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29 january 2019

Nada is a relentless, violent thriller written in the relentless, violent wake of 1968. Jean-Patrick Manchette's brand of energetic, amoral action writing fit the mindset of the Patty Hearst era perfectly.

"Nada," we learn relatively late in Manchette's novel, is the name of an early-'70s terrorist cell without very definite aims. They set out to kidnap the American ambassador to France. Their idea is to hold him for ransom, though they can't seriously hope to bring off their ransom scheme, and it's unclear what they'd use the proceeds for anyway. Their ideological guru, an unhinged philosophy teacher named Treuffais, has fallen out of sympathy with the kidnapping plot. The steely paramilitary veteran who is crucial to the success of the abduction, Épaulard, has never been in sympathy with it at all. The rest of the squad consists of misfits, drunks, and hookers, none of whom would win any prizes for impulse control. "Nada," indeed.

Yet a central rule of fiction is that if you see a story from a character's perspective, you hope that character succeeds. We are sympathetic with Épaulard in particular – at least I was – precisely because he has no sympathy with the terrorists' project. He agrees to help them out of personal loyalty to Diaz, a particularly desperate assassin who seems to act out of sheer nihilism.

The craftsmanship in Nada is of a very high order, even as its social and political ideas are hard to pin down. Manchette offers a complicated plot with lots of moving pieces, but the book never bogs down or becomes confused. Predictably, the cops outsmart the terrorists, but then the cops prove to be even less morally savory. Nothing in Manchette's France seems worth building ideals or hopes around, with the possible exception of isolated individual friendships. The book's 230 pages go by, I daresay, like nothing, and in the end offer nothing to believe in. It's a small perfect gem of bleakness.

Manchette, Jean-Patrick. Nada. 1972. Paris: Gallimard, 2018.