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15 january 2018

Lac is an insouciant spy novel. Like Jean Echenoz' more recent Envoyée spéciale, and English representatives like Graham Greene's Our Man in Havana and Ian McEwan's The Innocent, it's about a spy halfway in spite of himself, and its mode is not suspense but the accumulation of absurdities. This minor subgenre would be wryer if one didn't suspect that it was all too realistic.

Lac was published in 1989, just before history made the classic Cold War cloak-and-dagger novel obsolete from without. Though novels like Lac were busy making it obsolete from within. The title setting – the lake at a French country resort – provides the backdrop for the second half of the book. A group of people assemble at the resort; half are spying on the other half; everybody's a double agent or an incipient defector. You can imagine.

But the novel really unfolds roughly in thirds. In the first, we are introduced to a cast of characters by a sort of free association from one to the next. We don't know quite how they align. Echenoz is fond of doing things like having one character cross another in the street and abandoning the first to follow the second. The hero appears to be Franck Chopin, a mild-mannered entomologist who is always on call to get back into the espionage game, you can never leave the game, Echenoz might say, he writes run-on sentences, his novels are like that. Chopin gets a secret mission, but he also gets a new girlfriend. Meanwhile the girlfriend has a missing husband. Various other characters have other things to hide, and many complications are set in motion.

The second act assembles the characters at the hotel on the lake. Chopin is apparently a whiz at gluing microphones to houseflies and letting them loose in hotel rooms for surveillance purposes. This can't be a real thing, though I haven't Googled it to make sure. It has certainly been thought of at one point or another. Nowadays of course they'd just build an entirely robotic surveillance insect, like the equally fictional ones in the film Eye in the Sky. But Chopin's are organic enough.

The third act springs plot twist after twist on you, just as you thought the novel was going to go out with a whimper. I will not spoil the twists, even though the book is nearly 30 years old. It is available from the splendid avant-garde press Dalkey Archive as Chopin's Move.

I saw a video interview with Echenoz a few weeks ago, in which the novelist described his writing method as facilitating the construction of phrases: finding words he wanted to put together and working on them till they couldn't seem to get better. Lac is a good example. Here is an a spy ringing at doors in an apartment house to make sure nobody's home:

À quinze heures et quelques chacun se trouvait à son travail, son école ou sa crèche, le coup de sonnette ne suscita que des mouvements de menton méfiants de chats drogués au kangourou haché, abrutis sur leurs coussins de kapok malpropres.

[At a little after three in the afternoon, everybody was at work, school, or daycare; the sound of the doorbell stirred up nothing more than the chins of a few cats stuffed silly with chopped kangaroo, stoned on their grubby kapok cushions.] (154)
And here is a woman walking down a messy street:
Avisant une carte à jouer solitaire, égarée là face contre terre, Suzy s'abstient de la retourner du bout du pied comme si c'était une vieille pierre plate dans une campagne sèche, craignant les dames de pique autant que les nœuds d'aspics.

[Spotting a single playing card face down on the ground, Suzy avoided flipping it over with the tip of her boot, as if it were an old flat stone in a desert place – she dreaded queens of spades like they were nests of vipers.] (162-63)
It strikes me that phrases like that might not just "come" in the course of executing a novel. They might pre-exist the novel, which is then constructed as a gallery in which to show them off.

Echenoz, Jean. Lac. 1989. Paris: Minuit, 2008.