Book review: ‘The spy’ by Jean Echenoz
In his novel ‘De Spionne’, Jean Echenoz once again takes the reader into the world of international espionage, which also formed the backdrop for the gem ‘Meer’, his first book published in Dutch in 1991. In the meantime, a number of other novels have been translated by him: ‘I am gone’ (2000), ‘At the piano’ (2004), a series of three biographical novels, ‘Ravel’ about the composer Maurice Ravel (2007), ‘Running’ about the runner Emil Zatopek (2011) and ‘Flashes’ about the physicist Nikola Tesla (2014) and ’14’ (2016), in which Echenoz shows the First World War through the eyes of an ordinary Frenchman. In 2017 ‘De spionne’ was published.
- Author: Jean Echenoz
- Title: The spy (Envoyée spéciale)
- Publisher: De Geus
- Appeared: 2017
- Translator: Reintje Ghoos and Jan Pieter van der Sterre
- ISBN: 9789044536324
Echenoz’s trademark is the combination of a cleverly thought-out plot – in which you must always be aware that characters can change their identity just like that – and a dryly funny way of narrating in which the writer shows the reader all corners of the language (excellently translated into Dutch by Reintje Ghoos and Jan Pieter van der Sterre). These two elements can also be found in ‘De spionne’, in which Echenoz is in top form.
That actually already starts with the title: at ‘De spionne’ you initially think of a woman who is tried and tested in the intricacies of international espionage, but nothing could be further from the truth. Already in the first pages it becomes clear that Constance, the woman concerned here, will literally be plucked off the street and has no idea what perilous mission she is actually being sent on. She is a former pop singer who is still known for a major international hit she once scored. She, like many other characters in the story, leads an empty and aimless life.
And that’s just the beginning. The ‘general’ and the ‘officer’, the two men who plan and set up the mission to polish up their own status with the secret service, drop all sorts of stitches in the process, and the two ‘security guards’ responsible for Constance’s kidnapping and subsequent physical well-being are more like a comic duo than two hard-hitting professionals. Once they arrive in North Korea, where Constance must persuade a senior party official to work for the French, they are immediately sidetracked.
It just went like this
The adventures of the characters are often perilous and sometimes blood-curdling. For example, we witness someone receiving a severed phalanx by post. Constance’s experiences around the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea are also quite unpleasant. But Echenoz unmoved his conversational, ironic narrative tone and sometimes takes the readers aside for a moment, for instance to report that a digression may seem superfluous but will prove necessary in a later chapter, or to apologize for yet another far-fetched coincidence, but yes, ‘it just went like this’.
Somewhere he writes with another wink to the readers: ‘In short, [hij] got the idea that [zij] At the time it might have been a party animal, as it is called to some, to others a jerky aunt and to still others, less courteous than us, an ordinary slut. ‘ Elsewhere, he goes into so much detail about the technicalities of all kinds of firearms and the number of bullets they can fire in a second that it almost seems like he’s having a sales pitch for the weaponry.
The events are often so absurd that you can only laugh about them, no matter how gruesome the described. In a thrilling chase scene, Echenoz laconically describes how one of the fugitives is killed: his attacker first shoots ‘a dashed line’ through his body at hip height, after which he finishes the job by ‘shooting away the flesh from between the dots’.
Skilled plot builder
The casual tone and the constant humor and word play would almost make you forget that Echenoz is also a skilled plot builder. He lets a large ensemble of characters pass by, who eventually all turn out to play a role in the espionage intrigue. Everything has to do with everything, but events unfold so naturally that you never lose the thread. And on the rare occasions when it all threatens to go a little too fast, Echenoz is kind enough to explicitly let those who had not yet understood exactly what it was all about, ‘with pleasure’.
The novel is ingenious and only seemingly simple. After reading the last page, you can ruminate for quite some time about what happened and how cleverly Echenoz told his story. And you also realize how many serious matters have casually passed in review beneath the comic surface. This sparkling novel immediately makes you long for the next Echenoz.