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The Edge of Life: Dying by René Belletto

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I first discovered René Belletto’s novels when some years ago I fell upon a review in the Times Literary Supplement of his book Le Revenant, which seemed to be a combination of literary fiction and what the French call the roman noir, a kind of thriller sometimes involving cops, villains, and those dubious inhabitants of Soulless-on-the-Seine, though in his case we were firmly entrenched between the Rhône and Saône, in the heart of Lyon.

I ordered a Livre de Poche edition, and came to identify the tough guy in the fedora on the cover as the author himself. Though he often shares traits with them—a love and knowledge of music, expertise in teaching and playing the Spanish guitar, a fascination with fast cars and the best stereo equipment money can buy—Belletto only occasionally looks like the heroes of his novels. Of all the writers he’s sometimes (and sometimes capriciously) grouped with, whether the more modern stars of the roman noir such as Jean-Patrick Manchette or Thierry Jonquet, or those, like Jean Echenoz, who borrow from the genre but belong to a more nebulous group, René Belletto is the one most likely to surprise and entertain us.

His earliest publications were on the experimental side: Beckett seems to be the governing shade there, with a touch of Maurice Blanchot and a sprinkling of Mickey Spillane. And then came his breakthrough, Le Revenant (The Ghost), which on the surface seems to be a straightforward thriller told in the first person, but becomes a highly personal and compellingly readable narrative of loss and redemption set within certain recognizable tropes of American B-movies. It’s also the story of a man attempting to escape fate: the fate of family, the fate of vengeance, the inescapability of his own actions in a world full of traps and false smiles. This was followed by the second part of  the Lyon trilogy, Sur la Terre comme au ciel (On Earth as it is in Heaven), and finally L’Enfer (Hell, or, as it was published in translation here several years ago, Eclipse). These days, Belletto sets his fictions in the narrow streets of Montmartre, where he now lives. His newest work, Hors la loi (Outlaw),  is a complex and riveting novel of reincarnation that, as with some of his more recent works, goes beyond the limits of reality into unexpected realms of other genres as, by using the musical concepts of theme-and-variation, prelude and fugue, and stepping into the regions of science fiction, it explores the inescapability of fate, the pleasures and traps of desire, the loss of identity through passion for another. Yet Belletto’s novels really don’t adhere to the standard plot devices of polars or romans noir; his concern is with character caught through wayward fate in a plot not of his own design, drawn into a world that on the surface seems familiar but bristles with unreality and danger.

Mourir, first published in France in 2002 and now expertly translated by Alexander Hertich as Dying, has just appeared in a handsome paperback original published by the Dalkey Archive Press. It’s a work of unusual though never-confusing complexity, a novel of reflections and correspondences that contains all of the author’s strengths: Belletto, who has a brilliant grasp of pacing and possesses a connoisseur’s knowledge of film, is a natural storyteller with a strong, sure voice, and his books prove difficult to put down.

Although the original French edition of Dying contains a section of reproductions and photos (discussed in the translator’s introduction, but sadly left out of the Dalkey Archive edition, as they playfully comment on and supplement the story surrounding them), the governing image is Las Meninas, by Diego Velázquez.

What at first seems to be a portrait of the artist painting the Infanta Margarita with her attendants becomes, the more we look at it, a study in realities. The painter himself looks away from his canvas to glance up at us. Or is it us? Reflected in a mirror behind the Infanta are the girl’s parents, Philip IV and Queen Mariana, placed nearly where we, the viewers, would be. Which suggests that the painter is in the process of painting a royal portrait. Yet this is called Las Meninas, “The Girls,” which from his vantage point is not what he’s painting at all. Isn’t this instead a painting of an artist painting another painting altogether, one that we may never see? And where is Velázquez in all of this? Has he basically vanished into the work itself? The reflexiveness of this complex work is echoed—indeed mirrored—in Dying, where a character is even known as Reine, Queen, or, as Hertich renders it, Queene. In this novel we are, in fact, in a world of mirrors, not as mere literary trickery, but as a skillful, serious and indeed brilliant play on levels of reality in a story that, at heart, is about conquering death. And yet this is also a book filled with Belletto’s characteristic humor and melancholy, to which Alexander Hertich is especially sensitive.

As Dying opens, the voice we meet, or rather the voice that creeps up on us, is a familiar one: it could be the narrator of any of the titles in Beckett’s trilogy, Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnameable, croaks and wheezes of men in extremis, or at least at their worst, a man so solitary that the presence of another—whether character or reader—unleashes a torrent of words, an obsessive and mad swirl of internal logic. For the narrator is a resident of the Rats and Vermin Hotel, and he may well be in that shimmering transitive state between life and death. But wait… Because on page thirty, just as we’re becoming lulled into thinking this might be another Beckettian exploration of the human condition, we’re in a kidnapping story—one we’ve seen before in a Belletto novel and that we’ll see again in subsequent works. It’s then that the narrator known as Sixtus claims to be the husband of the kidnapped woman; at that moment he has stepped into the plot and left his miserable life behind him.

Armed with the ransom, showing up at the specified time, Sixtus discovers that the kidnapped woman he has just met is an imposter. Not the Armelle of the ransom note, but Queene, with whom he’s immediately smitten as they drive to Madrid and a room at—where else?—La Casa Margarita. We are inside the world of Las Meninas, where reality can either be tangible, something glimpsed in a reflecting glass, or a tale that we tell ourselves to make sense of another’s universe.

And then, suddenly, part one—“An Old Testament”—ends and “A New Testament” commences, with a new narrator and a new voice, more human, more direct, more trustworthy, more modern and, dare I say, more Belletoesque. We’ve walked through the mirror, and we’re in another world. Or is it? “I know today…our story was nothing other than the world without us,” the narrator of this new section writes, and the line is like the center of gravity for this work: a tale told by a man present at his own absence. “We toil relentlessly to hide beneath artifice that which is naturally out of reach,” he continues, as though to inform us that the man behind this voice, René Belletto, is giving us a kind of self-portrait, though one so deeply coded that whenever we seem to catch a glimpse of the author (his passion for the music of Tomás Luis de Victoria is known to me, but I’d be hard pressed to say that the character he writes about is Belletto himself), he slips out of view.

Even whole passages in Dying are lifted from his earlier novel L’Enfer, as though Belletto were looking at his life and works through the lens of a kaleidoscope, capturing the shifting and changing details as they create new visions, new worlds, and the endlessly-repeated reflections that constantly alter our view of the author’s reality.

For Belletto is first and foremost a storyteller, a devotee of the films of, among others, the director Richard Fleischer, and the novels of Dickens (he’s also the author of a fascinating 700-page work devoted strictly to Great Expectations), and so his venture into a world as complex and as full of reflection and echo as Dying never once grows heavy with theory, or with the machinations of consciousness. To Belletto this all comes naturally. The ease with which he shifts between genres—whether they be straightforward thriller, detective story, spy tale, or the blisters and flames of a thwarted romance—is breathtaking and highly entertaining. One reads Belletto’s books both for the humor and the intricacies of plotting. Which isn’t to say that character doesn’t count, for all of his works depend on richly-drawn protagonists, many of them variations on a single theme: the man we first met in Le Revenant, a man with an honest soul and only the best of intentions for whom we feel only the warmest affinity.

But Dying isn’t just a literary trick that slips like mercury between genres. There’s a haze of anguish that lies over the tale, indicating that the author has brought his most personal side to the page. Loss, mourning, regret—all of these come into serious play in this most playful of books.

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