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17 july 2012

Fuir, as the English translation of Jean-Philippe Toussaint's novel suggests, can mean "running away." There's only one actual scene of running away in the novel (and it's an electric one), but the characters spend a lot of time in reciprocal flight, like those little magnetic scottie dogs that repel each other across a tabletop.

Fuir is the kind of text that makes a lot of sense at the sentence and paragraph level, and almost none at the level of the novel. The story unfolds in three long chapters. In the first, the narrator, a Frenchman, arrives in China on an errand for his friend, the enigmatic Marie. He's welcomed by Zhang Xiangzhi, who is even more enigmatic than Marie. Zhang gives our hero a cellphone and follows him around everywhere, at one point introducing him to Li Qi, a woman who may or may not be Zhang's girlfriend and may or may not be trying to seduce the narrator.

This is not really the way you want to spend two weeks in China, particularly when your hosts seem to be engaged in high-stakes drug trafficking. Said trafficking results in the main title sequence of the book (in its second chapter), a high-speed chase on motorbikes across Beijing. In the novel's third movement, the narrator goes to the island of Elba to meet Marie, who is attending her father's funeral. Another note of flight sounds in that episode, as the narrator first shows up at the funeral and then disappears, leaving Marie to track him across the island; and then she disappears in turn before the two are reunited.

But reunited how? In love, out of expediency, by ties of obligation, through sheer inertia? The novel doesn't say, though a sequel called La vérité sur Marie promises to supply some of the answers (though I can't help thinking that the sequel's title is going to be distinctly ironic). Throughout Fuir, there's a conspicuous lack of backstory, and a fair amount of neglecting to explain what the hell is going on. You need some negative capability to enjoy this kind of fiction, but fortunately its mysteriousness meets my taste exactly (or, at least, one of my many concurrent tastes).

A comment by Jacques-Pierre Amette on the back of the 2005 Minuit edition says that "Il y a un 'style' Toussaint" – there's a "Toussaint style." Amette describes this style in affective impressions, but it seems from Fuir that Toussaint has a purely verbal style as well. His sentences range from hard-boiled concision – appropriate to the noirish aspects of his story – all the way to run-on sentences several pages long à la Saramago or Sebald, which reinforce swelling emotional themes (as when Marie learns of her father's death) or nonstop action (as in the bike-chase sequence).

So what's it all about? Fuir reminded me a little of Ian McEwan's Comfort of Strangers, and its final passage reminded me a little of the ending of Moravia's Disprezzo. All three of these compact novels give us a sense of how strange it is to share the world with other people – and the suspicion that those we're most intimate with are the real strangers.

Toussaint, Jean-Philippe. Fuir. Paris: Minuit, 2005.