28 August 2008

The best "merde" I've read in a long time...

Since booking my flight to Europe, I have started a steamy love affair my local Chapters’ Literary Travel section. It was here that I stumbled upon a little gem written by British journalist, Stephen Clarke. Intrigued by the title of his debut novel, “A Year in the Merde,” I decided to purchase a copy in hope of earning a greater appreciation, if not a few laughs, about the life of an Englishman living in Paris. I often find that literary travel novels or commentaries on cultural difference, are some of the best educational tools in preparation for a trip. I’m not interested in knowing all about the glitzy tourist attractions; I want a raw look at what makes people tick, how to order coffee at a local café like a native and, of course, come to understand that age-old dilemma…how to avoid slipping in the heaps of dog excrement that litter the streets of Paris. Thankfully, the aptly-name, A Year in the Merde, does not disappoint.

The story is written in first-person narrative by Paul West, a 27 year-old Brit who moves to Paris on a one-year contract to establish a chain of English tearooms for a French entrepreneur. Sounds simple right? Wrong! The novel highlights the turbulent and often humorous ups and downs of settling into life in Paris, dealing with a devious, Lagerfeld-clad boss, his sex-crazed daughter, a motley crew of English-bashing coworkers, the plethora of inexplicable strikes in Paris, and, not surprisingly, a flurry of problems in love….c’est la ville d’amour, n’est-ce pas?

I could go into graphic detail about the adventures of Paul West, but that would be ruining the story. Let’s just say that his love-hate relationship with la ville de lumière and French culture have left me, on several occasions, snorting out loud in laughter, earning me a healthy dose of raised eyebrows of the bus. You can’t help but laugh and blot at your teary eyes after reading his acute and colourful descriptions Parisians, at his string of back luck and generally the pile of ‘merde” that often finds himself in both literally and figuratively. In the words of the author…

"There are lots of French people who are not at all hypocritical, inefficient, treacherous, intolerant, adulterous or incredibly sexy … They just didn't make it into [this] book." - Paul West (Stephen Clarke)

Rating…A +++ Go out and buy yourself a copy! I have since read his sequel, "Merde Actually” and am now preparing to devour the third installment, Merde Happens”. Also be sure to check out, Talk to the Snail: Ten Commandments for Understanding the French,” what I’m sure will become an invaluable guide as I prepare for my own French adventure next spring.

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