The Slap, European Style

sila's fortuneI haven’t read Christos Tsiolkas’s controversial novel, The Slap, although I can see I will have to now. But I think the catalyst for the narrative is a slap dealt to a difficult child at a social event by a man who is not his father, yes? In Fabrice Humbert’s new novel, Sila’s Fortune, the occasion is a normal night at a prestigious and expensive restaurant in Paris in 1995. When a black waiter tries to guide a misbehaving child back to his table, he has his nose broken for his pains by the child’s aggressive and boorish father. The scene is witnessed by five people who will feel guilty subsequently for not stepping in or reprimanding the father in some way – the child’s mother, the pretty but ineffective Shoshana, a Russian couple newly rich with corrupt roubles, Lev and Elena Kravchenko, and two Parisians: Simon a shy mathematician, and his friend the extrovert nightclub host, Matthieu. Although random witnesses of this scene, fate will conspire to bring them together again at the end of the narrative, by which point their lives will have changed dramatically.

The first part of the story details what happens in the run-up to the fateful night at the restaurant. We follow the waiter – Sila’s – journey from poverty in Africa to what represents affluence for him (though not for anyone else) as an illegal immigrant in Paris. Sila is an intriguing character, a man with the sort of self-contained charisma that permits him to get on wherever he ends up, but who will be unable to save himself from the victimhood into which he is cast by his entanglement with the male diner. The assailant – Mark Ruffle – is an American, a former football star who makes use of a well-timed injury to account for the failure of his sporting career. Determined to find his way back into the limelight, he begins a subprime mortgage service. The Russian couple have made it big on the back of Yeltsin’s rise to power, or at least Lev has. A former university professor, he became a political advisor and then was fortunate, and smart, enough to be awarded a hefty interest in the oil fields. His wife, Elena, has remained a teacher and his voice of conscience, a voice that sounds increasingly naïve as the power of the oligarchs is challenged by the various mafias that spring up in the wake of democratisation. Lev may be monstrously rich, but his life is fraught with dangers and dilemmas. As for the French friends, Simon has recently left his researchers job for an investment bank in London where his work as a quantative analyst is raking him in a big salary. Matthieu, whose get-rich-quick dreams were the prompt for his move, is suffering exquisite jealousy as his shy, introverted friend finds love and fortune whilst he can’t even get a job. All of our characters, in other words, are swept up in the unethical and mostly immoral wave of economic development that created a super-rich elite at the end of the 90s. We follow them to the crest of that wave, and then see what happens when the crash comes.

This story reminded me stylistically so much of Balzac; the fascination with money and power, the slightly allegorical characters whose fortunes rise and fall, and the backdrop of history, pulsating with triumph and disaster. It’s a very ambitious novel that in many ways doesn’t quite work (the way the plot threads are drawn together at the end is a little messy and hurried, the characters don’t undergo the kind of truly profound revelations that provide genuine poignancy, the moral questions raised aren’t fully answered), but I would much rather have a novel flawed by overreaching itself than a perfect bland one. The part of the story that I found most fascinating was the storyline that concerned the Russians. I confess I knew in a very vague way what was happening in Russia (not least because one of my linguist friends moved there with her Russian husband and was forced to move back a few years later because the situation was so dreadful) and found it fascinating and horrifying to learn in more detail about what was going on. All in all, the late 90s were a parcel of history that I had more or less forgotten, and it was gripping to watch them play out again. Humbert is a skilled writer who is interested in writing properly ideas-and-philosophy-based novels, and I am pretty sure that sooner or later he will hit the jackpot and produce something special.

In the meantime, Sila’s Fortune is an entertaining and compelling novel that doesn’t pull its punches on the financial orgy of the 90s and the various catastrophes it caused. And I really must read The Slap for comparison.

23 thoughts on “The Slap, European Style

  1. Darling Litlove: Please either stop reviewing all these books in such a compelling way, or give me a 36-hour day. I am positively buried in books you’ve written about lately…you spur my literary acquisitiveness in a positively alarming manner.

    Sincerely,
    Constant Reader

    • Lol, I hear you! If it were in any way possible, dear friend, I’d oblige us with that 36-hour day. In the meantime, if it’s any consolation, my acquisitiveness continues unabated and I can’t quite manage to buy fewer books than I read…. Mr Litlove says we are past the point of having a lot of books and into something more eccentric and alarming. I say, what nonsense! I’ll try and slip a few duds into the review mix… but you might want to miss the next few posts!

  2. I hated The Slap and decided it was written my a misogynist. None of the characters appealed to me and thus I cared less their fate. The TV series however was, I thought really good.
    It’s not often film beats the written word (About a Boy a glaring example) for me.
    Fabrice, I think, has read The Slap.

    • Oh yes, he’s read The Slap and I don’t think he’s trying to cover up the allusion. I didn’t know there’d been a TV series based on the book, though. Don’t you think that it’s easier to watch unsympathetic characters on television because we don’t have to share head space with them?

  3. I’ve not read ‘The Slap’ either. It’s premise didn’t appeal and it sounded like the sort of book I would end up shouting at which upsets The Bears no end. I’m intrigued though with what you say about Russia. I’ve just had to read Andrew Miller’s ‘Snowdrops’ for a book group and though I wasn’t that impressed with it as a piece of literature (at no point would I have compared it to Balzac) I was very interested in the picture it drew of modern day Russia and the generation gap that seems to have appeared reflecting the different attitudes towards the sudden influx of capitalism into their economy. As a way of following up on that alone I may well have to read this.

    • Now Snowdrops is one of those novels I’ve hesitated over many a time in a bookshop. Hmm, intriguing. I may have to give it a go after all. Russia has become the lost country of Europe and yet it’s been through such upheavals you’d think the stories would be pouring out. Maybe the cultural tide is turning.

  4. I’ve not read The Slap as of yet but have had it on my list for about two years now. I know it was controversial and there are varying opinions about it. This one intrigues me as well so I will add it to my list.

    • Same here, Kathleen! Even worse, I think I’ve owned a paperback copy for the past 18 months… Mr Litlove read it and wasn’t too impressed. But I don’t mind mixed reactions over a book – makes me want to read it all the more, in fact, to see how I’ll react!

  5. I bought The Slap for my mum but she didn’t get beyond page 10 so that wasn’t any encouragement to me to read it. Silas Fortune sounds more interesting. I’ve just started reading Snowdrops like Alex.

    • Ooh well, I’ll be very interested in hearing what you make of Snowdrops, as I’m very tempted to read that now, knowing you and Alex have. Mr Litlove wasn’t too keen on The Slap, but that does make me more curious to know what I’ll think of it, even though it may well be the same thing!

  6. An interesting sounding book but considering my piles are so tall already I shall wait until you tell me Humbert hit the jackpot with something really special🙂

    • The only thing, Jackie, is that it does feature very rich people behaving badly, which isn’t always your cup of tea. Though I’d like to know what you think of it!

  7. I like these sorts of novels that take a scene as the subject and then look at it from various angles and perspectives. Too bad it didn’t quite live up to its potential, but it still does sound interesting–and like you say better flawed for trying to do something interesting with the narrative. I looked at The Slap many times, but couldn’t quite decide whether it was for me or not. It’s kind of fun reading two different authors dealing with a similar subject, isn’t it?

    • I just love comparisons – all my PhD was comparative reading, and I still say it’s one of the best techniques of lit crit ever invented. I just have to read The Slap now for the comparison alone! And like you, I love the sort of novel that revolves around a contentious event. They’re always intriguing.

  8. We read the Slap for book group which is the only reason I finished it. It is the only book that has made me furiously angry and also left me feeling sick. There is a brilliant review /indictment on Amazon so I will try not to go into rant mode. The idea of the book is excellent which is also why the lazy, careless execution is so upsetting. The man is clever and could have written a great book but he only pretends to have many voices and and angles. His characters are like a row of linked paper dollies.
    Oops rant mode.

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