Mick Sherer Reviews Jean-Phillipe Toussaint’s “Reticence” (As Translated by John Lambert)

by Jean-Phillipe Toussaint
Translated by John Lambert
Dalkey Archive Press, 2012
Originally Published in French as La Réticence by Éditions de Minuit, 1991
Jean-Phillipe Toussaint’s Reticence features a sparse cast; a fisherman, a gardener, an insomniac innkeeper, a mysteriously murdered cat, quietly populate the docks and beaches and squares of the seaside hamlet of Sasuelo, but there are also characters who, despite their constant force in the story, never actually appear. And this trick of half-presence gets very close to the most enjoyable aspect of the book: Toussaint has written a novel with all the tension of a detective thriller but without a detective, without a true crime, and without—at least in the tradition of Hammett or Chandler—a real mystery.

Toussaint’s book is as much about mood and ambience as it is the tale of any individual character. Very little is revealed about the nameless narrator, and even his stroller-bound son disappears for long periods of time, conveniently sleeping for 12 or 14 hours so his father can wander the dark streets of the town. But because characters often appear only briefly, most of the story takes place in the anxious thoughts of the narrator, which infuse his mostly-innocent actions and wanderings with a sense of tension and fear.

The chronological narrative of the book starts when the narrator, son in-tow, arrives in the Mediterranean town of Sasuelo at the end of the tourist season. He comes with the intention of visiting an old friend, a writer named Biaggi, but very soon, he admits that he is postponing the meeting and insists that he is being “held back by a mysterious apprehension.” It is this unexplained emotion, this reticence, that becomes the novel’s primary concern.

The story is written in long paragraphs, each separated by white space, and the book as a whole is broken up into three sections, and while there is a general forward movement in time, the narrator is perfectly happy to jump back and forth, sometimes skipping back a day or two to illuminate a significant detail that has so far gone unmentioned. And even when there is a clear forward movement in time, the narrator is often repeating actions or re-describing sights or revisiting locations that he has already explored.

Sasuelo itself is developed to complement this meandering sense of time—there is a lazy calm to the town that serves as a perfect backdrop for (or contrast to) the narrator’s shifting thoughts—and in many ways the place is more present in mood than it is in physical description. There are brief accurate portraits of the narrator’s destinations, but the city imposes no limits, and the narrator, especially in the still night hours, can arrive anywhere with just his feet.

It is all these factors—this loose adherence to time, this brief focus on the development of characters, the unimposing presence of the ocean town—that allow the narrator’s emotions and reflections to become the centerpiece of the story. This is also where the mystery is born, not of crime scenes or cadavers, but of one man’s thoughts, his tense internal devices.

Because the story really starts with a cat, a dead cat in a fishing village trapped in a bit of fishing line, but this cat, like everything in the story, is not what it seems for very long. Left with a moment to wonder, to worry, the narrator questions what he has seen and opens up a plot, a crime, a world where there are things to be feared.

He reflects in his quiet hotel:
“And it was precisely this piece of line that made me think later in the evening—at the time I’d just looked at it without giving it too much thought—that the cat had been murdered.” The narrator continues to remember and revisit this moment of seeing the cat, building on his dark presumption, a circular, reflective narrative begins growing more dangerous with repetition and doubt. He reflects back on the swirl of nights he spends in Sasuelo, and his own worries transform the most normal activities into illicit secrets, half-crimes into treachery.

Toussaint is not trying to tell a melodramatic story though, the shifts and changes are cumulative, the piece turns thriller through accretion. The narrator repeats action A and action B instead of moving on, and it is in the slight variations of each repetition that Toussaint transforms the story: groundskeepers become henchmen just by reappearing, the opening of a curtain becomes a brash threat, a glance in a mirror reveals the narrator as a meandering, anxious visitor but also as something more sinister.

The novel’s repetition also functions on a much smaller level, there are moments when a few lines can capture the emotions of the larger narrative and bring them into intense focus. In the two-sentence passage below Toussaint lets the reader witness how the narrator’s compounding reflections can shift a moment of annoyance into one of fear. After a late night stroll, the narrator is locked out of his hotel, and in a moment, menacing forces manifest:

“I tried to slide it from the outside by pushing my hands against the glass, but it refused to budge and I was suddenly afraid, wondering for an instant if the person who’d closed the window hadn’t known I was outside, or if it was someone from outside the hotel who’d closed it deliberately to stop me from getting back in, someone consequently who was now in the village, who’d been watching me while I was at the port and who was perhaps still watching me that very moment, someone who probably left his house every night and who’d perhaps caught sight of me walking along the jetty one of the previous nights under the same moonlight as tonight, exactly the same, with the same black clouds sliding across the sky, and who, tonight as well, had waited for me to slip outside before closing the sliding window behind me to make sure I couldn’t get back in, and who was there right now, just a few yards away, immobile in the night behind the trunk of one of the trees on the terrace. Biaggi, that someone was Biaggi.”

Here Toussaint examines the narrator’s anxiety through an almost obsessive repetition, an insistence on the sameness of each mysterious Sasuelo night. The passage also lets the reader know—through its careening language, through a lack of any logical “evidence”—that when the narrator speaks with the most certainty, it is very likely that he is at his least stable, touching on emotional truths, perhaps, but not, with any certainty, the concrete reality of his days and nights near the sea.

There are no simple answers or solutions in Toussaint’s brief novel, but there are many rich questions, and even as the narrator seems to aimlessly meander through both the town and his own thoughts, the scope of the piece remains focused and tense, plumbing the depths of idle and uncertain moments.

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