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Axel Gauvin: Cravate et fils [Tie and Son]

It is only virtually at the end of the book, that we learn his real name is Amédée Nélé but he is always known as Cravate (=tie) as he always wear a (false) silk tie, unlike the other inhabitants. Cravate is illiterate and only had a job as a road labourer but he had had three children and was ambitious for them. The girls were born first and they have done well, one working for the Treasury Department, while the other was a secretary but has since married a doctor. He does not see them much but is happy for them. Fourteen years after the second girl was born, he finally had the son he had always wanted. He was christened Edmond but is always known as Mmon, not as a mispronunciation of Edmond but as a mispronunciation of Manman, i.e. Mummy, which is what he called his mother. Cravate was very ambitious for his son but he soon found out that school work frankly did not interest him and he did not do well. What did interest him was football. He was strong, tough and very skilful and soon spent much of his time on the football field, doing well. He went to play for the local team and he and they did well. It also got him a job, as an electrician, which essentially meant changing light bulbs and fuses, which was well within his capabilities. But it all went to his head. He took to drinking, girls and staying out late. His football suffered and the team suffered and was relegated. To get himself together he takes a job in Argentina and goes.

The narrator of the book is Laurent. Laurent is a nurse whose job is travelling round, giving people their injections, helping them with changing dressings and seemingly acting as an auxiliary doctor. The book is peppered with amusing and well-told stories of his various patients, their demands and their idiosyncrasies but also their needs, particularly those that are less well-off. One of his patients is Cravate, who now is a grumpy old man, living on his own, a widower, embittered towards his son for letting him down. Laurent has been working hard and, at the beginning of the novel, is planning on a well-earned holiday. He does not know where he is going to – he has left the decision to his travel agent friend, merely giving him his budget and a two week time slot. Laurent is now finishing up his rounds before leaving and handing over, temporarily, to Geneviève. His last patient is Cravate. When he gets there, he finds that Cravate does not seem to be at home. He is in a hurry to get away and start his holiday when he seems something swinging from a tree branch. It is dark and he does not at first realise that it is a person. A quick investigation shows that it is Mmon who has tried to hang himself. Fortunately, he is still alive.

The rest of the book concerns Laurent’s attempt to get Mmon back to normal and but also to reconcile him with his father. Mmon had ended up in France, where he had met Fabienne. He had planned to marry Fabienne and had written to Cravate about it. (Cravate had a live-in maid, who might have also been his lover, who read to him.) But it all went wrong. First he lost his job, then the car and then Fabienne. All he can do is crawl home. He has a few drinks before going back to his father to build up his courage but, when he gets home, his father attacks him for being useless, for making up the story of Fabienne and for being a drunk, leaving Mmon to decide that suicide is the only way out. After the suicide attempt, Cravate goes through the motions of showing concern, asking about Mmon and packing things for him, but does not come to see him. Laurent and Mmon had been best friends as children, doing boy things together, such as stealing food and generally misbehaving. Laurent moves Mmon into his house. He seems to have fluid living arrangements with various women having lived there but now moving on. Geneviève comes and then Hans, who had been living with Laurent and had then gone off, now returns. Hans is German and, as a retiree, had been living in Germany. He had started a relationship but when she got pregnant he fled Germany to live in Réunion. He acts as both a source of humour (particularly his mangling of French) but also as support to Laurent.

While we are fairly sure what is going to happen, Gauvin tells a wonderful story of a well-meaning, kindly and determined if sometimes dissatisfied Laurent and his struggles with both Mmon and Cravate and his own life, full of humour, colourful language (both slang and creative mangling of French) and lively characters. It is a pity that it is not available in English, though Gauvin’s French might be difficult to convey accurately in another language.

Publishing history

First published by Seuil in 1996
No English translation