Why Are The French Always So Bummed?
Power of Flies by Lydie Salvayre / Jennifer McKeown
Book Reviews | September 17, 2008 | Comments ()
The Power of Flies is a difficult novel to review. On the one hand, it is a deceptively simple novel that reads like a short story but offers much food for thought. On the other hand, The Power of Flies is anything but enjoyable. In fact, after finishing this novel I felt a need to smoke an unfiltered cigarette while muttering deep platitudes like “Life is shit. Bah!” and sending a round of contemptuous spit to the pavement below.
The Power of Flies is French novelist Lydie Salvayre’s fifth novel to be translated into English, and, as you might expect from the French, The Power of Flies is moody, philosophic, and far from uplifting. This psychological novel is a series of monologues delivered by a museum tour guide who stands on trial for murder. The specifics of his crime are not clarified until the end, and in the meantime Salvayre treats readers to the rantings and ramblings of her obsessive, arrogant, and ultimately pathetic narrator.
As the “story” (I’m using the term loosely here) progresses, we are given deeper insight into the life of our unnamed narrator, especially his early childhood with his abusive father and depressed mother. After watching his father systematically demean his mother through various daily tortures, he comes to believe that his mother died many years before her physical death. As an adult, the narrator repeats this cycle by entering into an equally doomed marriage. His decision to marry is especially perplexing in light of his belief that:
Human bonding…is as fatal as it is futile. For no one can influence the orbit of another. Each of us plots his path irreversibly, awaiting the day of the final catastrophe…and it is mathematically unproductive to link two tangents…As for the long-term effects of attachment…they are positively appalling: the reek of promiscuity, the gradual numbing of the mind, pent-up resentment or outbursts of rage. And in the end, in the end, mutual loathing between all parties who have but one idea in mind: sever the ties or be hanged by them.
Perhaps it is his love for Blaise Pascal that causes our narrator to do that which causes him to suffer. His love for the famous French philosopher is understandable, since Pascal enjoyed suffering and often renounced physical pleasures. The narrator peppers his monologue with bits of philosophy derived from his reading of Pascal’s Pensees, where Pascal first wrote of “the power of flies,” describing their power as one that can “win battles, hinder our soul from acting, consume our body.” Our narrator takes this notion further, believing that hatred itself has the power of flies. His hatred for his father consumes him, affecting his entire being until he can no longer function, finding solace only in Pascal — a dubious solace at that.
Of course, it is impossible to ignore the obvious debt Salvayre owes to Camus and Sartre; she even alludes to The Stranger early in the novel. Nihilistic and existential ideas appear in spades, and our narrator often remarks of his struggle to find “a foothold in the void.” While these ideas have some merit, they aren’t exactly for everyone. That said, there are moments in which The Power of Flies is playful. Our narrator is at times a little too candid, making comments and slips of the tongue that reveal his true nature. These moments, although infrequent, add some light to an otherwise dark novel.
I must admit that I’m glad this novel was such a fast read, because if it were any longer I’m not sure I would have made it. Reading too much of the void, absurdity, and nothingness begins to wear on one after too long. Nevertheless, The Power of Flies was worth the effort; it may not have been enjoyable, but it provided a thought-provoking read and a philosophical way to pass an afternoon.