on 24 December 2008
I read this book because of seeing the excellent film of the same name that is based on it - twice. I was interested enough, after the second viewing, to find out what had been the inspiration for it, but I was not expecting that it would consist almost exclusively of dialogue, the only exceptions being a very occasional narration or 'stage-direction'. In fact, those sections in italic are more infrequent than they should be, since (unlike in a play) there is nothing to distinguish the men's voices, and, when one is met with a new dialogue, it can take several exchanges before one or other says something that ties him down to the artist or the gardener.
In fact, that is a major problem with this book, and I do not think that it is answered by saying that it is any sort of virtue in showing how alike the men are or have become - anyone saying, for example (page 139), 'My father and mother and my grandfather and grandfather are down there, I think. My uncle and aunt are in the cemetery up there.' sounds like anyone else(at least in an English translation), as does the reply 'Here? Are you sure?'. My recollection is that it took well into this five-page episode to be sure, and, for those who remained unsure, there was only one these comments 'He looks at the two graves we've tidied up' in the last paragraph.
I am sorry to have laboured this, but, at times, it is a real nuisance that the dialogue is set out as it is. Maybe this is a form of novel with its own rules, though I am far from convinced that it is or can claim to be a novel (I do not have the dust-jacket to hand), but there is no clear reason why just sometimes there are pieces of scene-setting such as 'We're by the rose bushes, which he's pruning. He's also turning over the soil around the base of each one. Suddenly a low-flying plane roars overhead, and it feels as though the sky's falling in.', when, in the passage referred to, the reader could benefit much more. After all, isn't it clear what this exchange is about?:
'My, that was close!'
'You'd think we were at war.'
'They don't have the right to do that.'
'They do it all the same.'
'Yes, but they've got no right. It makes eggs hatch and chicks die. [...]'
My belief is that anyone reading this book would encounter these questions and difficulties. For one who came to it because of the film, it is much more odd in this book that I do not have a notion, except for from what they say, of who these men are - they have no names, and the gardener resolutely remains 'he' to the end. Maybe that aspect, I can see, shouldn't matter, but, conversely, I do come to know that his daughter is called Lisou, whereas, I recollect, his maried partner is never referred to save as 'the wife'. I concede that there may be a merit in the anonymity, but I am unsure.
As to the book as a whole, I have said that my main interest was to see where the film came from. Parts of the script are lifted straight from the book's pages, though not necessarily in the same context, but I do not think that I could have had the vision for the film that I very much admire in this book: it is a book that I have liked reading for chunks of twenty pages or more at a time during the available time of the last twelve days.
I could dilate at length now on the differences and similarities between the book and the filmed screenplay, almost all of which, I feel, have heightened one's interest in the characters and their growing relationship. (In the book, we do not know how the gardener came to be working for the artist, and he does not appear, unlike in the film, to have any common past with the latter - as they say, we are thrown in 'in media res', which the film, in its different approach, does with their meeting each other again.) Effectively, I feel that my admiration for the film is so great that I am not so much shocked by its humble origins, but disappointed that reading it can be not a great deal more than of academic interest.
By all means, read the book, but don't watch the film first.