A Year in the Merde, Stephen Clarke

Bantam, 2004, 335 pages, UK#9.99 pb, ISBN 0-593-05453-9

As a French-Canadian, watching England argue with France is a bit like being caught between squabbling parents: No matter if most of my family tree left France back when it still had a king, I just wish both of them would get along.  Fortunately, we live at a blessed era in history –one where the enmity between France and England has been reduced to humorous books and snarky blog posts telling us that either Paris or London are overrated.

As it turns out, I spent a bit of spring 2010 comparing the merits of both capital cities, and it’s only after coming back to London from Paris that I found a copy of Stephen Clarke’s A Year in the Merde.  This not-entirely-fictional comic novel follows the always-hilarious story of a young Englishman (Paul West) who takes a job in Paris.  The narrative of the book follows Paul’s first year in France, as he gets to understand and be further mystified by the French.  Various hijinks ensue, always with madcap results and just-as-always caused by characters exemplifying some kind of French flaw.  Had I read this book a month earlier, I would have been offended on behalf of France at its stereotyping of the French national character.  After coming back from Paris, however, I just find the entire novel spot-on funny.

Surliness, strikes, cheese, corruption and near-constant eroticism are the only constants of Clarke’s novel, but you will find that they’re more than enough to fill three hundred pages.  Our plucky Brit hero comes to France to impart some of his Anglo-protestant work ethic, but quickly finds out that it’s no match for ever-striking workers, haughty French waiters, passive-aggressive colleagues and the smouldering sexiness of just about every woman he meets. Clichés?  Well, yes.  But it doesn’t mean they’re not based on reality.

What really counts is what Clarke chooses to do with them.  An idyll with the boss’ daughter leads him to a seemingly perfect country house purchase opportunity which eventually turns sour when it uncovers a complex mess of political influence, back-scratching and outright corruption.  A seemingly sweet deal for an apartment (much sex included) blows up spectacularly, leaving him in the street with only a foreign cleaning lady to help him out.  He falls sick at the moment there’s a pharmacist’s strike.  All of his girlfriends eventually reveal other boyfriends.  It just goes on like that.  Fortunately, the readers are the net beneficiaries of Paul’s misfortunes, smiling from beginning to end.

Like the best humour books, it zips by at a pace that will make readers wish it had gone on just a bit longer.  The prose is amusing, the many characters and bit-players are well-portrayed, and the asides about Paris have a well-worn quality that betrays Clarke’s long experience with the city.  How much of the book is true?  A bit more than half, says Clarke, although one notices that having spent twelve years in France, he was able to condense a lot of material in just twelve months of hell for his stand-in hero.

As a look at France and Parisians, it’s quite a bit insulting, but also affectionately tongue-in-cheek.  Originally written for British readers, A Year in the Merde has since found international success and even, yes, a French translation named God Save la France.  (A quick check of the amazon.fr’s user ratings for the book reveal that it’s been received quite a bit better than you’d expect: “sympa et très british” says a sample review.)  Call it a must-read for anyone coming back from Paris or on their way there.  At the very least, this is one book where it’s a relief if the reality fails to match the fiction.

[March 2011: Follow up Merde Actually is markedly less interesting, in part because it shits gears from one-shot hilarity to ongoing romantic comedy.  Romance is one of those genres where “happily ever after” is preferable to all other alternatives, and it’s not quite as amusing to see Paul go through another number of girlfriends in the sequel. The novel, inevitably, doesn’t feel as fresh or compelling as the first one, and it’s easy to feel as if the first book said everything that could be said about France as seen from an Englishman’s perspective.  Oh, the writing is accessible and the entire book is amusing… but at a basic and forgettable level.  There are now two further novels in the series, but I’m in no hurry to read them.  Used book sales will provide… eventually.]

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