“Article 353,” a sharp and memorable novel by French author Tanguy Viel, gets off to a splashy start. Two men go out to sea in a boat to fish for lobster and crab. When they are five miles from shore, Martial Kermeur catches his companion off guard and throws him overboard. He then calmly takes the wheel and heads back to the harbor, the noisy wake behind him blotting out the drowning man’s screams.
Having snared our attention with this brief yet memorably disturbing opener, Viel cuts to a courthouse office. Kermeur, now in custody, is being grilled by a judge and about to come clean about his motives and actions. What follows — and the form the novel takes — is Kermeur’s testimony, an account which charts the chain of events that led an ordinary, law-abiding man to lose control and commit murder.
Years ago Kermeur was the live-in groundskeeper of a château in a rundown coastal town in northern France. One day, real estate developer Antoine Lazenec rolled up in his Porsche, the latest in a line of would-be buyers. However, this one came with grand plans to purchase the building and transform a neglected peninsula into a vibrant seaside resort.
Kermeur wasn’t the only one to have initial misgivings: “Lazenec behaved like a pioneer discovering new land. We were like naïve, bewildered Indians, unsure whether to shoot a poisoned arrow or welcome him with open arms.” Eventually Kermeur and 29 others chose the second option. All were persuaded by Lazenec to invest in his venture — in Kermeur’s case, parting with the hefty compensation he received after being laid off from his previous shipyard job.
Kermeur’s high hopes result in a steep downfall. The reader has seen it coming, for early on Kermeur tells the judge that his story is about “a run-of-the-mill swindle.” But Viel’s novel is much meatier than that. It shows how Kermeur was duped but also how he and those around him coped with it.
Unanswered questions stud the narrative. What drove the town mayor to kill himself? Why did Kermeur’s wife leave him? Why is Kermeur’s son behind bars? And the biggest question of all: What tipped Kermeur over the edge? Like the fog that blankets the town and pervades the novel, all is hazy; but gradually, and tantalizingly, outlines emerge from the murk and reasons are revealed.
At the end, the novel’s blandly bureaucratic title is explained, and we find ourselves with the tricky task of deciding whether the judge’s punishment fits Kermeur’s crime.
“Article 353” is a dark fable that reads like one of Georges Simenon’s “romans durs” or psychological novels, which winningly fuse together lean prose, queasy atmospherics, raw emotion and moral conundrums. Viel relies too heavily on imagery, some of which baffles (“you’re sitting there like an absent-minded rock”), but he satisfies with a potent concoction of mystery, complexity and tightly coiled tension.
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the New Republic. He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.
By: Tanguy Viel, translated from the French by William Rodarmor.
Publisher: The Other Press, 146 pages, $15.99.