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Emmanuel Carrère: La Moustache (The Moustache)

The unnamed narrator of this novel has, as the title tells us, a moustache. He has been married to Agnès for five years and has had his moustache ever since he has known her. Because he has thick stubble, he often has to shave twice a day. One afternoon, when he is about to shave, he suddenly asks Agnès whether she would mind if he shaved off his moustache. It would be a good idea, she replies. She has to go out and do a bit of shopping soon after and, while she is out, he does shave off his moustache. When she returns, he pretends to be fiddling with his shoelace, so she does not see his face.

The couple are planning to visit friends that evening so she does see him, but does not comment on his lack of a moustache. They drive to their friends – Serge and Véronique – and, as there is no parking place near their flat, he drops her off and goes and parks elsewhere. When he gets to the flat, neither Serge nor Véronique mention his lack of moustache, but he assumes that Agnès has let them in on the joke and told them to say nothing.

He obliquely raises the issue on the way home and then directly, when back home. Agnès says that has never had a moustache. Naturally, they have an argument, he insisting that he had had a moustache and had shaved it off and that this joke has been going on too long, while she insists he had never had a moustache. Clearly, each is upset with the other.

There are various ways to resolve the issue and they try two. They phone up Serge and Véronique to ask them. Serge and Véronique are asleep and are not happy about being woken up but confirm that he did not have a moustache. He then decides to find photos of himself and finds one, taken when they were on holiday in Java. He claims it shows that he has a moustache. She denies it.

He remembers when she has behaved in a similar fashion. He had claimed that the heating was set too high. They had guests to stay the night – Serge and Véronique – and, it turns out, the couple was freezing because the radiators had been turned off completely. She denied having done so but he is sure that she did.

The book is told in the third person but we tend to see the story from his point of view and he constantly tries to question her motives in his mind, sure, at first, that she is playing a cruel joke and, later, that she has lost her mind. She, of course, claims that he has lost his.

The next day, at the office (he is an architect), he is sure that his colleagues will comment on his lack of a moustache. They do not. Back home, that evening, he retrieves his moustache hairs from the dustbin (in the street) but this is, even he admits, no proof.

He later checks his identity card and realises that it shows him with a moustache. Agnès claims that he has added it with a marker pen and scratches it off.

Things get worse when he raises the issue of the Java photo and Agnès claims that they have never been to Java. When he looks for the other photos, they seem to have disappeared. We are starting to get suspicious of who is telling the truth as Agnès mentions visiting his parents but, when he later mentions it, she points out that his father had been dead for a year. He is unaware of this. I checked and she definitely mentioned his parents. Again, there is a way to check and he sets out for his parent’s flat, a flat in which he grew up. He cannot find it, having forgotten the number. There are other examples where it seems clear that he is wrong and others where it seems clear that she is.

When he phones up his colleague Jérôme, Jérôme confirms that he has never had a moustache. Our hero is now suspicious that this is some sort of plot between Jérôme and Agnès, either to drive him to suicide or to have him interned in a mental hospital or, perhaps, to murder him and pretend that it was suicide.

This is – deliberately – a somewhat baffling book. There are clear instances showing that he did have a moustache and other clear instances showing that he did not. Carrère naturally wants us to take both sides, alternating between one and the other. As mentioned, the narrator is the authorial third person but there is no reason why an authorial third person narrator cannot be an unreliable narrator just as there is no reason why Carrère cannot be pointing out that there are always two sides to any story, with a bit of truth on both sides. The ending, which surprised me, does not really elucidate what is going on.

I thought this an excellent story just because it is not clear-cut and is always deliberately ambiguous and confusing, not least because we have no more idea of what is going on than do the two main characters. The two main characters are ordinary people, leading conventional lives, like most of us, which makes it relatively easy to identify with them. No doubt there have been periods in all of our lives when we have maintained one point of view of an often trivial incident and a friend, partner or family remember, the entirely opposite point of view. This book takes that idea to the extreme.
Translated by Lanie Goodman

Publishing history

First published 1986 by P.O.L.
First English translation by Sceptre in 1988