The Mustache, by Emmanuel Carrère, trans. Lanie Goodman. (New York: Scribner's, 1988.)

Book review by Rob Couteau




Published in:
Arete: Forum For Thought,
Aug. / Sep.
1988 (CA: San Diego)

A man soaks contentedly in a tub, toying with the idea of removing his mustache. Finally, he decides to surprise his wife, and he meticulously shaves his facial hair.

But Agnes doesn't seem to notice. She makes no mention of the change. He imagines she must be playing a practical joke and, trying to one up her, silently plays along. When they arrive at a dinner party, Serge and Veronique likewise make no mention of the missing mustache. He supposes she has forewarned them and has requested that they participate in the ruse, so he makes obscure allusions to his transformed appearance, even wittily evoking the image of Marcel Duchamp's mustachioed Mona Lisa. His remarks, however, are met with indifference: no one acknowledges his "impeccably crafted joke."

After the party, his frustration increases once he's alone again with Agnes. But when he confronts her about the mustache, she denies he ever had one. When he displays some photos from their vacation in Java that clearly reveal him sporting a mustache, she impatiently asks, "What do you want to prove?"

The next day, when he arrives at work, no one mentions the mustache. Could Agnes have telephoned them? Even if she had, he doubts his colleagues would go along with such a hoax. And so, the question of his sanity is gradually raised: Is Agnes-or is he-crazy?

The elusive reality of the mustache is the first of many unsettling events in his life. When he tries to retrieve the photos from Java, Agnes informs him they've never been to the island. She insists that Serge and Veronique never existed: instead of recently having dinner with the imagined couple, she assures him they were at the movies, watching Péril en la demeure (Danger in the Home). The gothic title is fitting:

He already sensed that from this moment on, everything would accelerate, that any question he might ask, even if it wasn't a question, any remark referring to a shared past might cause his world to collapse even more. He would lose his friends, his job, his daily routine …

When he asks Agnes about having lunch with his parents, she claims that his father's been dead for a year. In desperation, he drives to his parent's home, but he's shocked to discover he can't find the house "where he had spent his entire childhood." He can't even remember the number of the building.

Convinced "they were trying to drive him crazy, kill him, and he had nowhere to go," he escapes to Hong Kong. There, he spends his time riding a ferry dozens of times, monotonously shuttling back and forth between Hong Kong and Kowloon.

The setting-which resembles a suspended animation-is a fitting one, because now the question of perspective becomes paramount. It is symbolized by the boat's swivel seats, which passengers turn round to face whatever destination the boat moves toward. The ferry lacks a fixed bow or stern; instead, it possesses a "characteristic … [of] total reversibility."

Here, the tone of the story shifts from a mystery to a work of alienation:

he had to disappear. Not necessarily from the world, but at least from the world that was his own, the one he knew and that knew him, since the conditions of life in that world were now undermined, corrupted under the influence of an incomprehensible monstrosity that one either refused to understand or confronted within the walls of an asylum.

The fusion of persona and of core identity; the confusion of image with essence; and the contrast of playful imagination and painful reality: all this forms the texture of Carrère's Mustache. Its vividly constructed brutal ending serves as an allegory of the violence that confronts our time. It reflects the narcissism that fails to flower into a new wholeness, and which-instead of bringing forth a value-devours itself, its transformative potential remaining unrealized.

This perspective represents just one possible interpretation of a disturbing creation that continually defies a fixed point of view and that invites the spectator to extend the book's horizon, through personal participation.


 fine art

Updated: 2 August 2011 | All text Copyright © 2011 | Rob Couteau | key words: The Mustache by Emmanuel Carrère translated Lanie Goodman love psyche archetypal literature book reviews of novels and psychology literary art by Rob Couteau expatriate writers in Paris