Sunday, 13 July 2008

Review: "The Mustache" (La Moustache) by Emmanuel Carrère

"As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect." --Franz Kafka, "The Metamorphosis"

Hot on the heels of "Class Trip", I just finished "The Mustache" by Emmanuel Carrère. Written some ten years earlier than "Class Trip", this is an even more astonishing book.

The main character alters his routine one morning, and instead of shaving around his mustache of many years, decides to see how he'll look without it. From there his world is gradually unraveled. His present and future are tinged with uncertainty, and shockingly, so is his past. His very identity begins to slip away.

Where Gregor Samsa's transformation was grand and undeniable, the man behind (or lacking) the eponymous mustache suffers all the more for the complete acceptance his wife, friends, and colleagues all have of the altered reality that unfolds around him.

This is a grand portrayal of mental anguish and paranoia. For much of the book, the main character alternates between believing that he is insane and believing that the world is either mad or conspiring against him. The transitions between these two irreconcilable extremes are sometimes gradual, and sometimes startlingly abrupt.

In his struggle to find some stability in the shifting reality he occupies, the main character ends up becoming a kind of parody of the world traveler, latching onto what temporary routines and human connections he can while shifting from one impersonal locale (hotel, ferry, airport, restaurant) to another.

A bit of warning: the ending of this book is absolutely devastating. I was clenching my teeth when reading the last few pages, and very nearly had to bite my knuckle to keep from crying out.

This is an absolutely vital work, and wonderfully crafted. Highly recommended, but only for those who delight in the uncertainty and complexity of a book like "The Metamorphosis" and who also have a strong stomach.

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