In The Mustache, one of the more disquieting novels of the 1980s, French novelist Emmanuel Carrere told the story of an unnamed Parisian yuppie who one day decides to shave off his mustache and then slowly goes insane when everyone, including his wife, denies that he ever had one. At first he thinks that his friends are playing a joke on him by pretending not to notice his newly clean-shaven appearance. But when, tired of the joke, he confronts them on it, they look confused and say, ”What mustache?“ When he shows them photographs of himself with a mustache, they deny that the mustache is there. Is he insane, or is he the victim of a malicious plot orchestrated by his wife, who has a tendency to tell outrageous lies? We never find out for sure. Instead, we witness the hero‘s entire life crumble, his sense of identity vanish down the black hole of this one inexplicable puzzle.
Along with Michel Houellebecq, Carrere is one of the few younger French novelists to have won a readership in the States. After The Mustache, his best-known book is Class Trip, a slender but vivid imagining of childhood angst and lurking parental evil that won France’s prestigious Prix Femina. In his new (nonfiction) book, The Adversary: A True Story of Monstrous Deception, Carrere tackles evil again. This time it‘s in the shape of one Jean-Claude Romand, a uniquely creepy con man who made headlines in France in 1993 when he murdered his entire family. Romand’s story is a bit like that of the hero of The Mustache, only told backward. Whereas The Mustache is about a man who has an identity and loses it, The Adversary is about a man who to all intents and purposes has none but convinces everyone around him that he does.
The story runs like this. At the age of 18 or so, Jean-Claude Romand, a bright but weirdly unmemorable student living in the Gex region of France near the Swiss border, fails to show up for his second-year medical exams. Why he does so is not entirely clear; it seems to be due to a mysterious failure of will. He makes an excuse, and is given permission to take the exam three months later. He misses that exam also. The following year, he starts over again as a second-year student. At the end of that year, he once again fails to show up for his exams. Thanks to a bureaucratic loophole, he then continues to register as a second-year student for several more years, while telling his friends and fiancee that he has earned his medical degree. Since he is obviously intelligent, no one doubts him. Nor do they doubt him later on when he claims to have taken a top job at the World Health Organization in Geneva. And when he lets it slip that, thanks to his job at WHO, he is able to invest money in certain Swiss bank accounts at a long-term 18 percent annual interest rate, his friends ask him to invest their money for him. Everyone trusts him completely. He seems the soul of professionalism and good sense.
Romand marries his fiancee, Florence, they have children, and every day he goes off to work over the Swiss border in Geneva. Sometimes he goes on business trips. Only instead of actually going somewhere, he checks into a hotel near the airport and spends three or four days listening to planes taking off and watching television in his room. He gives his ”office number“ to no one; if his wife needs to get in touch with him, she calls his beeper. His parents, his wife‘s parents, even his mistress, all ask him to invest their money for them, and never ask to see a bank statement. He uses their savings to finance a comfortable life for himself and his family. What astonishes him — and later amazes the judge and witnesses at his trial — is not that people eventually find out the truth about him, but that it takes them almost 20 years to do so. Then, predictably, all hell breaks loose. Rather than confess, Romand murders his wife, his children and his parents and then sets their homes on fire. ”The adversary,“ as Carrere reminds us is synonymous with ”Satan.“ a
Even in eras of low unemployment, joblessness haunts the male imagination. Last year the British author John Lanchester wrote an entire novel (Mr. Phillips) about the first unemployed day in the life of a downsized accountant. Unable to tell his wife and children the bad news, Mr. Phillips pretends to go off to work and spends the day wandering around London instead, briefcase in hand. (His wife never calls him at the office, either.) Bereft of his professional identity, too ashamed to admit that he no longer has one, he has no idea what to do with himself.
The extraordinary thing about Romand is that he lived for almost 20 years in Mr. Phillips mode. In his house, among his friends, he was considered important and successful — indeed, he was the most successful person his friends knew. But as soon as he left the house in the morning, he stepped into a void. He went for long walks in the woods, sat for hours in parking lots, lingered in anonymous cafes, clinging to his secret. One can see why a novelist like Carrere — in whose fiction neither an inner self nor an external reality seems fully to exist — would be fascinated. ”I know what it’s like to spend all one‘s days unobserved,“ he writes. ”The hours passed staring at the ceiling, the fear of no longer existing . . . I felt pity, a painful sympathy, following in the footsteps of that man wandering aimlessly, year after year, harboring his absurd secret that he would confide to no one and that no one should learn on pain of death. Then I thought about the children, about the photos of their bodies taken at the morgue: raw horror that makes you instinctively shut your eyes . . . I was afraid. Afraid and ashamed. Ashamed in front of my children, that their father should be writing about that.“
Although he tried to commit suicide immediately after the murders, Romand survived. He was brought to trial and sentenced to life imprisonment. Among the reporters, the general view was that sexual inadequacy — physically, Romand had always been faintly repulsive — was the key to the whole mess. Carrere neither agrees nor disagrees with this. Nor, on the whole, does he take a reporter’s approach to his material. Although he speaks to members of Romand‘s circle, it is on Romand himself that Carrere focuses. (The book includes selections from their exceedingly polite correspondence.) What was it like to be that man? To live that horror? To commit that horror? are the questions that interest him.
It is after Romand goes to prison that the most disturbing part of Carrere’s book begins. Flattered by the charitable interest taken in his case by various prison visitors (or ”guardian angels“), as well as by members of a Catholic movement known as the Intercessors, Romand seeks forgiveness and salvation in God. In jail, he claims that for the first time in his life he can finally be himself. ”Events of a mystical nature, not easy to communicate, have deeply stirred me and become the foundations of my new faith,“ he writes in the Intercessors‘ newsletter. He expresses confidence that God has forgiven him and that he will one day rejoin his murdered family in heaven.
But can a man like Romand really find salvation? From a Catholic viewpoint, the answer is obviously affirmative, and Carrere doesn’t dispute this. The question he poses is whether a man like Romand can ever truly be sincere — if he isn‘t, in a sense, possessed by insincerity. ”He is not putting on an act, of that I’m sure,“ Carrere writes, ”but isn‘t the liar inside him putting one over on him? When Christ enters his heart, when the certainty of being loved in spite of everything makes tears of joy run down his cheeks, isn’t it the adversary deceiving him yet again?“
Jean-Claude Romand is due to leave jail in 2015, when he is 61. Carrere finally purports to see in him nothing but ”a pathetic mixture of blindness, cowardice and distress.“ Out of that unholy trinity he has fashioned an elegant and deeply unsettling book about a man — a void disguised as a man — who, once he started lying, found he couldn‘t stop. Like Carrere’s fiction, The Adversary will haunt you.