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Vincent Message: Les Veilleurs [The Watchmen]

I am not entirely sure about my translation of the title, not least because it is something of a play on the two (albeit very similar) meanings of the word veilleurs. This can be translated as watchmen, which refers to the fact that Oscar Waldo Andreas Nexus, one of the three main characters in this book, was, for a while a night-watchman. It could also be translated as watchers as Paulus Rilviero and Joachim Traumfreund, the other two main characters, spend much of the book watching Nexus. As the book has not been translated into English and, as far as I am aware, there are no plans to do so, my proposal will have to stay.

The book is set in Regson, a fictitious town of five million inhabitants, located perhaps somewhere in Europe though maybe in Canada. Street and place names seem to be either French or English, though it seems to be at least partially Catholic, judging by the names of the churches. As you can see from the names of the people, the inhabitants are of mixed background, with English, French, German and pseudo-Spanish/Portuguese names, though one of the victims has a Chinese name and another an East European one. The town is part of a region, which has a regional governor, Samuel Drake. The book starts with Nexus, a loner, a night-watchman and something of a drifter. He shoots three people in the street in broad daylight and then proceeds to lie on top of them, as though he wanted to sleep there. He does not resist arrest when the police arrive. He is committed to trial. During the trial he does not say a great deal but, when he does, he seems to be fairly sane and articulate. He is therefore convicted of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment. There is something of an outcry as there is a feeling that he must be insane, not least because he lay down on the bodies after killing them, instead of fleeing. But why did he kill and why did he kill those three? Was it an acte gratuit? Is Nexus a psychotic? This theory is rejected because psychotics like to show off and like to be recognised. Nexus is just the opposite. There seems to be no connection between him and three three victims. Samuel Drake wants to know, not least because one of the victims was his mistress (Drake is married). Was Nexus targeting Drake or trying to get some revenge against him? Is there some political conspiracy against Drake? While he is in prison, no-one has been able to get any sense out of Nexus. He speaks very little and will say nothing about why he killed the three victims. Message throws in some of the technical terms such as paraphasia and Wernicke’s aphasia but this seems more to show off his own knowledge than to advance the diagnosis. At his own expense, Drake pays two people to investigate Nexus. Much of the book is about their investigation.

The first is Paulus Rilviero. He is a former police officer who now works directly for Drake. Drake hopes that his police skills will help get though to Nexus. The second is a renowned psychiatrist, Joachim Traumfreund (the name means Dream Friend, a very appropriate name as it turns out). Traumfreund is against both conventional psychiatry and anti-psychiatry and has been trying to find a third way, though he does complain that he has to spend too much time dealing with bureaucracy and fund-raising and not enough with psychiatry. We even learn a little about their respective private lives – Rilviero, forty-seven, living with Lisa but not too happy in his relationship, and Traumfreund, divorced, apparently because she could not stand him analysing her the whole time. Rilviero does an initial, police-style investigation of Nexus, even though this has already been done by the police. He cannot find any motive for the murders, but does find that Nexus was a loner, does not appear to have had any friends or even relatives and whose origins are dubious. For example, his documents show that he was born in a fairly small village, yet there are no records of him there and no-one seems to have known him or his family. He himself maintains that he was born when he was twenty-nine and denies any knowledge of the village. In the building where he had a room, people rarely saw him and thought of him as another strange inhabitant. What did he do when he was not working? It is Traumfreund who works it out – he was sleeping. We do learn from Nexus that he was self-educated and spent a lot of time in the library, reading, both to learn and to improve his knowledge of the language. As we are also occasionally privy to his thoughts, we also learn that he felt no-one cared about him and that his actions were partially in response to this. Traumfreund also has this view.

It is Traumfreund who decides that the the three of them should go to Aneph, a remote house in the mountains, donated to the clinic by a rich architect, who was a former patient. This could well disorientate Nexus, as he would not know where he was, but also help them to understand him. Initially, they cannot get through to Nexus but they soon learn that he is pathological dreamer and that, for him, the real world is the world of his dreams. His dreams take place in a world called Séabra, a world where there is a war and where things are not going well. He tells them of his adventures in Séabra. However, when Traumfreund connects Nexus’ head with a scanner that can determine REM activity (a key to dreaming), it shows that he has zero REM activity. Is Nexus merely making up these stories? Despite this, Traumfreund is convinced that what happens to him in Séabra is key to his killing of the three people. Meanwhile, Rilviero is carrying out his own investigative work – as in any good detective novel, our hero is going to find out much more than the police did. Rilviero is convinced that finding out Nexus’ real motive for the killings lies as much in police work as in psychiatric examination.

This is certainly an intriguing book though, while some French critics loved the book, others found it overlong and hard work. It is certainly that, particularly the bits that take place in Séabra that do tend to drag out somewhat. However, it is a thoroughly original book, using both elements of the conventional detective story – we even get an interesting twist right at the end – as well as fantasy (the Séabra story) and, of course, psychological analysis, not just of Nexus but also Rilviero, Traumfreund and, even to some degree, Drake. I found it did keep me engrossed to the end and not, as one French critic say, put me in a deep a sleep as Nexus’. It has sadly not been translated into any other language and I am not aware of any plans to translate it

Publishing history

First published 2009 by Éditions du Seuil
No English translation