Thursday, October 15, 2015

ArletteArlette by Nicolas Freeling
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"... this was all exceedingly odtaa."

One would think that the acronym craze, the use of LOLs, ROTFLs, AFAIKs, BTWs, etc., began with the birth of the Internet. Apparently not, as evidenced by the "odtaa" acronym used numerous times in Nicolas Freeling's "Arlette" (1981). This is the U.S. title for the novel, I presume, as in the U.K. it was titled "One Damn Thing After Another". The use of the d-word would conceivably hurt sensitive American readers.

The novel describes further adventures of Arlette Davidson, the widow of Commissaire Van der Valk, who runs a one-person "counsellor in personal problems" bureau, thus continuing the story that began in The Widow . One of Arlette's clients is a snobbish woman, a Consul's wife, whose son - after his release from prison where he had served time for selling heroin - escaped to Buenos Aires. Other clients include a police sergeant, who is about to quit the police job not being able to handle the stress and the lack of compassion so common for the force, and a cleaning woman, whose son - while committing a burglary - has been shot dead by the property owner. The woman was badly mistreated by the police while trying to get an apology from the man.

While I find the plot interesting and paced well, I am in total awe of Mr. Freeling's superbly accomplished yet very, very readable writing. His erudite prose is accessible, sophisticated, clever, and quirky, all at once. This is the assured prose by a master of narration, enriched by historical, social, psychological reflections and observations, prose that flows effortlessly, page after page. I wish I could read such prose forever, especially when I feel down, saddled with every day worries.

In addition to the subtle joke involving the acronym (Mr. Freeling refers to a book, whose title explains the acronym, yet his own book has the same title), three other passages deserve high accolades: Arlette's and Arthur's melancholy-filled trip to the house bought by Van der Valk for his retirement (by the way, this is probably the same house that Mr. Freeling lived with his family in the later years of his life), the supremely funny Evelyn Waugh's quote "feather-footed through the plashy fen passes the questing vole", and of course the dreamlike, almost hallucinatory ending of the novel, where Arlette experiences nightmarish adventures, which involve being subject to inexplicably brutal treatment by high-level functionaries of a foreign government. On the other hand, the whole silly episode where amateurs stage a burglary is way below the level of the novel, and made me wince.

Still, a very good, enthralling yet intellectual and literary read.

Three and three quarter stars.

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