A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
I was lucky enough to be sent this by Gallic Books – the independent publisher bringing French literature to the UK.
Almost as soon as I opened the parcel my boyfriend pounced on it. Now I should explain. My boyfriend is a computer programmer, never reads books and is, to all extents and purposes, virtually illiterate. He has never shown any interest in my Vulpes’ tomes before. And yet here he was, quite uncharacteristically, with his nose in this book – in bed, in the bath, in front of the TV… “Oh no, you won’t like it,” he kept saying. “It’s not your kind of thing at all.” Before reading another line and chuckling happily to himself.
Hector and the Search for Happiness is a best-selling French novel. I was thinking of how to sum it up, but let’s allow Gallic Books to do that and save me a job here:
Hector is a successful young psychiatrist. He’s very good at treating patients in real need of his help. But many people he sees have no health problems: they’re just deeply dissatisfied with their lives. Hector can’t do much for them, and it’s beginning to depress him.
So when a patient tells him he looks in need of a holiday, Hector decides to set off round the world to find out what makes people everywhere happy (and sad), and whether there is such a thing as the secret of true happiness…Narrated with deceptive simplicity, its perceptive observations on happiness offer us the chance to reflect on the contentment we all look for in our own lives.
What struck me about this blurb is that nowhere does it mention the fact that this book is really quite funny. Dryly funny. It also has a genuine edge to it, with on-the-button observations about human beings and the way they think and behave. It is these qualities that make this book so clever and enjoyable for the majority of its 165 pages (it’s short) and made me think “yes, this is just the kind of book for me.”
Written in the style of a children’s book or fairytale in simple language (in a nice translation by Lorenza Garcia), this book is quite knowing: the faux naïve style contrasting deliciously with a plot that sees Hector consorting with prostitutes, cosying up to drug barons and being kidnapped by criminals. But it is mainly through the dry observations that it gains its edge. Take this explanation of why Hector is such a good psychiatrist, which any budding Woody Allen would recognise:
First of all, he knew how to answer a question with another question. For example. When people asked him, “Do you think I’m going to get better, Doctor?” he would reply: “What does “getting better” mean to you?
Or this little aside, as Hector has some deep thoughts when flying business class:
He would have liked to discuss all this with somebody, but there was nobody next to him because he was in a part of the plane that was so expensive it was almost empty. Even if there had been somebody he would have had to lean over a long way because the armrests were so wide. This was interesting because it meant for rich people happiness was being able to feel alone, at any rate when they were on a plane.
Whereas for poor people, like the women on their oilcloths, happiness was being surrounded by their friends. But it’s true you never know on a plane if the person next to you will be a friend therefore it’s best to take precautions.
Or, this about children in the Country of More (wonder where that can be…)
the children there were going that little bit more crazy, and so instead of every day hitting other children who weren’t as strong, or girls, or even their teachers, like in Hector’s country, they went straight ahead and shot them with weapons made for grown-ups.
It’s not necessarily laugh-out-loud stuff but it is wry and clever and remarkably sophisticated in places, all under the disarmingly innocent face of its simple style.
It is also fun working out the countries Hector visits and the style works well talking wryly about awful situations around the world:
Since then, that country had always been at war, at first because it had been invaded by a large neighbouring country that had wanted to create a heaven on earth, except that the inhabitants of the beautiful country didn’t agree with their version of heaven…After that things went from bad to worse for everybody, countless mothers had shed countless tears, the big country had grown as weak as a small country, and Djamila’s country had gone on being at war because some people there also wanted to create heaven on earth. (Be very wary of people who declare that they are going to create heaven on earth, they almost invariably create hell.)
I found Hector’s journey hugely enjoyable, amusing and with just that little cynical edge to make it doubly delicious. But whereas the journey of the book itself is clever and unpredictable, I have to admit I was disappointed by the ending.
As Hector tries to reach a resolution about his findings, the end becomes somewhat over-stretched, sluggish and loses its funny and observation edge. In the process of tying up the storylines, the book also starts to get a bit disappointingly worthy.
This change of tone made me go back and question the representation of women in the book – basically beautiful cartoon lust-objects for Hector to sleep with, moon over and cheat on. I would have been fine with that, had the book ended up firmly in the Land of Slightly Wicked and Winking as I had hoped. I liked the fact that Hector wasn’t too goody-goody, had his selfish side and that the book was as cynical about him as anything else. But, as the ending began to teeter dangerously close to the Land of Twee, the lack of any twist or characterisation of the women left a slightly bad taste in my mouth. Some throwaway remarks and assumptions about the differences between men and women also annoyed this reader.
It is always disappointing when you enjoy a book and the ending doesn’t quite live up to the rest. But, it seems churlish to complain too much about the destination when the journey itself was so enjoyable. And it is really the journey that is what this book is all about.
Of the three Gallic books I’ve read (including The Suicide Shop and their bestselling hit The Elegance of the Hedgehog), each one has been unlike anything I’ve come across before – which is very refreshing – but Hector and the Search for Happiness is definitely the one that I have enjoyed the most.
Easy to read, clever, dry, humorous and original: Hector and the Search for Happiness is a lot of fun and a bit more besides. It is a shame that the ending didn’t quite deliver. But, whether you’re an illiterate computer geek (like him) or a raging hairy Feminist harpy (like me): the journey itself should have something to interest and amuse everyone.
This review is of a proof copy. Hector and the Search for Happiness will be released in April 2010. ISBN: 978-1-906040-23-9, pp 165