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le voleur de bonbons

18 november 2017

Le voleur de bonbons is a novel set on the outskirts of melodrama, with occasional detours into melodrama city center. But its characters are likable and complicated.

Gilbert Bordes, born in the Limousin region of the south of France in 1948, gives us a Limousin protagonist of exactly the same age. In 1960, Matthieu is twelve, living with his grandparents in a rural village. His father Armand, depressed and on the road to alcoholism since the death of Matthieu's mother from leukemia, lives there too, but is an ineffectual parent. Next door lives Marion, also with her grandparents. Marion's parents have moved in with their folks because Marion herself has leukemia.

Matthieu is blessed with a lovely voice but is an ugly kid. He isn't well-off, he acts out a lot at school, and the one thing he can do for his attractive, doomed neighbor is steal stuff for her. He starts with the title bonbons and graduates to jewelry, and ultimately to consecrated communion Hosts. That sacrilege is the last straw for the community. Matthieu is shipped off to reform school, and Marion is shipped off to chemotherapy in a hospital in the Villejuif district of Paris.

So far, it's been a children's novel with some harsh themes. But the candy thief grows up, making the most of his years in the institution. An old eccentric who befriended the child Matthieu becomes his tutor and mentor; Matthieu becomes a worker, a student, and a musician (though a pianist, not a singer anymore). Marion's cancer goes into remission. The rest of the novel sees Matthieu and Marion alternately growing closer and spinning off in different directions again. He's always been in love with her, and she always feels better when she sees him; but whether it's fate or just coincidence, his reappearances in her life seem to presage her relapses into sickness. This bad timing is exacerbated by her seeming always to find a lover just before Matthieu reappears on the scene.

As I said, there is some melodrama here, more than a touch of La dame aux camélias. But the novel is told in a spare, modernist style (and is very straightforward; none of the opacity of the nouveau roman is in evidence here). The theme of Le voleur de bonbons may be the double-edged nature of desire. It can heal but it can consume, or at least it seems that way to Matthieu and Marion.

Bordes, Gilbert. Le voleur de bonbons. 2002. Paris: Robert Laffont, 2004.