The Adversary. Emmanuel Carrere.

Carrere, Emmanuel. The Adversary. Metropolitan (Henry Holt) New York. Original French 2000; Metropolitan translation (Linda Coverdale) 2000. Bio; Feb 2014.

Mr. Carrere is said to be a runaway success as a fiction writer in French. This book is gripping as you would expect a biography of a dreadful murder to be, but it gapes with an abyss of moral ambivalence that’s almost scarier than the cold-blooded killing of one’s loved ones.

Jean-Claude Romand was a sort of schizoid young fellow who fell into a habit of blandly telling lies that started with pretending he had passed a medical school examination he didn’t even attend. This modus operandi came to amount to a completely fabricated life. For inevitable financial reasons the whole thing eventually started to fall apart, at which point it appears that for him there was no moral difference between pretending he was a respected World Health Organization research physician, all the while leaving home every day in his Mercedes and merely going off into the woods or sitting reading in a parking lot, and just doing away with his wife, children, and parents. The murders were kind of secondary. His lies just required them, so he did them.

In the middle of another fiction project, Mr. Carrere writes to this killer and offers to chronicle his life. The writer’s potentially all-consuming ambivalence (I’m certainly going to overuse that word because it’s the essence of this book) about doing that mirrors the awful void we start to appreciate as we watch the natural and blithe pathological-liar-turned-killer starting to reconstruct himself in prison as a wonderful new man. He’s doing it all over again, and there’s no end to it. Lies about lies about lies. Like fear of fear of fear.

When I say the moral ambivalence is scary, I mean that although I don’t live an objective systematic falsehood on the level of Romand, the infinity of his lying and Carrere’s fairly flat description of it got me worrying about the things I tell myself. I’m okay when I’m not, I love when I don’t, my life’s narrative is real and immediate when it’s false and contrived. Lisa Birnie described the same kind of thing in In Manya’s Memory. What Hitler did changes how you have to think about what a human being is and so how I think about myself.

Two journalists with whom Carrere keeps company during Romand’s trial seem to understand this. Each insists that the murderer is the worst of the worst, his redemption is not only false but also sickening confirmation of something even more hideous than the murders, and they tell him that writing a book about it just re-compounds the problem. “Always the liar inside us putting one over on ourselves.”

It happens I was in France for a year and drove up to Burgundy right at the time these murders occurred in January, 1993. I certainly don’t remember anything in the news about them, and I was several hundred miles away the night they happened, but that coincidence makes the experience even a little creepier.

Carrere finds two sincere and sophisticated prison visitors’ affection for Romand’s rehabilitation “both admirable and almost monstrous.” Which I have no doubt Carrere intended to describe his book too. I had an English professor who graded with a series of question marks a classmate who submitted a video performance as one of his assignments. I respond to your unconventional essay with unconventional grading he said. I respond to the awful question at the center of this story with numerical ambivalence: no score.

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 30 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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