Emmanuel Carrère’s self portrait is unflattering. The mélange of TV journalism into the release of Hungarian war veteran András Toma from incarceration in the sad lost Russian town Kotelnitch where he has suffered long term abuse, Carrère’s prima donna obsession with his fluctuating fluency in Russian, his voyeuristic interaction with the Kotelnitch community, and above all, his relationship with his French girlfriend Sophie, depicts a dissolute self-centred, self-absorbed, pretty despicable character.
His mistreatment of Sophie is breathtaking. His approach to her, which he calls love, is driven by self gratifying pornographically fantasising sex, culminating in a titillating publication in Le Monde written around her. This manipulative `love’ is displaced by hostility and contempt the moment she fails to serve his latest momentary egocentric demand. Why she stays is the puzzle. Her love is of a stronger character. She loves the unworthy Carrère. We are not told whether Carrère reforms and discovers how to love when he later lives with Hélène.
But as we increasingly despise the character we learn about in this self confession, we are forced to ask whether we would also not find these faults in ourselves. In this last sense, Carrère’s novel is powerful.