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04 June 2006

The Mercy Room (2006)

By Giles Rozier and translated from the French by Anthea Bell

From Amazon: "In a small French hometown, the narrator, who remains nameless — and whose gender also remains unspecified throughout, though some hints are dropped — teaches German at the local girls' grammar school and also translates documents for the Gestapo. Cold and unfeeling, the narrator can only summon up passion for German language and literature, particularly for forbidden works by Jewish authors like Mann and Heine. As the war rages on, the narrator drives his or her neglected spouse to commit suicide; obsesses about a sister's boisterous sex life with her Nazi boyfriend; and sneaks a Jew, Herman, out of Gestapo headquarters and into the narrator's cellar, where the two become lovers. When they aren't having sex, they're discussing literature: Herman learns German and the narrator becomes expert in Yiddish. In probing the thin line between heroism and collaboration, Rozier draws coy parallels between the otherness of homosexuals and that of Jews in Nazi Germany."

I admit it: I judge books by covers. I am a bad, bad girl for doing so, but find me a person who honestly remains unswayed by certain typefaces, illustrations and color schemes. And this cover, with its artfully arranged limbs and forced androgyny, caught my eye very suddenly at a bookstore. Seeing as how 147 pages is not a taxing gamble, I checked the book out from the library without reading reviews; I always read reviews for more lengthy endeavors.

Eh. I was startlingly unmoved by what should have been a harrowing and emotionally fraught story. The gimmick - is the narrator a man or a woman? - was simply frustrating and did nothing to expand an examination of the parallels or differences between homosexual and heterosexual encounters. To the author, it would seem that experiences, not just appearances, can be androgynous, which is a philosophy to which I do not subscribe. While Brokeback Mountain had its flaws, at least Ang Lee was able to present an unusual relationship, one that was - in part - defined by violence (their parting fight, the bloody shirt, some of their sexual encounters) in a way that is foreign to most portrayals of a loving heterosexual pairing. In this book, Rozier was so intent on creating the mystery of his narrator that the entire sexual experience between him/her and the Jewish refugee was bland and colorless.

For good or for ill, gender identity goes a long way toward providing a certain grounding and back-story for characters. The narrator was a instructor of the German language and loved German literature. Had Rozier clearly identified this individual as female, the circumstances of her education, her place in society, and her relationship to the Gestapo would have been more interesting. Certainly, there could not have been very many such women in the 1940s, and the narrator made a point of referring to him/herself as a circus freak.

However, had the narrator been clearly identified as a man, the sexless state of his failed marriage and the fate of his estranged spouse would have been more interesting. The homosexual clichés (the college friend, the difficulties with heterosexual intimacy) would have been more pronounced, but at least I could have felt more sympathy or understanding for his predicament.

In the end, the gimmick that had drawn me to this book (after the cover) was its detriment. In an effort to remain ambiguous, the author left all emotion, motive, individuality, and sentiment behind. The result was no great love affair able to sustain a person throughout his or her life. The result was a tawdry, soulless tale of desperation on one hand - the Jew - and chilly, manipulative curiosity on the other.

Vocab: janissary, Phrygiam cap

Blogger Keven said...

I knew Janissary, but only because I played Age of Kings.


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