By Charlotte Stretch.
Benoît Duteurtre, The Little Girl and the Cigarette, Telegram Books, 2007
From Sherlock Holmes to Jay Gatsby, the smoker has long enjoyed a largely morality-free platform in literature. Now that the non-smokers have won the war of fresh air versus decadent vice, however, the fictional landscape is surely set for change. Benoît Duteurtre is one of the first to seize the opportunities inherent in this cultural shift, with his sharp and well-timed satire on modern bureaucracy.
Desire Johnson, languishing on death row for the murder of a policeman, is offered one last indulgence before his execution. By requesting a cigarette in a smoke-free prison, Desire places himself squarely in the middle of a hotly-contested issue, and quickly becomes a cause celebre in the eyes of the media. At the same time, a child-hating petty bureaucrat is caught smoking in his office toilets by the little girl of the title, a minor incident which results in fourteen separate charges of child molestation.
Despite juggling paedophilia, state terrorism and capital punishment within the same narrative, there is something charmingly whimsical about Duteutre’s tale, which at times feels like a fable. It is also unfailingly funny, with the nature of jokes varying between the visual gag and the sardonic witticism. The styles of humour blend together beautifully, although it must be stated that such synchronisation is simply not there in other areas of the book.
The two stories, running parallel with little overlap, do not quite work as the symmetrical opposites that they are clearly meant to be. Nor do they melt together easily enough to create a single coherent and overarching narrative. Individually, they are delightful stories, and there is no doubt that, had they been stitched together a little more closely, they would complement each other wonderfully. Compounding the problem, however, is the fact that Duteutre chooses to bring them to a rather sudden close with a bizarre ending that, though entertaining, feels plucked out of nowhere. It is a pity, because the early pages of The Little Girl and the Cigarette show a great deal of potential in terms of a tight, well-designed narrative.
What the novel lacks in shape, however, it makes up for in sheer likeability. Even the accused bureaucrat and self-confessed “paedophobe” manages to charm readers with his diatribe against children which, it has to be said, often rings true. It is to the book’s immense credit that it manages to operate in this way, taking on intimidating features and transforming them into objects of humour that are both gentle and compelling.
The Little Girl and the Cigarette, with its portraits of people overfed by media attention, puts Duteutre in an interesting position. He already enjoys a considerable following in his native France, where he is a respected novelist, broadcaster, arts critic and musician. With this, the first of his fourteen novels to be translated into English, one hopes that it will open the floodgates for the rest of his work to reach a wider English-speaking market. He might not become a media darling in this country, but he certainly deserves to have a crack at it.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Charlotte Stretch lives in Brixton where she is a freelance writer and an editor of 3:AM. She is currently working on her first novel.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, August 27th, 2007.