Katherine Pancol: Les Yeux jaunes des crocodiles (The Yellow Eyes of Crocodiles)
This book had considerable success when it was first published in France, as did the the other novels, which were the subsequent part of the trilogy. It has been translated into thirty-one languages and, finally, in 2014, made it into English. It has also been made into a film. Is it chick-lit? I am not an expert on what makes chick-lit chick-lit but, I suspect, this may well be skirting the edges of chick-lit but, in its favour, it is well-written, takes somewhat of a feminist view-point and gives an interesting portrait of a sub-section of contemporary France, namely the well-off white bourgeoisie of Paris and its suburbs. It has six basic themes:
1. Marriage is bad.
2. Marriage is particularly bad for women.
3. If you (a woman) are going to get married, marry a rich man and take a lover.
4. If you are not going to marry a rich man, you need to get rich some other way.
5. Despite this, money cannot buy happiness.
6. Beware of crocodiles, both the human and animal kind.
Of course, these themes are the basis of some good novels, many bad novels and very many really bad novels, since people started writing novels.
The story revolves around an extended family and their immediate friends and associates in Paris and, more particularly, its suburbs. The two main characters are two sisters – Joséphine Cortès is around forty. She works as a researcher for the CNRS (The National Centre for Social Research), specialising in 12th century French history. She is married to Antoine (who likes to be called Tonio). He had been commercial director of Gunman and Co., a company selling high-end hunting rifles. His job had often involved going on safari with rich clients. Gunman had been taken over by a US company and he had been one of the first to be made redundant. Unlike his former colleagues, he had not been prepared to start again at a lower salary and had waited for the big offer to come. It did not. His redundancy package money has now run out and the family are living on Joséphine’s salary. Antoine spends his day watching his favourite TV programmes and spending time with a manicurist called Mylène. The couple have two daughters, Hortense and Zoë (teen/pre-teen). Hortense is self-assured and attractive, Zoë much less so. At the start of the novel, Joséphine learns of Antoine’s infidelity, though everyone else had known, including Hortense and Shirley, her best friend and neighbour, and she throws Antoine out.
As with Hortense and Zoë, Iris Dupin, the eldest, is the more self-assured and attractive of the two sisters, with Joséphine being the dumpy, insecure intellectual. Iris had gone off to film school in the US and had seemingly become an accomplished scriptwriter and had even managed to get a contract with a major Hollywood studio, before suddenly and surprisingly giving it all up to marry Philippe Dupin. Philippe was dashing, handsome and a successful international copyright lawyer. He is now very rich. Iris spends much of her time spending his money and gossiping with her friends. Iris and Joséphine’s father had died of a heart attack when they were fairly young and their mother, Henriette, managed to get a job with Marcel Grobz, an up-and-coming retailer. Henriette, had brought style and elegance to his work and he had not only appreciated her contribution to his business but had fallen in love with her. The pair had got married, with Henriette getting a very favourable financial arrangement on marriage. Marcel had hoped to have children but Henriette refused. Marcel has been bitter about this since. The couple have very much grown apart. Indeed, they hate each other with a passion, Henriette despising Marcel’s vulgarity and common touch. Henriette also despises Joséphine, for her lack of beauty and panache, and clearly favours, and has always favoured, Iris. Meanwhile, Marcel is having a long-term affair with Josiane, his secretary, vaguely promising her marriage or, at least, some settlement.
Post-Antoine, Joséphine struggles but, at the same time, tries to make a life of it. Antoine meets a former client, a Chinese man, and is offered a job managing a large crocodile farm in Kenya. He borrows a large sum of money from the bank (with Joséphine as co-signer, though she is unaware that she has signed such a document, signing everything he has asked her to sign without reading it) and he and Mylène set off for Kenya. We follow his problems during the course of the book. Meanwhile, at a posh dinner party, Iris is seated next to a publisher. To impress him, she casually mentions that she is writing a book. He pushes her on the subject and, without having thought it through, mentions a novel on 12th century French history. (She has alway despised her sister’s professional career and interest.) He says that there is a great demand for such a novel and promises riches, if she will submit the manuscript to him. She is, of course, unable to write such a book but knows someone who can. She promises Joséphine the money from the book while she, Iris, will market it, being clearly more attractive and glamorous than her sister, and will take the glory.
While all of this is going, there are numerous sub-plots with twists, some of which you have to question but all of which move the story along. Apart from Iris and Joséphine, Hortense receives much of the focus. She is precocious, ambitious and ruthless. At the age of fourteen, she is already advising her aunt Iris on what to wear and has fully learned the art of manipulating men by the age of sixteen. She also despises her mother for her weakness and has no qualms about letting her mother know how she feels., though, ultimately, it is Joséphine that we come to admire for her fortitude, determination and gradual acquisition of self-confidence.
This is a fun read, as Pancol moves the story along well, has some interesting female characters, though less interesting male ones, and throws in all sorts of plot twists. It is easy to see why it sold well in France and has been translated into so many languages. However, talking about language, there are a couple of points to make. Pancol writes in a very colourful and colloquial contemporary French. I cannot imagine how translators have coped with her language. Getting the right tone for slang in another language is very difficult. Translating into English has an extra problem – do you use US or UK slang? Do you translate, for example, ringard as naff (UK) or tacky (US)? A quick check reveals that they have chosen the US option, presumably because Penguin US (a German-owned company, by the way) took the lead and it was probably assumed that UK readers would be more readily able to cope with US slang than US readers with UK slang. I have no doubt, however, that much will have been lost in translation. But then that is often the case, I suppose. However, crocodiles are the same in French, UK English and US English. Keep away from them.
First published in French 2006 by Albin Michel
First published in English 2014 by Penguin