Noir, Olivier Pauvert’s debut novel, is an examination of crippling paranoia within a future France, governed by a democratically elected fascist National Party and where a daylight curfew forces nonwhites to live in near seclusion. It is a cheerless vision, explored with great vim, that grows brutal at an alarming rate.
The dystopian thriller is narrated by an unnamed white man, who discovers the mutilated body of a young woman hanging from a tree. He is arrested for the crime and thrown into the back of a police van, but en route to a location out of town, the van crashes and the narrator finds himself the sole survivor. Panic-stricken, he wanders the streets of Paris trying to piece together what happened, soon realizing, with a “piercing sense of déjà vu,” that he has been transported twelve years into the future. The novel then follows a trajectory of malevolent discovery: The narrator has no reflection, his body has morphed into that of another person, and he can kill others with his maniacal stare. He is neither dead nor alive, a “Bastard With No Name, neither chosen nor condemned, an In-Between, a remanence,” hiding from a government that has devised a method of collective mind control. Only the Noir, a disparate group of nonwhites who fight “not to change anything but just to avoid disappearing altogether,” can help him.
As is often the case with thrillers, however, plausible endings are hard to come by, and Pauvert fails to reclaim Noir from the genre’s well-worn tropes. At times, his interest in fostering a sense of macabre violence overwhelms the book’s examination of fascism and its exploration of a nocturnal underworld, inhabited by shady characters who flit into and out of the narrative only when required. Pauvert’s writing is the novel’s saving grace. The latter half of the book, set in alpine landscapes and small towns, can be sublime. Elsewhere, the author’s language, punched up by Adriana Hunter’s translation, is cerebral and quite original: The pacified society gives off “a whiff of disinfected brains,” screeching police-van tires sound like “children being flayed alive,” and the weather of Paris is “the colour of pigeons and pavements.”
A timely sociopolitical edge lends the narrative cultural weight. Noir is an affront to the traditional ideals that have been adopted by President Sarkozy, debunking the premise behind his Ministry of Immigration and National Identity. The novel posits a future of extreme racial control and discrimination, while implicitly attacking the people who voted for Sarkozy—those who were mollified, as is the narrator, by a seductive rhetoric of change. Nevertheless, the reliance on heavy-handed genre conventions undermines the power of these parallels; like George Orwell’s 1984 —to which Pauvert’s novel has quite rightly been compared—Noir is guilty of moments of clunky, plot-driven excess. It is shocking and occasionally brilliant but would have benefited from a steadier pace.