“A real writer always writes the same book,” says Jean-Philippe Toussaint. The Belgian author’s slim, fastidious novels usually embody this principle. But Reticence, his latest work to be translated from French, is a rather different book for him. It’s a detective story.
The narrator of Reticence arrives at a picturesque, seaside village in the off-season. He has no plans other than to visit a nearby friend. His only companion is an infant son, whom Toussaint depicts in hilariously unsentimental prose, as a sidekick “burping unflappably from time to time with a royal disposition.” With a room at a bed and breakfast, and a sleepy town to explore, the narrator is in a perfect place to slow down and relax.
He does not. The sight of a dead black cat floating in the harbor ruins everything. Its image haunts him, turning his initial “reticence” about knocking on his friend’s door into a wedge of fear and paranoia. His macabre thoughts steer him away from the peaceful reality of the village, toward a dark fantasy in which his friend, Biaggi, appears to be a conniving killer.
The sinister plot stands at odds with the simple beauty of the setting and with Toussaint’s careful prose. In this detective story, details matter, and Toussaint is a meticulous keeper of details. Here, the narrator rides a taxi into the village.
On the way back the road climbed and climbed under the rain, until about halfway when all of a sudden the view cleared at a bend and Sasuelo appeared down below in the mist, less than three miles as the crow flies, bordered by a uniformly gray sea. The small island across from the village was also visible, whose oblong contours and rocky slopes stood out on the other side of Sasuelo Bay. We still had to go back down the other side of the hill to reach the village, and now you could see the entire route at a glance, snaking its way down to the sea. The taxi almost came to a standstill at the hairpin curve at the top of the descent into Sasuelo, and we crept past an abandoned church that was practically in ruins before picking up speed on the other side. The road was narrower now, and continued downward in a series of twists and turns between two rows of dense, rain-soaked undergrowth. I looked absently out the window, noticing from time to time the familiar form of some mushroom or other growing beside the embankment amid rotting leaves, a young parasol mushroom or death cap, which disappeared immediately from my line of vision as soon as I’d caught sight of it, leaving no more than a fleeting image in my mind while the taxi had already put over one hundred yards between me and the mushroom that had so intrigued me for a fraction of a second. There was now another car behind us that had also turned on its headlights in the thin mist that clung to the road, and at the last turnoff to Sasuelo I noticed that it turned as well, continuing to follow us from a distance under the rain. I turned around for a moment to look at it through the steamed-up rear window of the taxi and, as we slowed to enter Sasuelo, I saw that it was the old gray Mercedes with a dented fender I’d seen the night before on the Biaggi’s property.
Toussaint’s game is to micro-manage the reader’s attention. Reticence is filled with lush and potentially significant details: the ruined church, the mushrooms along the road. But the narrator cannot leave these facts alone. An old gray Mercedes, spotted twice, cannot simply be a car: it must be a threat. And what about those portentous “death cap” mushrooms?
Toussaint wields the novel like a flashlight, illuminating disconnected things with a conspiratorial clarity. For most of the book, the narrator sneaks around after dark, steals Biaggi’s mail, spies on his own hotel, and generally indulges in clichéd detective tropes in the laziest possible ways. Toussaint seems to be making a joke about people who don’t know when to give thing a rest. But he’s also imitating the way our minds constantly assign meaning to things that need no interpretation.
Aside from being a detective story, Reticence is pure Toussaint. A moment of hesitation touches off a series of inevitable events, resulting in a singularly weird and violent act—such as the narrator chucking a dart into his girlfriend’s forehead in The Bathroom, or the narrator of Reticence wanting to strangle his friend Biaggi with a necktie and drop his body into the sea—only to subside into the ordinary again, leaving things right where they started. Toussaint’s sentences are so clear and snug they’re almost dapper. If you’re not familiar with his work, there’s a good primer at The Millions. It’ll make you rejoice that he’s written the same book again.
– Brian Hurley