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couleurs de l'incendie

4 august 2019

I've read six of Pierre Lemaitre's novels, and Couleurs de l'incendie is the first I've been disappointed by. Five of six ain't bad, and Couleurs de l'incendie (which will appear in the UK later this year as Colours of the Inferno) isn't really bad either, just overelaborated, and mechanical in execution. It is a sequel that suffers by contrast to its original (the brilliant Au revoir là-haut). Or, more likely, it is the second volume of a trilogy that will suffer in turn by contrast to the conclusion. Second volumes of trilogies have a way of consisting of little more than a route from Point A to Point C.

It's the late 1920s through the early 1930s. Madeleine Péricourt, resourceful co-protagonist of Au revoir là-haut, heiress to a banking fortune, sees her father die – and immediately has a new tragedy to cope with. Her son Paul flings himself from a balcony into the middle of her father's cortege. Paralleling his uncle Édouard from the first novel, Paul will become disabled in the opening scene and proceed to grow up obsessive. But where Édouard became obsessed with art and large-scale grifting, Paul will fasten onto music and the advertising business … though he's aware enough to realize that the advertising business amounts to large-scale grifting.

The plot of Couleurs de l'incendie is a fall-and-rise story, breaking into neatly mirrored halves. Overwhelmed by Paul's misfortune, Madeleine loses the thread of the family business. Her right-hand man Gustave Joubert, and her confidante Léonce Picard, team up to defraud Madeleine out of fortune and home. To make matters worse, Madeleine's ex-lover André Delcourt has even darker secrets than his involvement with her, and Madeleine's corrupt politician uncle Charles greasily supplants her as head of the family.

Readers know from Au revoir là-haut that an undistracted Madeleine is more than able to cope with shady characters. Once Paul (with the aid of a sanguine Polish nurse and a newly-found best friend in an opera diva) is back in possession of his wits, Madeleine concentrates on a cunning plan that will bring down her adversaries. I am not really spoiling any plot developments here, because the overall arc of the book is so predictable. You would not be satisified with a Madeleine who meekly accepted a declassée existence, and neither would Pierre Lemaitre.

It all works out ingeniously enough, but the predictability tells against the novel. So too does the subject matter. We learn something about opera, something about Hitler, something about jet engines, something about the volatile financial world of the '20s and '30s. One item of research falls into place after another to construct the world of the book, with more attention to exposition than to character, language, and incident.

As I said, there will likely be another in the group of novels that Lemaitre is now calling "Les enfants du désastre," "Children of the catastrophe." I may pick the next one on the theory that a bounce-back is in order. Meanwhile, though, you could find worse entertainments than Colors of the Inferno when it appears under that or another title in the US.

Lemaitre, Pierre. Couleurs de l'incendie. 2018. Paris: Albin Michel, 2019.