Inspiring Older Readers

posted on 01 Sep 2017

The Adversary by Emmanuel Carrère

I can’t remember what prompted me to read Emmanuel Carrère’s The Adversary, but I do recall being intrigued by the claim that he is “the most important French writer you’ve never heard of”.

In 1993, Jean-Claude Romand, an apparently respectable middle class doctor living just over the French border from Geneva, murdered his wife, his two children, his parents and his parents’ pet dog. He may also have murdered his father-in-law – this was never proven. He then burnt down his house – containing himself and the bodies of his wife and children – and attempted suicide. He survived both the suicide attempt and the fire. The Adversary is his story. It is also the story of Emmanuel Carrère’s attempt to write Romand’s story – the years he spent trying to establish a relationship with the killer while at the same time being defeated each time he tried to formulate an approach capable of conveying the enormity of Romand’s crimes.

For eighteen years Romand had led not a double life, exactly, but an imaginary life as a doctor and an eminent medical researcher with the World Health Organisation. Of course, he was neither of these things; in fact, he was none of the things he claimed to be.

Carrère calls him “the man who wasn’t there” and in some senses this is the most terrifying aspect of the book – the empty, blank affectless black hole that constituted Jean-Claude Romand, the nothingness that lay at the heart of his narcissistic fantasy.

For the closer Carrère looked into the heart of darkness that was Romand, the less he found. The edifice of his almost twenty years’ of lies wasn’t even especially convincing. This was no brilliantly stage-crafted imposture, every detail exquisitely managed. It was a rickety, shambolic tower of lies, each piled clumsily on the last, shored up here and there with improvisations as the need arose. He was a squalid little crook who lived off the embezzled retirement funds of gullible family members; he was a wretched, unbalanced – and finally utterly unhinged – madman capable of bludgeoning his wife to death and shooting his young children when it became evident that his deceptions were about to unravel.

Carrère has been singled out as a maverick genius of French non-fiction because of his ability to mix genres, blending confessional memoir, biography, history and fiction. Whatever the subject and whatever the approach, Carrère himself – somewhat in the spirit of The New Journalism – is usually present, and his methods in The Adversary are no exception. Even as he writes Romand’s story he questions his own motives, questions what he expects to find, and examines his own abilities for the task he has chosen to undertake. Sometimes, from shock, horror and guilt – the dead children are the same age as his own – he recoils from the task; then he reapplies himself, writing what seem to be ever more obsequious letters to Romand seeking his co-operation (while criticising himself for doing so). This, frankly, does not add depth, nor introduce layers of moral ambiguity, as one imagines Carrère may think it does. Indeed, quite the reverse: at times it seems shamelessly self-justifying.

The book is at its best when considering the impact of Romand’s deception on his circle of friends and the local community. The sections in which Carrère reflects on the case – very French in tone, borrowing from philosophy and especially existential writers such as Camus – are also often quite brilliant.

But overall, I’m afraid I never felt that Carrère’s achievement was on a level with the book – or the approach – he says inspired him: Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. I finished The Adversary shocked and emotionally drained, for it is quite genuinely a shocking account. But the fact is, I couldn’t help thinking that any book about the Romand case would have had virtually the same impact. I never felt that Carrère’s particular methods elevated this one to the literary levels some have claimed for it.

While it will be a long time before I forget the heartless narcissistic horror of the Jean-Claude Romand murders, the breathless acclaim for Carrère as a transgressive genius of a new and brilliantly French kind of reportage seemed merely hype. But of course I shall only ever know this by sampling more of his work…


Alun Severn

September 2017