Bird in a Cage (Pushkin Vertigo)
Unfortunately Frédéric Dard’s Paris set Noir, despite its brilliantly dark and edgy start, began to drop in interest for me once the unsatisfying ‘how it was done’ was revealed. And of course I’m not going to spoil a prospective reader’s journey! Maybe the reveal will be a ‘gosh, that’s clever’ for someone; for me, it was ‘gosh, that is a writer’s contrivance too far’
Nonetheless, I loved the early part of the book which was originally published in France in 1961, and here is in a translation by David Bellos. The narrator, a melancholic man with, it is clear, secrets which the reader will probably guess quite early on, has returned to his dead mother’s flat. A place he has not been in for quite some time. His mother died a few years ago. It is Christmas. And we are left anxious and uneasy for Albert Harbin right at the start:
“How old does a man have to be not to feel like an orphan when he loses his mother?
When I returned after being away for six years to the small flat where Mother died, it felt like the slip-knot on a rope round my chest was being tightened without pity”
Harbin seems to be without friends. He recalls the woman he loved, and the heartache he still feels without her.
Nevertheless, he does try to throw himself into the Christmas spirit, buying a Christmas tree ornament, the titular Bird in a Cage, and visiting a restaurant which always represented desirability to him, when he was a young boy.
And, at the restaurant, a chance encounter will change everything. A woman, one he finds he is attracted to, is dining there with her little daughter, and the child, engaging him by her prattle, creates an odd connection between Harbin and the woman. But this woman seems as mysterious and ‘something is not quite right here’ to the reader, as Harbin himself does. And the two of them seem to have some kind of suspicion about each other, as well as, possibly, some attraction between them.
Dard toys nicely with the reader, who suspects both of his protagonists, mirroring their suspicions of each other, and wondering exactly what crime will be committed, and who will commit it, all adds to the mounting unease. Harbin is not exactly that fascinating literary trope, the unreliable narrator, but he is secretive, and unpredictable.
The reason I couldn’t whole heartedly surrender, despite the damaged, believable psychology of the central characters (and others) was for two reasons: firstly, I’m always uneasy when children are left alone sleeping in flats whilst protagonists happily go out on their plot-driven business, when none of the characters seem to think twice about this. Perhaps I’m too modern day a reader, as this will inevitably suggest something terrible about to happen to the child (so it seems like a device of its own) and, if that doesn’t happen, we just have a child who might perhaps be only a device in a story. As I think she is here. She has a remarkable ability to sleep through everything where her waking might create problems for the author. And – the admittedly, very clever - solution to the mystery just felt TOO clever for this reader.
Part of the problem for me, is that, as a book, it offered me far too much scope to dissect it as I went along, because once disengaged from the wonderfully atmospheric early stages, my interest remained cerebral, and had no feverishly visceral, emotionally engaged turning the pages quality, just a cooler, ‘I wonder what the trick is’
However – this would make a very wonderful noir movie and I do hope some European film maker does make it (not Hollywood, please) It needs actors who are not too well known, so that they don’t bring the weight of other roles with them, but are nonetheless, crafted, experienced actors. It’s a very filmic book in many ways, and cinematography and music and the speed of a movie would prevent an audience having time to find that ‘twist’ too clever.
3 ½, rounded up