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Book Review: The Adversary by Emmanuel Carrère

In January 1993 Jean-Claude Romand slaughtered his entire family: his parents, wife and two children. It was the inevitable – from his perspective – culmination to a double life whereby for eighteen years he had lived a total lie. Romand had somehow managed to convince family and friends he held a position of authority in the WHO, one of its top medical consultants no less. It was all a lie; Romand was in fact a real-life Walter Mitty, a dreamer, a fantasist and ultimately, a murderer.

Author Emmanuel Carrère relates an extraordinary tale, one in which his own motivations are never far from the surface. For it was monsieur Carrère who initiated correspondence with the incarcerated Romand; it was Carrère who decided to turn the killer into almost a figure from folklore. Perhaps that explains the book’s ambivalent tone: it’s not just a book about Romand, it’s also a book about the author.

That Romand managed to maintain his life of deception for so long is inexplicable. The family’s comfortable middle-class lifestyle was financed not by a generous WHO salary but by embezzling family money: Romand, an avuncular, gentle type persuaded various family members that he could invest their money thus taking advantage of perks enjoyed by WHO staff (news to moi, et vous?)

The book is certainly characterised by rumination. With seeming excellent access to both Romand and the case files, Carrère’s way is probably not the way I would have chosen to tell this tale. Its self-conscious style and reflective bent slows the pace of the book down considerably. And yet, despite the ponderings it’s still not clear exactly how Romand managed to pull off his deception. He was modest, taciturn, the type of chap who went unnoticed. Is that it? It would appear so.

One can’t help but feel several tricks have been missed along the way, that M. Carrère is more concerned with style over substance. Sometimes it’s as if you’re reading a Houllebecq novel, so diffuse is the prose. In Jean-Claude Romand, rather than a real-life murderer, he creates a fictional villain – an archetype almost. At times its frustrating, because Romand was clearly a seriously deranged individual – an egoist devoid of feeling. What drove him?

The picture of the Romand family life is adequately drawn, but lacks depth. In the book's defence it could be said that if the picture drawn seems shallow, then the Romands lived an ordinary bourgeoise life: there was nothing extraordinary to say about them: Romand loved his family; he did what he did because the elaborate web he had spun was about collapse and impinge upon his unremarkable other life. If there’s nothing much to say about Mme et M. Romand, then it could be indicative of a typical 18-year marriage.

Lack of drama in the narrative as mentioned brings to mind Houllebecq whereas this story might have benefited from a tighter more linear plotline. The effect is to leave the reader a little disorientated. Certainly, the focus on Romand’s best friend and neighbour in the affluent neighbourhood in which they lived always feels like a distraction. However, towards the end, the book’s eye becomes a little sharper. Portraits of a couple of do-gooders assisting Romand’s spiritual development are keenly, even wryly observed.

A double life involving PTAs, family meals, endless days wandering the Jura forest of eastern France rather than high-powered conferences at the WHO’s Geneva base and a Parisien mistress to boot, The Adversary should have been utterly compelling, but as it stands it doesn’t quite hit the mark. It’s not a bad book, but nor is it a great one. Reading the blurb, you might be left with the impression this is another In Cold Blood. It’s not. It’s a book which might have merited the accolades had it stuck to a more conventional style. Pity, because there was a great story waiting to be told.