Hate: A Romance, by Tristan Garcia, translated by Marion Duvert and Lorin Stein, Faber, RRP£12.99, 320 pages
Tristan Garcia’s Hate: A Romance appeared in France in 2008, under the title La meilleure part des hommes, and won its 27-year-old author the Prix de Flore. Set between the 1980s and the early 2000s in gay Paris, this political and teasingly semi-fictionalised novel has led to Garcia being described as the best new novelist to come out of France in a generation. For once, the fuss may be worth attending to.
Hate is narrated by Elizabeth Levallois, a cultural journalist for the leftist daily Libération. Her narrative tracks the fallings-out and reconciliations between the three most significant men in her life during the 1980s, a period she characterises as “a cultural and intellectual wasteland except when it came to TV, free-market economics and western homosexuality”.
Dominique Rossi is Liz’s old colleague and founder of a leading gay “zine” who moves from writing into activism after becoming infected with HIV. William Miller is his protégé, a possibly psychotic figure who leapfrogs his mentors to become a polemical novelist and advocate of “barebacking”, the controversial practice, by some HIV-positive gay men, of rejecting condom use. Finally, Jean-Michel Leibowitz, “the Leib”, is Liz’s lover, a flip-flopping Parisian intellectual who justifies an ideological swing to the right with the mealy-mouthed comment that “to be on the ‘left’ today means to break with the left and its majoritarian spirit”.
Much of the book tracks the feud between Dominique and William, which begins in sexual morality but ends in an animosity that transcends dogma. It’s a fight largely played out in the publishers’ presses, in the pages of newspapers and on the talking-head TV shows that are such a fixture in France – features that will make Garcia’s book a turn-off for those without a passion for European cultural-philosophical debate. But the rewards, both intellectual and emotional, are worth the effort.
Garcia says that if readers feel the characters resemble real people, “that is simply because other persons or characters would behave no differently under the circumstances”.
However, certain characters and passages seem more thinly fictionalised than others. We are presumably meant to discern the real pressure group Act-up behind Garcia’s fictional gay organisation Stand-up. The cross-dressing, orthodoxy-baiting character of William is reminiscent of the late novelist and journalist Guillaume Dustan, infamous in certain circles for his support of barebacking. And Dominique is clearly based on Act-up member and journalist Didier Lestrade, who spent the best part of a decade feuding with Dustan.
But Hate’s emotional and intellectual punch take it far beyond the literary pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey that’s all too common in works based on real events. William, in particular, is a triumph of character writing. As his physical state worsens, his pronouncements become more sinister: convinced that “Aids is the name of a moral argument that’s trying to police our sexuality”, he begins setting up “conversion parties ... where guys who are positive get together with guys who are negative and want to be fertilised. We get them pregnant.”
This is a clever, deeply felt piece of work, particularly impressive as the author would have been only a child during many of the events he describes. Fittingly, it’s full of death, disappointment and sorrow – few of its protagonists limp through to the conclusion unscathed.
Garcia deserves to make many anglophone converts with this hugely confident debut, rendered here in a chilly, intelligent and idiomatic English version by Marion Duvert and Lorin Stein. His second novel appeared to cautious and bemused reviews in France last autumn: narrated by a space-faring chimpanzee that has learned to talk, it indicates, at the very least, that this promising writer has no intention of staying still.