Hate, a Romance has been longlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, which is probably no surprise to the French because it won the 2008 Prix de Flore. It’s the debut novel of a young philosopher called Tristan Garcia and it explores the decline of the idealism that for my generation defined the 1970s. But it is not for the faint-hearted: there is a great deal of very bad language, and there’s possibly more about gay sex than many people want to know…
The story centres around four people:
- William Miller, an enfant terrible who rejoiced in the freedom to flaunt his sexuality in the early years of Gay Liberation and who regarded all attempts to prevent the transmission of AIDS as an assault on Gay freedom. For him, sexual activity is political freedom. Think make-up, flamboyant frocks, & high-heels; a wicked sense of humour; rampant self-absorption, and astonishing cruelty to his friends when love turns to hate.
- Dominique Rossi, an intellectual with a Leftist pedigree who confronts the early years of the AIDS epidemic with the loss of nearly all his friends. He fights to get funding for research, effective prevention programs and affordable medication, only to watch with dismay as the younger generation (of Willie’s age) reject his message and accuse him of selling out to the anti-Gay establishment. Defined by his melancholy, he is humorless and dull. He symbolises the impotence of Gay politics in the face of AIDS, the fundamental tragedy of having fun versus being sensible.
- Jean-Michel Liebowitz, a liberal Jew, a Leftist who moves on politically as the world shifts to the Right, though he remains on the Left, just not as Left as before. He comes to reject his friends when the shallowness of the era becomes the norm. He rants about literary classics being equated with rubbishy contemporary works as if they were of equal merit. He wants to champion the idea that some things from the past are better than others but can’t because in French intellectual circles that would cast him as a reactionary. Ideologically, any criticism of the prevailing world view that all cultures and cultural products are equally valuable is pigeon-holed as Rightist so he flounders around in a muddle. He’s having an affair with…
- Elizabeth Levallois, a journalist who writes shallow columns for the ‘culture’ pages of a newspaper. She’s into style, parties, whatever is current. She knows she is light-weight, and doesn’t care. She’s also the narrator of the story, which (parodying contemporary journalism) is written in short, shallow chapters skittering from one thing to the next.
The early chapters about these four compatriots almost lost me, because there was a lot of obscure political/philosophical point-scoring, but once the scene-setting was out of the way, the novel improved. It became a salutary reminder of how society can lose its way in the pursuit of style, how tolerating everything means you value nothing and how easy it was for the AIDS epidemic to be brushed under the carpet because it was a ‘gay’ disease. It shows up a society’s real values when a catastrophe like that is sidelined because it affects a minority against whom there is long-standing prejudice.
There are some hilarious episodes. As Reaganomics and Thatcherism begins to permeate French politics, Willie finds himself required to register for a job interview. (He’s never had a job). Picture a dour public servant confronted by Willie dressed-to-kill and flamboyantly propositioning the poor man all over the office. It’s worth reading the book for this episode alone, and it’s very funny, but it also makes the salient point that Willie lives in a society that marginalises him for everything else, but not the requirement to hold down a job. What looks like slapstick comedy is actually holding up a mirror to how a workplace would treat Willie if he were employed and refused to mask his real identity. The talk about tolerance for gays like Willie is just hot air.
But the Left which supported the rights of minorities, is in decline anyway. It’s ossified, stuck forever with sacred ideas that can’t be challenged without the imputation of selling out to the Right. Leibowitz writes polemics to promote his concept of ‘majoritarian minorities’ which, he says, describe ideas of the Left which dominate the media:
These ideas had to do with taboos and false generosity, ideas held sacred because they arose from good intentions: antiracism, tolerance, cultural relativism, brotherhood between peoples, pacifism, reverence towards the ‘economically oppressed’. All of which were, first and foremost, theoretical constructions dreamed up by intellectuals. (p95)
But Lieb’s ideas never catch on because ‘when you put yourself in opposition to the left, that means you’re on the right’. And eventually Lieb realises that he is of the Right, but (and this really made me smile!) he was Right in a ‘critical’, ‘oppositional’ way not like everyone else who’d been on the Right all along. It made me think of the insane dance of Chinese cultural politics, with the same tangled language differentiating between obscure shades of Right and Left. Not for nothing does Elizabeth write that ‘linguistic corruption had overtaken every level of society … antiracist, feminist, homosexual – imposed everywhere by the Left and the avant-garde and finally by professional activists.’ (p96). As a contrarian Lieb was attacked by both Left and Right as being a ‘weather vane’ and of course this affects his friendships because he’s betraying their ideals.
However, as hate replaces love and friendship the novel began to bore me. The hate-filled rants went on and on and it became a bit of a chore to finish the book. Willie’s bizarre refutation of common sense prevention and treatment of AIDS became tiresome; I got sick of the bitter, spiteful dialogue that characterised the characters’ acrimonious relationships. It was like being at a painful Christmas meal with argumentative relations, in the end you just want to go home to peace and quiet…
Still, it was (mostly) an interesting book which challenged my ideas about things, and I like that.
Other reviews from the Shadow Independent Foreign Fiction Prize team include Mark’s at Eleutherophobia, and there will be others soon from Stu at Winston’s Dad, Parrish Lantern, Tony’s Reading List, Rob Around Books and Kinna Reads.
Author: Tristan Garcia
Title: Hate, a Romance
Translators: Marion Duvert and Lorin Stein
Publisher: Faber and Faber, 2011, first published in France 2008 as la Meillure Part des hommes
Source: Casey-Cardinia Library