Pendant tout le repas je jouai avec les pages de mon cernet que j'avais déballé. C'était un bon papier lisse, un peu jaune. Comme dessert je choisis une crêpe aux fruits rouges. Et quand le serveur l'eut déposée devant moi, tout se passa à nouveau en dépit de moi-même. Mes yeux fixèrent le serveur, ses petits boutons, son fin duvet au-dessus de la lèvre, mes doigts caressaient la couverture de mon carnet, agréable au toucher, ma peau sentait un rayon de soleil sur mon avant-bras et ma bouche demanda au serveur s'il me permettait de lui poser une question: connaissait-il par hasard Roberto Bolaño? Le serveur fronça les sourcils et demanda s'il travaillait au Can Martí ou s'il était censé le connaisse, c'était un écrivain, il avait écrit des romans et il avait dix ou quinze ans de cela. Le serveur dessina dans l'air un geste d'impuissance de sa seule main libre (l'autre main tenant mon assiette vide): c'était il y a longtemps, à l'époque il vivait encore chez ses parents dans le Sud, à Rincón de la Victoria, il n'avait pas encore déménagé à Blanès, donc non, il était désolé de ne pas pouvoir m'aider, il ne connaissait pas Roberto Boliño. Bolaño, rectifiai-je. Le serveur s'éloigna. L'air devint saturé. Pourquoi m'avait-il regardée ainsi, si intensément, au moment de parler de ses parents et de Rincón de la Victoria? D'ailleurs où diable cela pouvait-il se trouver et surtout qu'est-ce que cela pouvait me faire? Il fallait payer et partir au plus vite, j'étais affreusement gênée. Soudain prise d'un doute, je me retournai: dans ma nuque, ce n'étaient pas des géraniums mais des hortensias. Cela m'avait titillée depuis le début. (pp. 65-66, PDF e-edition)
For the past decade, the Spanish/Catalan coastal town of Blanes has become renowned for being the home of the peripatetic Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño during the last twenty years of his life. Bolaño's reputation was mostly made, however, after his 2003 death, with a slew of posthumous translations into the major European languages. One novel, however, Los detectives salvajes (The Savage Detectives in English), was published to some acclaim in 1998. That tale, containing among other elements an odyssey undertaken to find two missing poets in 1970s Mexico, is perhaps Bolaño's best-executed work (2666 I would argue was left in an unfinished state at the time of Bolaño's death). That mystery of what happened to Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano (characters who appear, often fleetingly, in several of Bolaño's works) is tied in to literary movements and commentaries on the fluctuating relationships between "art" and "reality."
Therefore, it was with great curiosity that I read Belgian writer Hedwige Jeanmart's debut novel, the 2014 Prix Medicis-longlisted Blanès. Set in the town itself, it is a mystery that unfolds on at least two levels. The first involves a couple, Eva and Samuel, who are vacationing there when Samuel suddenly disappears. As Eva undertakes a search for him, she begins to discover the elements of another mystery, that of a beloved author, and the various connections and relationships between him, his stories, and the people of Blanes.
Blanès is a relatively short novel, roughly 190 pages in my PDF e-edition, and Jeanmart wastes little time in establishing character, setting, and mood. In the passage quoted above, Eva comes in contact with a server at a restaurant. Jeanmart describes the setting with great detail, going from Eva's choices for a meal to her inquiries about Bolaño. The server's reactions to her somewhat odd questions is shown in vivid detail. In reading it, I was reminded of the hyperrealist, almost surrealist, quality of The Savage Detectives and while Jeanmart is not aping Bolaño's literary mannerisms, there certainly are enough touchstones here for readers familiar with that tale to see the connections.
Yet for those readers who are not familiar with Bolaño or his work, Blanès also succeeds on its own due to Jeanmart's ability to create a plausible, gripping mystery that absorbs the reader's attention. I spent several minutes reading and re-reading certain paragraphs, not because my French is rudimentary compared to my English or Spanish, but because of the richness of the prose and the fineness of the dialogues. It was simply a delectable reading experience, one that I do not often encounter when reading contemporary prose in any language. Yet the plot does not suffer due to the attention to style. In fact, Jeanmart's mixture of beautiful and stark imagery enriches the plot, making the mystery more palpable for the reader.
The characterizations are also well-rendered. Scenes such as the one quoted above are commonplace and the people that Eva meets during her search for solving two mysteries (the disappearance of her lover and that of Bolaño's life in Blanes) are fascinating in their own right. There are very few longeurs present here; everything flows quickly and smoothly toward a satisfying denouement. While the other Prix Medicis-longlisted titles I've read have also been excellent, Blanès would be one that I hope would make the shortlist coming out shortly. It certainly is one of the better books that I've read in any language so far this year.