Fatale by Jean-Patrick Manchette
KEEP YOUR TOWN CLEAN!
Do you play bridge?
Vomiting/ wanting to vomit.
1871: Bléville chamber of commerce commissions the market hall. Paris Commune.
Various street names, some of which represent reactionary figures while others represent revolutionary figures.
The etchings in Aimee’s apartment and the historical references in the guidebook.
The novel’s last lines, in all caps:
SENSUAL WOMEN, PHILOSPHICALLY MINDED WOMEN, IT IS TO YOU THAT I ADDRESS MYSELF.
To those sensual and philosophical women in the class, then, this novel is for you. Fatale is a message. Can we interpret it? At what level will this act of interpretation be most effective? Are we to content ourselves with simply examining the story-content? Or does the novel’s narrative discourse—its form—constitute a message as well?
We’ve already spoken about the way that Fatale detourns the roman noir, violating our generic expectations. For instance the woman called Aimée– for the sake of convenience as we do not know her true identity– possesses no continuity of character. She spent her prior life drugged into complacency, yet she murders her husband suddenly, after years of physical abuse. She reacts strongly to the death of a child (“She immediately experienced a violent stomach cramp and her teeth began to chatter.”), but dismisses a dying old woman and tells her mother she wishes her dead (37). She gluts herself on food and drink, she wallows in cash as if it were mud, yet she is calculating, clinical, and professional. She is intelligent, yet when she reads her lips move, a childlike tic which seems to indicate a degree of semi-literacy.
The closest we come to an answer as to what the character of Aimée represents, I think, is in her conversation with the Baron as he lies dying from the gunshot wounds she has inflicted. With his usual percipience, the Baron observes to Aimée, “’You can’t kill them one at a time’” (69). “They” are the bourgeoisie, the class that benefits most from capitalism, that conforms to its demands, that identifies with a mode of production which produces not only commodities but a system of social relations in which people are fundamentally alienated from one another and themselves. This social landscape lacks any practical political exit, as is indicated by Bléville’s local newspapers: “One of them championed a left-capitalist ideology; the other championed a left-capitalist ideology” (11).
Aimée, then, in targeting “’the real assholes’” (67) functions not as “the soul of modern capitalism” but as its negation (jacket cover).* The Baron senses this, as when he tells Aimée, “’You are a terrifyingly negative and beautiful person’” (51). At the same time she is a cipher, underestimated because of her size and her gender, inscrutable in her motives. This opacity of purpose, of rationale, troubles the Baron and, indeed, the novel’s readers. When the Baron shouts after Aimée’s departing figure, desperately calling out, “’What is your interest in this, for God’s sake? Don’t leave. Explain!’” he echoes our own incomprehension (51).
Part of Aimée’s negativity stems from her understanding of the way that capitalist society works. “’Sex always comes up first. Then money questions. And then, last, come the old crimes’” (28).
*Something to consider is the fact that the principle of negation which Aimée embodies is also a component of social critique and dialectical development. Is Manchette gesturing at a Hegelian-Marxian “negation of the negation”? Consider the following: “In its rational aspect, [the dialectic] is a scandal and an abomination for the ruling classes and their doctrinaire ideologues, because in the positive conception of existing things, it includes, at the same time, the intelligence of their fatal negation, and their necessary destruction” (Capital).
As was mentioned in class, because of his aristocratic title Baron Jules can be seen to represent a pre-capitalist mode of production. Yet the paradox of his position becomes clear when we see the depth of his poverty. Notably he lives in a manor with dilapidated Persian rugs, though many of his personal possessions—a hand towel, drinking glasses– bear the brand of corporations. “’When I break this decanter of mine,’” he remarks to Aimee, “’ I’ll replace it with one with advertising on it’” (39). These branded objects indicate two things: the ubiquity of the corporation (what does a gas company have to do with drinking glasses?) and Baron Jules’s status as one of the surplus population. Because of economic conditions, he explains, “’a whole stratum of the poor is bound to be unemployed and live off free gifts and trash.’”
If Aimée is a destroyer, the Baron is an observer, though one who also subverts the appearance of civility among Bléville’s bourgeoisie. We first encounter him urinating on the walls, shortly before he knocks a clergyman unconscious. Both of these acts are attacks on core social institutions— private property and the church. This scene in the novel bears some resemblance to a Dadaist provocation, a kind of performance art that plays out before a horrified audience. That the Baron’s actions are not simply the quirk of psychopathology is demonstrated by his acute understanding of the society he so rationally despises. The owner-class of Bléville, he affirms, are doomed to destruction: “’I don’t give a fuck,’” he shouts, “’You’re all done for’” (27).
The Baron elaborates this basic insight concerning the ephemerality of contemporary social relations while showing Aimée his telescope. Seemingly addressing the very bourgeoisie that he despises rather than Aimee herself, he muses
“’So just fight bravely on, most gracious masters of capital!… you shall be allowed to rule for a short time. You shall be allowed to dictate your laws, to bask in the rays of the majesty you have created, to spread your banquets in the halls of kings, and to take the beautiful princess to wife—but do not forget that “Before the door stands the headsman”’” (41-42).
Aimée fails to understand the Baron’s quotation, the refrain of a poem by the revolutionary poet Heinrich Heine, but it gradually dawns on her that they share an affinity for one another. After all, the very people she loathes “’make [him] want to vomit and destroy them’” (50). *
Yet the Baron’s most explicit assessment of the character of this world is asserted in the moments before his death.
“’You were bound to stop at some point. Sooner or later you would have been cornered. And even if you weren’t. The accepted and established laws are defended against the law of a single individual because they are not empty necessity, unconscious and dead, but are spiritual substance and universality, in which those in whom this spiritual substance is realized live as individuals and are conscious of their own selves. Hence, even when they complain…. Even when they complain of this ordinance… as if it went contrary to their own inmost law, and maintain in opposition to it the claims of the “heart,” in point of fact they inwardly cling to it as being their essential nature; and if they are deprived of this ordinance, or put themselves outside the range of this influence, they lose everything’” (69).
The Baron seems to be remarking on the power of capitalist ideology as a reality principle that has been fully internalized to the point that denying it results in a kind of total negation not simply of a framework for understanding the distorted world of capitalist social relations but the core of our being. In rejecting the “ordinance” of the society of the spectacle—consumer capitalism—we annihilate our very selves, which is to say we render impossible the conditions that govern our subjectivity in its current form. Yet the radical loss such a refusal entails is the precondition for our liberation, for a transformation in which we will feel and act according to our true (unalienated) being rather than as pseudo-individuals constituted and manipulated by a false situation.
*This nausea has a social dimension. Indeed, the invocation and act of vomiting can be said to function as a motif. The baby vomits before dying. The Baron says he wants to vomit. Aimée vomits in the bathroom of a bar where Fellouque has deposited her.