“There are some novels which have obviously been translated with love, passion, and attention to detail, and this is not one of them” – We Three by Jean Echenoz

Jean Echenoz apparently couldn’t find a publisher for his first novel, all the way back in 1979, until he went to Editions de Minuit, a house set up with the aim of representing quirky acts. Since then he’s published prolifically and his work has won several prizes, but he’s never quite hit the mainstream in France. Some have claimed that his style has more appeal to Anglo Saxon readers. We Three, one of the earlier novels, is the latest to have made it into translation.

In a nutshell, the plot is as follows: an ageing playboy goes on holiday to Marseille where he gets caught up in a disastrous earthquake and meets a mysterious woman. The earthquake tips the business case for a seismic prediction satellite which has been in the works for some time, and our man ends up on the mission to accompany it into space, along with, quelle surprise, the mystery woman. But he’s competing for her with a fellow crew member. Who will get the girl?

On the surface, there are many similarities with the Goncourt prize winning I’m Off. We’ve got a slightly jaded womanising hero who starts the book between women, goes on a trip, meets women, ends up not much different from before. The women don’t get to play very interesting roles, and the other men get barely more attention. Thank goodness for the second narrator which saves it from being a complete display of self-obsession. We Three was written a few years earlier than I’m Off, and feels a bit like a test run. It’s similar in structure and plot, but slightly less complex, slightly less accomplished. As for the translation, suffice to say that there are some novels which have obviously been translated with love, passion, and attention to detail, and this is not one of them.

The post-enthusiasm narrative style, together with humour so dry that if you blink you will miss it, combine into something Houellebecq might have written if you took away his sensationalist subject matter. There might be something clever going on which went way over my head, or it may just be a bleak, mildly satirical commentary on modern life.

Why would you read it then? If you’re a fan, (I suspect this is the kind of writing that inspires niche hyper-fandom), obviously you’ll be trying to get your hands on anything he’s written. If you’re a space enthusiast, you might like to read it while fantasising about being an astronaut. If you’re not in one of the above categories you might want to start with another of his books.

Any Cop?: If you like your satire dry and bleak, then Echenoz is your man. On the other hand, this is not the best novel he’s written.

 

Lucy Chatburn

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