18 January 2018

Marie Nimier: La Girafe | The Giraffe (1987) trans. Mary Feeney

This book I remember buying for a few cents at The Strand bookstore in New York some years ago, before I developed my acute allergy to books in translation, especially translations from the French, which I can read as well as I can English. But as it was sitting there on one of my bookcases and I'd not seen a copy of Marie Nimier's book in the original, I thought I'd give it a go. I shall no doubt end up reading the original anyway, as this is very intriguing, weird (well, it's French), and absorbing.

It is entirely by chance that, in the wake of Catherine Deneuve's objectionable denunciation of #balancetonporc (and by extension #metoo), I began the book on the same day that Catherine Millet (author of La Vie sexuelle de Catherine M. (2001)) was making even more objectionable comments, much to the disgust of feminists. Millet was actually saying that she felt sympathy for the métro frotteurs, men who get off on rubbing against women of public transport; she was saying how unfortunate it is that these men's sexual satisfaction is reduced to such pathetic measures. This ignores the indisputable fact that many of these men are probably in permanent relationships anyway, and that their behaviour is akin to that of a schoolboy taking risks by seeing how much he can get away with, or famous or highly esteemed personalities in some position of power taking great risks for the same reason. Frotteurs are not worthy of any sympathy, they are not guilty of harassment: sexual assault is the name of the game, and it is a serious offence. Shame on Millet.

Joseph, the protagonist (and anti-hero) of La Girafe often dares to masturbate in a quiet public place, thrilled by the possibility of being caught, and although he's no frotteur he at one time used an umbrella as an extension of his body to surreptitiously touch women's legs on public transport.

But this book isn't exactly about weird sex: there's not really any sex in it, unless you count a male giraffe mounting a female giraffe, and the zoo director secretly visiting the cashier for a quick one. It's more of an unusual love story of a young man (Joseph) and his obsession for the giraffe (Hedwige in the French version, Solange in the English) that he's in care of at the zoo where he works in Paris. Of African ancestry, Joseph is already an outsider, but he's also seriously sexually and psychologically disturbed.

Joseph really loses control at times of what are for him sexual trauma: he poisons the ostrich after it receives Hedwige's attentions, and even Hedwige herself must die after she loses her virginity to the zoo's lothario. No one suspects Joseph of anything. Finally, when Colin B. (a man) begins sexually assaulting Joseph, Joseph strangles him: well, self defence, yeah?

Often, the book is suffused with oneiric, fantasy writing, the real merging with the imaginary. A very strange second novel from Marie Nimier.

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