No mercy

December 20, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

Fatale. Jean-Patrick Manchette, Donald Nicholson-Smith, trans.; $14.95 paper 978-1-59017-381-7, 98 pp., New York Review Books

The working title of Jean-Patrick Manchette’s 1977 roman noir was La Belle Dame Sans Merci. The invocation of Keats’s melancholy ballad is wholly appropriate for this story of a homicidal drifter who earns her keep by ingratiating herself with the wealthy denizens of whatever town she happens to alight in, then betraying and (frequently) murdering them. “I saw pale kings and princes too,” says Keats’s bereft and shivering knight, recalling a vision that came to him in a dream on the cold sedge where he has been abandoned. “Pale warriors, death-pale were they all; / They cried – ‘La Belle Dame sans Merci / Thee hath in thrall!'” The deathly pallor of the poem’s warriors anticipates the mood and tenor of Manchette’s book, as does the merciless woman’s apparently preternatural ability to enthrall her victims. It would certainly appear that Roucart, the “potbellied and rubicund” hunter in Fatale‘s opening scene, is in thrall to the thirty- or thirty-five-year-old woman with “dark brown eyes and delicate features,” a “vague smile,” and teeth “which were small and even” – right up to the point at which she unloads a sixteen-gauge shotgun into his stomach.

The woman, who adopts the alias Aimée Joubert (we never learn her real name), flees the scene of the crime by train and takes up residence in the small town of Bléville, where she begins to work her way into the circle of élite citizenry, which includes a doctor, a realtor, and a pair of businessmen. We begin to understand that Aimée is repeating a cycle, the bloody end of which we witnessed in the scene with the hunter. Should there remain any doubt, Manchette allows us to spy on Aimée, alone in her rented room, musing to herself about the pattern of repetition her life entails: “Well, it’s the same as ever, isn’t it? It seems slow, but actually it is quite fast. Sex always comes first. Then money questions. And then, last, come the old crimes. You have seen other towns, my sweet, and you’ll see others, knock on wood.”

Manchette plays with the convention of the venal, hyper-sexualized, noirish femme fatale; in the train on the way to Bléville, Aimée is pictured eating a choucroute, the juices of which “dripped from the edge of her mouth.” She proceeds to rub the banknotes she has secreted in her luggage over her naked body: “her nostrils were assailed at once by the luxurious scent of the champagne and the foul odor of the filthy banknotes and the foul odor of the choucroute, which smelt like piss and sperm.” This is only the first of many times sex and money will be conflated over the course of the novella. Aimée, we are told, is “almost exclusively interested” in the wealthy part of Bléville, the “dwelling place of the local bourgeoisie on the left bank of the river and well away from the port with its cafés overflowing with mussels and fries, with whores and seamen.” The pun in the final word is certainly not unintentional.

Even the name of the town is itself a reference to consumerist venality. The French word blé literally means “wheat,” but it is also a slang term for money. Thus, a translator’s note informs us, the name of the town could reasonably be rendered as “Doughville.”

Aimée’s plans to fleece the wealthy citizens of Bléville hinge on information provided by a slovenly outcast known as Baron Jules, an eccentric who is despised by the town’s upper crust and who stores a Weatherby Regency shotgun on a rack in his front hallway (Chekhov’s dramatic principle should be kept in mind here). The baron is a key character with regards to Manchette’s political agenda in the novel. The author, who considered crime fiction “the great moral literature of our time,” expressed an intention to dramatize the ways in which Marxism had been corrupted in French society. To that end, Bléville is depicted having two local newspapers, one of which “championed a left-capitalist ideology; the other championed a left-capitalist ideology.” The baron, by contrast, is referred to as “a sort of nihilist” by the real estate agent Lindquist: “He votes for that Trotskyite Krivine, you know.” One of Aimée’s first encounters with the baron involves him urinating on the walls of a well-appointed mansion during a high-class cocktail party.

The baron’s hatred for Bléville’s élite, and Aimée’s developing affection for him, form whatever moral undercurrent Manchette’s short book has. The fact that Aimée is a thief and a murderer might seem to undercut this moral strain, but the conflict she suffers at the prospect of harming the baron (a conflict she faces with none of her other victims) helps mitigate this, and highlights the way Manchette employs and extends the Situationist notion of dérive, defined by Guy Debord as a scenario in which “one or more persons during a certain period drop their usual motives for movement and action, their relations, their work and leisure activities, and let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there.”

If this manipulation of a stock Situationist aesthetic helps to explicate what would otherwise appear to be a psychological inconsistency on the part of Aimée, the same cannot be said of the book’s climax, in which the icy femme fatale transforms into something more closely resembling Angelina Jolie in Tomb Raider (or, perhaps more appropriate to Aimée’s Gallic origins, Milla Jovovich in Resident Evil). The blood-soaked finale features Aimée cutting a violent swath through the men of the town – shooting, stabbing, and strangling them in an extended set-piece that feels completely out of place with the muted tone of everything that has gone before. Manchette’s novella (at fewer than 100 pages, it can hardly be called a novel) has to this point been a clever and subversive examination of small-town corruption and greed, the plaque bearing the slogan “KEEP YOUR TOWN CLEAN!” becoming increasingly ironic the longer the story goes on. By turning Aimée into a kind of avenging angel, Manchette brings his themes out of the shadows and into the light, in the process exposing them as thinner than they might otherwise have appeared.