At first, I was put off by the twee sentimentality and the continual interjections of the coy narrator, who suggested that he might be one of the inhabitants of “la rue triste”. Yet although this short novel is not a page turner, it sucks the reader into the evocative atmosphere of a 1940s Parisian street where life goes on despite the Occupation. The last novel of the prolific French author Robert Sabatier, written in his eighties, this seems to draw on his own memories of growing up in Paris, orphaned young, apprenticed to the printing trade, drawn to literature and poetry, largely self-taught and ending up a writer.
Perhaps there is something of himself in the central character Marc, an unusually handsome boy who becomes a skilful cobbler, but loses the use of his legs as a result of an accident when pursuing his passion for running. This tragic event is somehow lightened not only by Marc’s spirit, but also the help given by an assortment of local characters: Jack-of-all- trades Paulo, resembling a comic strip character but with a talent for inventions, not least a workable wheel chair for Marc; Madame Gustave, the kindly manageress of a local bistro who keeps Marc supplied with food, or Rosa la Rose, the tart with a heart.
Every now and again, events begin to take a dramatic turn, but tend to subside like small waves on a beach. What makes this book worth reading is the poetic style, with occasional insights, such as how attempts to reconstruct the past often lack something “impalpable”, like “un reflet dans un miroir déformant”, whereas the strongest witness comes from the first-hand experience of writers like “Erich Maria Remarque”, author of “All quiet on the Western Front”. More than sixty years later, with an old man’s perspective, Marc observes with irony the individuals walking along “la rue triste” like automatons, a mobile phone to one ear, as preoccupied as if their lives depended on the call”. The gift of a TV from a grateful customer introduces him to the ludicrous world of shows in which the audience laugh at the presenter’s inane comments, and applaud not only the rights answers to simple questions but even seem to applaud themselves, like so many “performing seals”.
The novel is like an adult fairy tale, just about saved from mawkishness by some sharp dialogues and ironic humour. It also reminds me of the highly regarded “Stoner”, in its ability to capture the thoughts of “ordinary” people, and what it means to be alive.