Jean-Marie Blas de Roblès: L’Île du Point Némo (Island of Point Nemo)
If you have read Blas de Roblès’Là où les tigres sont chez eux (Where Tigers are at Home), you will have some idea of what to expect from this novel: a complicated series of plots, some of which merge and some of which seem to be more or less independent, settings all over the world, characters from various nationalities, lots of sub-plots and diversions, lots of learning, lots of sex, not always conventional heterosexual sex, lots of exciting adventures, references to various other literary works, a good dollop of post-modernism, unreliable narrators and perhaps a novel that needed some editing. And did I mention lots of sex?
We start off with a bang (and continue in that way for the rest of the book), opening with the Battle of Gaugamela, the battle that took place in 333 BC, where Alexander the Great beat the Persian Darius III, despite being outnumbered. Once that is out of the way, we move on to our main characters. Martial Canterel is a rich art collector. He has an assistant, Miss Sherrington, who, like many of the characters, turns out to be much more than she appears, with a very colourful past. He receives a visit from an old friend, John Shylock Holmes. The point is made straight away that he is not Sherlock Holmes and nothing like him but is an art restorer for Christie’s. Despite this somewhat tongue-in-the-cheek denial, throughout this book he acts very much in imitation of Sherlock Holmes and does not seem to do any art restoration at Christie’s or anywhere else. Holmes is accompanied by his majordomo, his Dr Watson if you will, Grimod de La Reynière. Like Miss Sherrington, Grimond is much, much more than what he appears to be.
The basis of the mystery that Holmes wishes to bring to the attention of Canterel has taken place in Scotland. There has been a report that three right feet, cut off from the leg of the owner, all wearing a brand of trainers (sneakers) called Anankè, have been found. The mystery is made more mysterious by the fact that they are all wearing the same brand of trainers, a brand no-one has even heard of. The four set off to find out more (in a Cottin & Desgouttes car). In Scotland, they stay with Lady Clawdia (sic) Macrae who, I do not need to tell you, has a past and a colourful history. She owns a castle, is a widow and once had a three week affair with Canterel. Unknown to him, the result was a baby girl, Verity, who lived happily till she was seven, then lay down on a park bench and fell asleep. She has not woken since. No-one knows why.
Chez Lady Macrae, they learn that she has had a valuable diamond stolen which, apparently, is somehow connected with the severed feet story. They follow a succession of ever more outlandish clues, involving a Chinese magician whose trick is to be shot by a firing squad, a Lestrade (a character wittily called Litterbag (sic)), the Moscow-Peking train, terrorist attacks, including some by Creationist terrorists, a Belgian detective who is not Poirot or Maigret, the Strider Nô who stands astride his victims to kill them, Siamese twins, a post-Hindenburg massive Zeppelin, Melville Island, Point Nemo and the Bloop.
However, there are several other stories going on at the same time. Arnaud Méneste came from a tobacco-growing family in France, though the family was not doing well, so much so that his father saved up enough to send Arnaud to university and then killed himself. Arnaud made his pile in finance in the United States and then decided to return to France to revive the tobacco industry of his ancestors, accompanied by his wife, Dulcie. Dulcie is Haitian and was a torcedora in the Dominican Republic. Arnaud brings her back to France and they set up a cigar factory. Sadly, no-one is interested in his cigars and, eventually, he goes broke. He sells out to a Chinese consortium who make e-readers. Dulcie has a stroke and she remains unconscious but alive, like Verity.
Arnaud works for Wang-li Wong, manager of the e-reader factory, as a reader. It had long been a tradition in the tobacco industry to have someone read to the workers, both fiction and non-fiction, including newspaper articles. Indeed, Blas de Roblès gives us a detailed account of this practice, which may or may not be accurate. It has been carried over to the e-reader factory, where Arnaud is one of the readers. Apart from the operation of the factory, Mr. Wang has two obsessions: his racing pigeon and the female breast. While he is not the only character attracted to the female breast in this book, he certainly is the most assiduous, giving his HR head a daily breast fondle.
The HR head in question is Louise who, not surprisingly, also has a complex and colourful history. She has an issue with Charlotte, an employee at Mr. Wang’s factory. Charlotte’s difficult dealings with her elderly neighbours are another story as is the story of Fabrice, an admirer of Charlotte, abandoned by his mother as a child, with his attempts to trace her. He is a his computer hacker which is naturally relevant to the story.
Last and probably least, are Carmen and her husband, the wittily named Dieumercie Bonacieux. Their story is essentially about Dieumercie’s impotence and Carmen’s attempt to resolve the issue. It is not pretty.
When is this story set or, at least, the main story? We are given lots of clues, all of them contradictory. Slavery seems to still be in effect in the United States, which puts the action before 1865 but Lady Clawdia has seen the film of Moby Dick, which was made in 1956. There are other clues that contradict one another. In short, like much of the plot, it is deliberately confusing and obfuscating.
There is no point in trying to make any sense of this story but that, of course, is the fun. Much of it is entirely improbable and unpredictable. There are dead bodies galore (not to mention dead feet) and sex galore. However, there are also lots of literary and other references, lots of digressions, lots of interesting ideas (you perhaps do not want to read about Miss Sherrington’s anti-bicycle theft invention), lots of improbable adventures and lots of characters. It is a thoroughly enjoyable post-modernist romp and great fun to read.
First published 2014 by Zulma
First published in English 2017 by Open Letter
Translated by Hannah Chute