When M.A. Orthofer of The Complete Review calls an author “a great discovery,” I sit up and pay close attention. And what a year to discover Pascal Garnier, with Gallic Press bringing out five of his books, with more on the horizon in 2015! And this one — The Panda Theory (La Théorie du panda, 2008; tr. from the French by Svein Clouston*, 2012) — isn’t one of the newer ones, which means there’s a lot out there to discover! (I’ll be getting to those very soon.)
So I began The Panda Theory with high but vague expectations. I didn’t know anything about Garnier, though from the titles and covers (and the “noir” stamp) I had some preconceptions, most of which were wrong. It’s a strange book, mostly about a few day-to-day encounters in a small Breton town, with much of the violence and ugliness taking place in flashbacks or in images: “The TV screen spewed a stream of incoherent images and gurgling sounds, like blood bubbling from a slit throat.”
Of course, these flashbacks and images are taking place in the mind of the person we’re following, Gabriel, who, as the book begins, arrives in that small Breton town. We don’t know where he came from, and we don’t know why he’s come to this town. It doesn’t appear he has any concrete reason for being here now. When he’s asked, he’s vague:
Gabriel arrives in a small Breton town. We don’t know where he came from or why he’s here. He’s always vague when he’s asked.
‘Do you travel around because of your work?’
‘It’s not exactly work — it’s a service I prove.’
‘What sort of service?’
A service, huh? Is he a hitman or something? The book builds up slowly and we don’t really learn what’s going on — what the panda theory is — until we get to the end. Really, other than those portents of ugliness, we hope for the best as Gabriel goes around town, selflessly helping a few of the down-and-outs.
In particular, he strikes a friendship with José, the owner of a bar called the Faro. At first José doesn’t trust Gabriel, who seems like a nosy customer. But Gabriel lightly pushes, asks if he can use Gabriel’s kitchen to make them each a meal, and ultimately finds out that José’s wife is in the hospital and things don’t look good for her. Gabriel also forms a relationship with the hotel manager, Madeleine, who would like a more intimate relationship with Gabriel but Gabriel gently declines. There’s also Marc and Rita, a rather trashy couple that Gabriel tries to help here and there. It doesn’t seem Gabriel wants anything in return, and he gives money and time freely, despite having, apparently, some service to perform in town.
But Gabriel is tired. His past — which we get in bits — weighs on him, and often it doesn’t seem like he likes performing what we might think is his service: helping people find a grain of happiness. Happiness is brutality to him, as shown in the panda bear that he wins early on in the novel:
It wasn’t that it was heavy — it was just difficult to carry. He didn’t know how to hold it. By the ear? By the paw? Or by wrapping his arms around the whole thing? As he walked past, people turned to stare, some smiling and others laughing outright. The cuddly toy didn’t care. It continue to gaze wide-eyed at its surroundings with the same fixed happy smile, regardless of which way up it was carried.
He tries to throw the panda bear away, but José fetches it and puts it in the bar, hoping it will help customers feel happy, and so: “Above the counter, the panda’s continued presence demonstrated its ability to be happy everywhere and anywhere.”
But in Gabriel’s past is a host of troubled people, most of them no dead by some accident or life, and these four people, with their rather simple lives, frustrate him, even as he continues to show up to lend a helping hand:
He’d had enough of them. He didn’t want to see them or listen to their whining. And yet, without realizing, he found himself in front of the Faro. The bar was crowded, like a teeming fish tank. Noticing him outside, José waved his cloth in Gabriel’s direction, inviting him inside. Now the panda and José looked so alike it was hard to distinguish them; they both grinned like Cheshire cats.
Gabriel, a saint’s name, is here to help, despite his own problems, despite his own disgust, and perhaps he’s bringing something better than the saints of old:
On the walls of the church, the saints sagged. They looked unwell — haggard, gaunt, unshaven with greasy hair, overburdened, their eyes heavy with mystical worry. Even the halos which glowed above their heads failed to brighten them up. They were exhausted.
As I said, it’s a strange book, elusive through most of its few pages, but surprisingly bright — depending on your perspective — in the end . . . and then comes the end.
* I only know that this book was translated by Svein Clouston because I searched online. The book itself makes absolutely no mention of the translator, saying, of all things: “Translated from the French by Gallic Books.” This isn’t cool.