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Daniel Pennac: Au bonheur des ogres (The Scapegoat)

Benjamin Malaussène’s job title in a Parisian department store is quality controller but he is actually the scapegoat. To avoid paying for a team of genuine quality controllers, the store has hired Malaussène. When a customer comes to the store to complain, Malaussène is summoned to the director’s office (by the disembodied voice of Miss Hamilton) where is abused, bawled out and summarily dismissed for incompetence. The customer, feeling for sorry for him, withdraws the complaint. Pennac will go on to milk this theme in subsequent novels but this one is probably the best, not least because it is the first in the series. As well as being a quality controller, Malaussène is also responsible for bringing up his brothers and sisters, whom have been abandoned by their mother, which he does fairly well.

The plot of the novel concerns a series of bomb explosions in the store, most of which end up killing someone, despite rigid security precautions taken by the store. Somehow, Malaussène seems implicated in every bombing. Either he and/or a member of his family (his brother, his sister, his dog) is nearby when the bomb explodes. Did he do it? Of course not. But who did? There is also a sub-plot, involving”Tante Julie” (Aunt Julie), Malaussène’s girlfriend, who is a journalist and who is investigating a sinister plot which might just be connected with the bombings.

Pennac’s approach is to make the hero not a hardboiled detective type but a naïve but decent man, almost saintly (one of the characters actually suggests that he is a saint). Though he may be naïve, he is not stupid. He tries to figure out what is going on – though he is one step behind. Nor is he shy, eagerly bedding the large-breasted Tante Julie. The whole book moves along at a furious pace in a racy slang, interspersed with Benjamin’s à-propos comments. Not great literature but a fun read.

Publishing history

First published 1985 by Gallimard
First published in English 1997 by Harvill Press
Translated by Ian Monk