What do we do when the cruelty and greed of the modern world become too much to bear? When greedy developers ruin our towns, divide our communities, and con us out of our hard-won savings? Do we off ourselves, like one of the characters in Tanguy Viel‘s novel, Article 353?
Or do we murder the greedy developers who contribute to making our world such an irksome, avaricious place?
The latter is the approach taken by the protagonist of Article 353. Martial Kermeur is an unlikely hero, an unemployed Frenchman who has seen both his career and his marriage fall apart. Like so many Americans following the financial crash of 2011, Kermeur gradually loses everything. He invests his remaining money in a hopeless real estate scheme, drawn in by the grandiose promises of a seemingly rich developer. So do his peers, at least one of whom is driven to suicide when the scheme collapses, ruining them all. Kermeur’s response is of a different sort: he murders the developer. He promptly confesses (the book opens with this scene), and his confession forms the narrative of this short, riveting tale.
Article 353 (translated from the French by William Rodarmor), is a novel about the “class struggle” (as his protagonist says in the final pages), but it is also about age-old questions of good and evil, justice and vengeance. Viel offers a masterful analysis of the banality of the evil which drives today’s world, where wealth is hoarded by undeserving hucksters who seem just as taken in by the extreme forms of capitalism they feed off as does the public; a public which easily succumbs to schemes and slick showmanship.
The villain in this tale, Antoine Lazenec, is an extraordinarily banal one. Indeed, recalls Keurmer, it was the man’s “ordinariness” that struck them all the most when he first appeared in town. He’s a simple real estate developer, who gradually insinuates himself into the town he claims he will save from its languishing economic state, with his easy capital and his exciting ambitions. Of course, in the process, he destroys the town: tearing down not only the age-old, communally held chateau but tearing apart families as well. How do such people manage to overcome the defenses of tight-knit communities?
“[M]aybe all it took was a guy coming along with enough energy and a checkbook fatter than average for everyone to decide he was the one sent by some god or other to pull us out of our quagmire,” relates the narrator.
In many ways, the book reads like a political novel, with its critique of neoliberal capitalism. The narrator describes himself as a socialist, making vague reference in the end to the class war. Yet for most of his life, the narrator was a lazy sort of socialist. He voted socialist, but was no activist; town council was more of a social club, and political identity a matter of taste. Yet at the end, he commits a desperate act which, although we see it coming from the opening pages, still seems radical when it arrives.
There is a jarring juxtaposition between this act, and the town’s seemingly inevitable slide first into fiscal decline and then into corrupt avarice at the hands of scheming developers; an inevitability which causes the reader to scream inwardly (Viel portrays this all-too-common process with remarkable, succinct accuracy). Kermeur shatters the complacency of the town’s decline when he kills the developer. There is something of a metaphor here: the failed socialist, who briefly dabbled in politics, is gulled into the worst schemes of neoliberal capitalism. It is only at the end, when those schemes tear apart his family and community, that he pushes back, not with any politically intellectual strategy but with a primal rage that transcends political orientation.
Viel’s tale unfolds as a psychologically brilliant, politically charged cri de coeur against the villainy of neoliberal capitalism. The book itself hovers between the inward gaze of a first-person psychological thriller and the outward gaze of a trenchant political novel. Although we know the outcome, the narrative still draws us in: we need to know the twists and turns of this sordid tale. How does the town turn against the developer they once embraced? What happened to Kermeur’s son? How and why will the murder unfold? How will the judge respond to Kermeur’s confession? There’s a reason the term ‘noir’ is applied to darkly atmospheric books like this one: the French have truly mastered the genre. Yet Viel has also described his novel as a ‘collective fantasy’, noting that most of us also dream of tossing rich elites in the water some day (Kermeur murders Lazenec, the developer, by drowning him).
The book speaks to something beyond the injustices of neoliberal capital, though. Viel’s work speaks to a certain innocence in all of us, an all-too-frequent bewilderment at the state of the world and the way things work, which as adults we are normally too self-conscious to admit to. Viel says it is this child within that speaks in his novels – a child who doesn’t understand the rules of a world that seems to operate outside of their control, and in which they feel helpless to exert either change or agency. (” Article 353 du code pénal“, de Tanguy Viel : un roman de haute volée, by François Lestavel, ParisMatch.com, 16 Apr 2017.) Kermeur’s death-blow comes not out of any hope of changing the system, but out of a desperate rage at his own helplessness. Isn’t this, ultimately, the source of all revolutionary anger?
The entire tale – a sort of dystopian neoliberal fairy tale – is told to the judge before which Kermeur is brought immediately after his arrest. Kermeur wants to give his confession, and gives it willingly — he needs someone else to share his experience of outrage and to contextualize the surprise he feels at being driven to murder. The judge offers a surprisingly sympathetic ear. It is in this, more than anything, that the story achieves its fairy-tale contours. The judge is the reader’s conscience mirrored, and the realization that the judge finds Kermeur’s actions reasonable resonates with the reader, who deep down feels that after all he and his townspeople suffered, tossing an elite villain off a boat is not so bad a thing. The judge’s sympathetic ear signals to the reader that yes, it’s okay to feel sympathy for Kermeur, the murderer who is the story’s protagonist. It wouldn’t be a collective fantasy without a happy ending, would it?
Viel has said that his novels deal with the shattering of childhood innocence. Article 353 is replete with suffering and shattered hopes, but in the end, innocence — and the primitive justice through which it expresses itself – achieve a surprising reprieve.