I 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.