June 6 2012 10:17 AM

What makes a comic Belgian mystery novel like Jean Philippe Toussaint's Reticence' ideal reading for getting tattooed?


I read all of Reticence, the latest of Belgian author Jean Philippe Toussaint's novels to be translated by Dalkey Archive Press, during the fourth and final session of a particularly painful tattoo. I knew that the session was likely going to be a long one—more than three hours—and I'd saved the book for the occasion. I find the best books for reading while getting tattooed have a little bit of everything: memorable characters, a compelling plot and some evidence of humor. These are always desirable qualities in a book, but even more so when someone is inflicting pain upon you.

John Lambert's translation of Toussaint's take on the detective story is disarmingly straightforward: A man arrives in the fictional fishing village of Sasuelo with his infant son and checks into a hotel. He has friends in town but delays visiting them. His procrastination gives way to apprehension that "was basically due to the reticence I'd felt at visiting them on the first day, a reticence that I still hadn't been able to shed in fact, and which, far from having abated with time, had only grown as the days went by."

When he finally pays his friends a visit, the house is dark and no one is home. From this point forward, the protagonist concocts a series of explanations for his friends' absence, which become increasingly paranoid. In Toussaint's skilled hands, the banal features of a sleepy seaside village at the onset of winter—a lonely lighthouse, a dark house on a cliff, a dead cat floating in the harbor—are transformed into something much darker.

Reticence isn't as funny as some of Toussaint's other novels, but the Belgian author displays his wit in conversational asides. "I hadn't had any delusions about my nature for thirty-three years, because I'd just turned thirty-three, yes, the end of adolescence."

The protagonist is even more of a blank slate than usual (Toussaint rarely supplies much detail by way of backstory), but he compensates for these shortcomings with an atmosphere of gloom that would not be out of place in an Edward Gorey tale.

Reticence reminds me of those old Infocom text adventure games where the player interrogates his environment in order to glean clues. One was always asking the question: Why am I here? What is this for? The player invented scenarios where his limited knowledge could be put to use, which is precisely what the protagonist of Reticence does.

Sasuelo, apparently, is set in Corsica but any Mediterranean or island village will do. Because of the rain that's always falling, I kept thinking about the small, sleepy villages of coastal Ireland with their preternatural damp and handful of identical features: the gloomy churchyards, the manky pubs and the shops that always seem to be closed.

This is precisely what I needed while getting tattooed: a place to go in my imagination. Dark lanes to wander down. The sound of the sea in the distance. A landscape to explore until I was intimate with the character of this small seaside village.

For certain types of travelers, the protagonist's reticence will be all too familiar. When traveling, I'm often seized by a sudden and inviolate apprehension of doing that which I'm supposed to be doing. Sometimes it manifests as a resistance to the local attractions or whatever the guidebook suggests I should see. Sometimes it's a party or gathering I'm expected to attend. Sometimes it's simply an overwhelming desire not to leave the room. Recently, I spent three days at a hotel in L.A. near the beach yet never made it to the ocean. I'm often content to look out the window and wonder what it's like or speculate about the noises I hear outside in the street rather than investigate myself—things that Toussaint's characters make a fetish out of doing.

Reticence strikes me as a writerly trait, a preference for observing from the sidelines, a deliberate withholding of the self from the stream of life. Perhaps the novel is Toussaint's way of poking fun at himself. The specificity of the undertaking makes Reticence a remarkable and peculiar book that I will undoubtedly return to, perhaps while on holiday in a foreign city when the comforts of a strange room are preferable to the incessant beckoning of a world intent on getting under my skin. 

Jim Ruland blogs at vermin.blogs.com and you can find him on Twitter @JimVermin.


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