Special Envoy by Jean Echenoz

Review published on February 9, 2018.

Special Envoy is a juicy slice of intelligent fun – a spoof spy novel. Anyone familiar with Echenoz’ writing will know that he has a sceptical eye and satire is his weapon of choice. As a fan of the spy novel I’m more than happy to see it lampooned; the best can take it, the worst deserve to be shown up. So this is espionage with a twist.

“I WANT A WOMAN”, the general declared. “A woman is what I need, you see.”

No! It’s not what you think and that sets the tone for the novel. The aged General Bourgeaud (formerly of the Action Service; counter terrorism, infiltration, ex-filtration etc.) refuses to hang up his boots or be side-lined by the politicians. He still runs the odd operation for the honour of France with his trusted sidekick. Lieutenant Objat tentatively suggests he knows a woman they could approach, someone outside the service, an innocent, Constance Tausk. She must be ductile the General states, explaining to Objat that he means tractable, obedient, flexible, malleable – and she needs a good scare! So the plan to kidnap and conscript Constance is hatched and once the wheels are set in motion….

Special Envoy is playful for the reader but from the first few pages you know it is going to be a bumpy ride for the characters!

Constance is 34, she is selling her flat, she’s at a stage in life where she imagines a future in a whole other world. She feels trapped, the conjugal life with her husband is…. well, what conjugal life? She has just placed her flat on the market and is dreamily wandering the city streets. When she arrives at the gates of Passy cemetery she admires the handsome workman approaching her. He takes her arm and his two colleagues bundle Constance into a van.

As readers we soon discover that no one reacts as expected in this tale of espionage. Lou Tausk, Constance’s husband, faded rock star, finds a ransom note at the house on his return from the studio. He is working on an exciting new project with his partner Franck Pélestar. You might think he would be distressed, on the contrary, he weighs his options (not at all swayed by serious threats of violence when deciding not to contact the police). He takes the train, one change, to his half-brother’s house, Hubert Costa – lawyer. Irritated by Lou, Costa says the kidnap sounds like an amateur operation, he muses that Constance is probably OK. His advice to Lou is not to pay, in fact not to react at all, let the plan disintegrate. Lou, who had a bad experience with the flics in the past is happy to take this advice. After all, don’t things always get worse when the police are involved? Meanwhile Constance wakes to coffee and room service from her two companions before conking out as she is bundled into a box and shipped to the country. When she wakes her abashed kidnappers have to borrow €5 to buy lunch.

I’m not so sure this is satire so much as farce or even farce so much as surrealist nightmare. It’s hard to read Special Envoy without a smile on your face. Nobody does this kind of knowing story telling with the aplomb of the French and Echenoz in particular. In one scene when Lou should be focusing on whether the finger tip on the mat belongs to Constance he is actually thinking, (which gives you the measure of the man): “It’s easy to forget that a woman’s legs are also useful for helping them move forward: We hold them so dear as art objects that we tend to neglect that functional aspect”.

This is a parody of everything from The Day of the Jackal to the current impasse between the West and North Korea. There are neat film references, witty replays of historical events and sharp observations on modern diplomacy. The playful way Echenoz manipulates the genre will please fans of his style and those who read a lot of spy fiction but appreciate the tropes. We get Echenoz’ take on the honey trap, ex-filtration, kidnap, border crossing, surveillance and relationships under fire.

Every once in a while, Echenoz breaks the fourth wall, it’s in tune with the tone of the novel but it can be an irritating feature. It reminds us it’s a big joke: “Well, at some point, there had to be a bit of explicit sex in this story”.

It’s a bit over the top (a bit too knowing?), but as a send up of the world of spies and counter espionage it works. It’s a minor quibble.

There is a joy in starting a book where the characters have a plan and you know instantly it’s going to be a dog’s breakfast! Constance is far cleverer than her captors and she is able to manipulate them. Why do they want Constance anyway? It turns out the North Korean leadership love her, she was the singer on her husband’s biggest hit, Excessif!

Special Envoy is an antidote to the serious nature of the spy story, which can be polemical, one sided and clichéd. After all, in real life a lot of what goes on is simply both sides playing games aimed at getting one over on each other. So, as I said, being a lover of a good spy story doesn’t preclude enjoyment of this novel which bust’s the occasional pomposity of the genre.

From Paris to rural France and on to Pyongyang with love (and with sex, adventure, assassins, rogue agents). The book even ends by breaking a golden rule of fiction writing, I won’t say what to avoid a spoiler, but even this works in the context of the parody. Fun to be savoured. Echenoz is a Prix Goncourt winner.

Paul Burke 5/3

Special Envoy by Jean Echenoz
The New Press 9781620973127 hbk Nov 2017

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