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52 Books #5: Hate, A Romance

February 10, 2011

I rather hoped I was going to steal a march and be the first to review Tristan Garcia’s debut novel Hate: A Romance (Faber), but the Financial Times got there first. I’m grateful to have read their (very good) review of Garcia’s novel, since a number of the remarks I wanted to make were covered by theirs. In particular, this novel of social, cultural and political movements in 1980s France recalled for me the late Guillaume Dustan’s novel Dans ma chambre, published in the UK by Serpent’s Tail as In My Room, which is similarly candid on Parisian gay lifestyles of the pre- and post-AIDS era. The FT clued me up that Willie Miller, one of the four central characters in Hate is transparently based on Dustan (the pen-name, claims the UK edition of his novel, of a high-court judge in Paris), while others among the four – activists, academics and politicians – are similarly drawn from real-life models. It therefore suggests that Dustan in turn based characters in his novels on real people, since Willie’s propensity for so doing motivates much of the titular hate here. I love this recursive iron: a roman a clef some of whose characters are modelled on people known for writings romans a clef.

The story is told by Elizabeth Levallois, friend and contemporary of the other three (Willie, Doumé and Leibowitz), now a well-regarded journalist who feels she is the right person to tell the story of the animosity that develops among the other three as their professional and personal lives collide. The four are introduced, rather in the manner of the abstract that begins an academic paper, in four separate short chapters at the outset. Necessarily, Elizabeth is by some distance the least interesting of these four, being largely a chronicler. The decision to ‘crosswrite’ – here, a male author telling his story from a female first-person perspective – is a fairly political one to take, aptly since this is one of the most politically-aware novels I’ve read recently. Unlike, say, Alan Warner (in Morvern Callar) or William Boyd (in Brazzaville Beach), Garcia sidesteps the obviously problematic consequences of the decision: there are no bra-straps, period pains or biological clocks here. While this is laudable, he goes perhaps too far in making Elizabeth so completely the ‘camera’ recording her friends’ schisms and reconciliations. Although she’s Leibowitz’s lover, and therefore our ‘in’ to the story, she disappears from view thereafter rather too much, and when the plot affects her very directly – when Willie publishes a novel which lambasts her in the most demeaning terms via a character transparently based on her – it’s rather difficult for the reader of Hate to feel as shocked as he should by Willie’s treachery.

I called this the most political novel I’ve read in some time. Garcia, who has previously published a book of philosophy, is unafraid to have his characters discuss the most full-on political, social, cultural and theoretical subject matter – these are informed, articulate and pleasingly literate exchanges, and although the novel of ideas is sometimes in danger of lacking plot or incident, Garcia maintains a balance between talk and action. Reading it, I wondered how likely it would be that a UK author, particularly one as young as Garcia (he was born in 1981), would be not just as confident or cocksure to embark on such a high-minded novel, but as motivated to do so. The nearest equivalent I’ve read of late, in which political topics are so freely discussed, is James Robertson’s excellent And the Land Lay Still – but Robertson is a generation older than Garcia, with several books to his name. Hate makes me think more of La Haine, the 1995 film with which Garcia’s novel shares a name, and which ruthlessly exposed the tensions in Parisian suburban estates: uncompromising, politically engaged, and transfixing.

In Hate, it’s sexual politics which inform most of these discussions, and as a novel tackling metropolitan gay life in the 1980s it’s also AIDS politics. Some of this is pretty close to the knuckle – there is discussion not just about whether AIDS is a ‘plague’ deliberately lab-designed to wipe out homosexuals, but whether ‘condom culture’ (for want of a better phrase) is similarly a directional policy introduced by a hetero-normative culture to demean and make as unpleasurable as possible the very act of gay sex. This leads inexorably to a full-on exchange where characters discuss what’s known now as ‘breeding’: the practice of deliberately attempting, via ‘unsafe’ sex, to infect an HIV-negative partner with the AIDS virus as a bizarre parody of heterosexuality’s procreational urge. By this time Willie, a sort of evangelist for barebacking – unprotected sex – is delivering horrifying speeches about there being no link between HIV and AIDS, so we understand he has lost his marbles; we recoil from a standpoint so evidently unbalanced as this, yet it’s recognisable in the kind of rhetoric being used by the religious right in twenty-first century America and no doubt in France too. Hate is timely as it is terrifying; its coolness and occasional po-facedness doesn’t detract from the power of its message. We fail to learn history’s lessons at our peril.

Other reading in Week #5:

Theodor Fontane Effi Briest (Penguin Classics)

Kazuo Ishiguro Nocturnes (Faber)

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