Narcisse on a Tightrope by Olivier Targowla

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Translated by Paul Curtis Daw

There’s a scene late in the story where Narcisse is out on day release, wandering the streets of Paris. He’s due to visit his family for dinner. When he arrives, the tension is palpable. Not from any hostility, but because it contains that awkwardness of estranged loved ones. They hospitalised him. Not only that, but they never visited. Narcisse is on guard, but equally open to rebuilding a relationship. He seems like a lost soul. Someone lost within the confines of hospital care for so many years.

He’s been stuck in hospital for 17 years, left to do what he wants, whenever he chooses. There are shades of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, but here Nurse Ratched probably would have slept with Jack Nicolson. What’s perhaps the most interesting aspect of this book is seeing someone who has languished in the bizarre comfort of his being sectioned for so long. He has thrived – sometimes as the behest of others. Are we supposed to dislike Narcisse? Someone who has suffered the indignity of illness and been shunned by his family and friends.

All we ever really know is that Narcisse is a womanising man, stuck in a French sanatorium. Nobody really knows what’s wrong with Narcisse, not his doctors, nor his family and certainly not us as readers. We’re introduced to him via an anecdote about how many women he has slept with while confined and how many children he may have fathered. There is a dry humour in this information and the accompanying facts of Narcisse’s life. That humour sticks throughout and there are moments of relief when it seems Narcisse is in on the joke. The joke being that mental health is a complex and ever-evolving aspect of life that must constantly be challenged but is often failed.

Short books are a great way to take a swift glance at the life of somebody. Sometimes it works well, other times the concept can’t fully thrive without the extra padding which builds up the characters. The novella is a powerful tool in the hands of a great writer. Narcisse on a Tightrope both succeeds and fails in its short form. With so few pages, it would barely leave a dent in your bag and it’s unlikely to leave a lasting impression on the mind. It’s hard to know whether the author wanted this sparing tale to carry more emotional heft, or revel in its brevity – like a good joke – as we never really learn much about the central character of Narcisse.

And it’s here where the brevity of the story falls short. Narcisse is never truly fleshed out; he’s a caricature or a dashed-out sketch of a man. He never really says or does anything truly memorable; his story lacks weight. And this is reinforced by an ending which comes out of nowhere, leaving a sour taste upon finishing.

With another hundred pages we could have examined what made him a womaniser or why he never sought release earlier in his treatment. We could have explored how a man who quite obviously seems a hit with the ladies seemingly melts into a puddle of embarrassment while asking for a glass of water in a shop. Without these foundations, Narcisse becomes as forgotten to the audience as he was to the French health system.

In the author’s defence, this book was originally published in 1989 and was likely meant as a short and comedic look at the life of a man who has built himself up to be a great and interesting person only to see himself for what he truly is. Or was. A lonely man wrecked by mental health issues. But, as Narcisse is so unknown, I never really found out.

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Dan is an author and video games reviewer and blogs at Utterbiblio.

Olivier Targowla, Narcisse on a Tightrope (Dalkey Archive, 2021). 978-1628973242, 120pp., paperback original.

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