Juan Francisco Ferré: Karnaval
Ferré does not attempt to hide who this book is about. In the foreword – though it is not clear whether it was he or his publisher who wrote it – it states that the book is based on one of the most powerful people in the world who, while waiting on a plane leaving New York, was accused of raping a black, immigrant maid in a luxury hotel in New York. Anyone, at least in the Western world, who followed the news in anyway would be well aware that it is about Dominique Strauss-Kahn. While he does conceal the names – his wife, for example, changes from Anne to Nicole, while he himself is referred to throughout the book simply as DK, DK standing for dios K, dios, of course, being the Spanish for god – the details are the same. DK is the Managing Director of the IMF and candidate for the French presidency, married with two daughters and who does, of course, allegedly assault an immigrant maid in a New York hotel and tries to leave the country but is arrested on the plane.
Ferré could just have written a critical fictitious biography or a satire on sex and power and, while he does both of these, he does much more. He creates his DK as a character but also as a man who is representative of power (particularly but not only sexual power), arrogance and desire combined. He looks at him from various angles, often in considerable detail, to give us the measure of the man and the measure of what he represents. In doing so he creates a thoroughly original novel. He does tell the story of what happened that caused the downfall of DK/DSK but not just from the conventional first-person or third-person narrative point of view. For example, when he is fleeing to the airport, he offers the Afghan taxi driver $1000 if he can get him to JFK airport in fifteen minutes. The driver has no idea who his passenger is or why he is in such a hurry and does not care. He is only interested in his $1000. We learn in a hearing before a judge about what happened (and why, at least according to DK/DSK) when he came out of the shower and found the maid. The judge finds his excuse very funny and so do we. But we also hear the maid’s account. We learn of her contempt for the rich and powerful men who stay at the hotel and pay various staff for sex, including her friend Lucinda. She also has contempt for the attractive women who accompany these men. However, Ferré is not going to treat her solely as a saintly victim. When she realises what happened, she thinks of how much money she can get from DK/DSK and the media, to help her and help her bring up her daughter. Indeed, if anyone is seen as something of a victim it is DK/DSK’s unfortunate wife, Nicole.
Where this book becomes interesting is the various other ways Ferré looks at DK/DSK. For example, while he is awaiting his trial in a New York apartment, he goes to see a production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and makes comparisons with his situation, while criticising the production for not being grandiose enough. (Ferré appears to be a fan of Shakespeare, later quoting Harold Bloom as saying Todo lo que existe en el universo está en Shakespeare [Everything that exists in the universe is in Shakespeare.].) He writes to various world leaders. The first is to Sarkozy, telling him that he now realises that Sarkozy was not part of a plot to cause DK/DSK grief (as both DK and DSK believed) but adding that Sarkozy must be relieved that he will not be Sarkozy’s rival at the next presidential elections, as he is the only man that can beat Sarkozy (which, of course, turned out not to be true). He points out that all sorts of people wanted him to fall. Indeed, as a good Spaniard Ferré even manages to throw Gibraltar into the mix! (Ferré throws in other personal references such as referring to 1975 as the year of Jaws, the film that featured in his book Providence.) The second letter is to President Obama, telling him how to win his next election which he is sure he will lose without his help. DK regrets not having had the opportunity to go to the Oval Office when he was Managing Director of the IMF and making comparisons between himself and Obama. The third one is addressed to”Mr. Ratzinger”, i.e Pope Benedict, to whom he gives spiritual advice and points out that God is an economist. Other letters go to Bill Gates and Jean-Claude Trichet. We also get a TV documentary on the affair, called The Hole and the Worm (Ferré uses both the English and Spanish). It is shown on HBO, though made by a Canadian woman director. It features interviews with various talking heads, giving their views, from Philip Roth talking, of course, about penises, to Camilla Paglia talking about DK’s sexual inferiority, from Beatriz Preciado talking about how men want to appropriate the image of women to Lady Gaga talking about Einstein and sexual cruelty, as well as a host of others. It all gives Ferré scope for ample mocking of both subject and talking heads. There are also imaginary meetings, such as DK meeting Edison, who is clearly Warren Buffett, the meeting with a Spanish banker known only as EB but, presumably, Emilio Botín, and the meeting with various bankers in the New York subway.
We also get something of his presumably imagined story. He, DK, tells us that he cannot resist women and they cannot resist him. There has only been one who has resisted him, Virginie. She was the daughter of Sophie, a much older woman with whom he had an affair when he was twenty-seven. Sophie took DK and Virginie with her to the Seychelles but DK wanted to seduce Virginie. Despite the fact that she had affairs with other men, including those much older, she would not sleep with him. DK, unused to being declined, tried force. But, since then, he seems to have had much more success, till he met the maid in the New York hotel room. Even after the event when he is living in an apartment in New York, he still lusts after women, such as Wendy, his big-breasted masseuse. Indeed, he has such a reputation that none of his female staff will go into his office alone. They even make sure that, if they can, they hire ugly women but even that does not seem to deter him.
From the reconstruction of the alleged crime to an exorcism, from DK’s wanderings through the night life of New York to the use of Viagra and related drugs, from the strange messages he keeps hearing on the bus or in the subway to the later life of Virginie, Ferré piles it on, layer after layer. It is a superb book, covering every angle of the Strauss-Kahn affair and much more. You cannot imagine such a book being written by an English speaker. Indeed, as I have said before and will say again it is just further proof that the most interesting novels being written this century are being written in Spanish and not English though, sadly, with only a few translated into English. It is hoped that this book makes into English but I am not too optimistic.
First published 2012 by Editorial Anagrama, Barcelona
No English translation
Published in French as Karnaval by Passage du Nord-Ouest in 2013