Stephen Clarke is an English businessman who was sent to Paris by his company in September 2002. He was there through the spring of 03 and the beginning of the Iraq War. According to the cover blurb, he had never written anything longer than a report on British coffee drinking habits. But he was so moved (pun intended) by his experience that this novel flowed out of him like merde through a goose. Written for fun, A Year in the Merde was self-published in English in France. Miraculously, it became a huge hit among the French and the expats alike. Whether you love the French or not, you will find fodder to support your view. Contradictory, n'est-ce pas? Yes, but so are the French, and our feelings.
Merde recounts the fictional adventures and misadventures of Paul West, an English businessman sent to Paris to create and open an English tea room as he encounters the language and culture of Paris. This is not A Year in Provence, nor does it have the sweetness of Under the Tuscan Sun or its progeny. Clarke's full-bodied approach (think smelly French cheese) makes this novel all the more delightful.
Merde is both real and metaphor. Dogs deposit 15 tons of poop onto the streets of Paris each year, resulting in the hospitalization of 650 people after a slip and fall. Clarke's account of learning to cope with the omnipresent poop provides one of the many hilarious learning opportunities. Of course, the metaphorical merde runs throughout the novel. One finds oneself deep into it in business, sex, or buying a house in the country. Curiously, West's boss intersects across each of these areas as Paul learns the nuances of French life.
Paris is a great place to live if you are a shark. If they give you shit, bite them in half, West says. The work force is one giant bureaucracy, designed, it seems, to ensure a place for everyone whether work actually gets done or not. Too many jobs are little more than sinecures; the work week is only 35 hours; the year "begins" in September after the August holidays. It ends in May, given the number of holidays in June and July. Only l'amour takes precedence over going on strike. Not all is lost, however. Public transport, when it is not on strike, is on time and cheap. "In short, Paris has public transport that actually transports the public rather than trying to make them give up and travel by car."
Clarke's version of how the European Union must have come about is inventive, and entirely plausible within the framework of the novel. DeGaulle's favorite pig farm was going out of business, meaning he would not be able to get his prized sausages. He creates the Common Market; pig farmers are subsidized; and his wonderful saucisson sec is preserved.
There are a number of insider tips on how to live like a native in Paris. The best way to find an apartment is to fall in love/lust with someone and move in. Sex with the boss's amoral daughter in this case works just fine also. Included are notes on how to cope with the infamous French bureaucracy. Having a friend at the bank makes it easier to get a loan. This, of course, is universal.
This was one of the most enjoyable books I have read recently. The story is well told, with just the right balance between understatement and outright hilarity. "West's" (alter ego for Clarke) commentary on French life are perfectly formed. A concluding note about the author indicates that Clarke is working on the "next volume of Paul West's adventures." Savor the merde!