Comprised of nineteen short narratives, Simon Van Booy’s The Secret Lives of People in Love offers us exactly what the title promises. Here we have narratives which concerns spirited characters who have luckily survived the tragedy of their lives only to exude a level of hope and produc an overflowing penchant to love and feel the love, fake or otherwise, of the men and women around them, which sometimes, I’m not certain if I’m ready to accept.
In the first story, Little Birds, the reader is introduced to a child protagonist celebrating his birthday. The protagonist lives with a man named Michel, a broken and scarred man (figuratively and literally) who periodically smokes cigarettes, a man who owns an adult video store in one of the dingier streets of Paris, the kind of street where Henry Miller used to stalk during his heydays as a struggling artists. As the narrative progresses, the readers are made aware of the strange relationship between the protagonist and Michel. The protagonist was accidentally (foolishly, actually) left at the train by his parents’ year ago. Michel, feeling pity, familiar with the coldness of solitude and the sting of abandonment, decided to bring the boy home as he searched for his lost family. When the search led to failure, Michel decided to care for him. When one takes the situation out of context, it is safe to assume that Michel kidnapped the boy. It’s easy to say that it will take the boy years before he could fully recover from a horrible event. The trauma will obviously make his life slightly less than bearable. Getting left behind with a stranger who happens to run an Adult Video Store, a broken man who has close ties with drunkards and prostitutes, is not a situation that can be kindly looked upon with sweetness. However, the readers are given something absolutely adverse to what they expect, something that cuts through logic. There is an almost gratuitous level of optimism in the narrative. The protagonist is content with what happened to him and he looks at his existence with, of all things, love. To him, “the key to a good life is to gently overlook the truth and hope that at any moment we can all be reborn” (2).
Most of the narratives in the collection are this way, reeking of uncompromised and distinct hope, bordering on absurdity, attempting to prove the idealistic nature of mankind. Although there is a great resistance on my part to accept such things, I also found this attempt to be refreshing and somewhat lightening. Moreover, this stance Van Booy portrays in his fiction complements his writing style. It’s perfect for his sparse sentences, his subtle tone and the overall silence and solemnity that pervades the language and type of narration employed in the telling of the story.
In reading the stories, one also sees short statements of utter illumination, “one-liners,” if one could call it that, that perfectly captures the essence of a moment in the narrative and tries to heretically summarize the insight that one story conveys. In “The Reappearance of Strawberries,” the main character, in his deathbed, ruminates on his surroundings which somehow evokes his past, particularly the tragic fate that his beloved encountered. The story goes about in narrating that:
“He observed how each raindrop united with its closest other and then, split open by its own weight, ran down the glass in one even corridor. Even after her family was killed, he did nothing—not one thing.
Without memory, he thought, man would be invisible” (12).
Another short statement of utter illumination also appears in “Some Bloom in Darkness,” early on in the story. The protagonist Sabone is revealed to be a sketch artist, and the narrative begins this revelation by saying that:
“Over the years, he had become quite skilled at sketching things. And as he aged, that he was like his sketches—that it was possible to be alive and not exist at the very same moment” (52).
Another, one of my favorites, is found in “Distant Ships.” The protagonist again remembers the terrible loss of his child Leo and like always, each scene that unfurls before him reminds him of his son. As the clock strikes three in the afternoon signalling the end of school, as the children goes into the street, he remarks that he “would give memory—especially memory—if (he) could hold Leo again.” He then goes on to saying that “the weight of his absence is the weight of the entire world.”
Although I find the entire collection enchanting and beautiful, let me also point out that there is a certain kind of fleetingness in each story. As one reads it, one automatically becomes entirely mesmerized by its awe-inspiring beauty. Strangely enough, that effect comes to a swift end as soon as the narrative reaches its conclusion, unlike other pieces that remains with you for weeks, for months, or even for years. Could it be perhaps the optimism one finds in the narrative? Does this maybe say something about are much-loved inherent cynicism towards the world and towards existence? Are we not built to simply accept happy and hopeful endings?
*The book was sent to me by the wonderful people over at Harper Collins a couple of months back. It’s available in Powerbooks, by the way.