy.
The publisher promises a second volume of Paul West’s adventures, which is good news. For Clarke’s sake, let’s hope he doesn’t have to live it to write it.