I Was Behind You [Review]

I was behind you: Front coverIn his short story Eeldrop and Appleplex, T.S. Eliot writes of a universal truth that underpins all our actions: “the important fact is that for the man, the act is eternal,” he writes, “he is already in a different world from ours… the important fact is that something is done which cannot be undone—a possibility which none of us realize until we face it ourselves.” Fargues’ novel forces us to confront this truth in its entirety: the lucid perceptivity of this raw and at times painful self-examination forces us to enter into this other world; it forces us to apprehend, or rather draws us into, the complexities and subtleties of the moral dilemma that lies at the heart of his novel, a dilemma that causes us to question the very nature of morality itself.

Married with children, a minor act of infidelity on the part of the narrator sets in motion a chain of events that causes his marriage to unravel as he slowly comes to realize that he and his wife are incompatible. Imprisoned by the destructive symbiosis of his own subservience and his wife’s dominance, he becomes trapped in a humiliating and painful cycle of repentance and punishment from which the delightful young Alice offers an irresistible escape.

The two meet when he is visiting his father in Italy. One night in a restaurant, he is handed a card from the waiter with Alice’s number and the words “I was behind you.” Justifying the act by his own state of unhappiness and his wife’s vengeful act of infidelity whilst on holiday in Bangkok, he calls the number and the two arrange to meet in a decisive encounter that will mark the birth of a destructive passion and the beginning of an adulterous long distance relationship that will eventually consume his marriage to the woman he has loved for so many years and to whom he has fathered two children.

The choice then is between the dead love of a failed marriage and the living love of an illicit and passionate affair. On the one hand, it would be easy to fall prey to a puritan morality that insists upon reconciliation and finding the discipline required to rescue a marriage between two people who have clearly sacrificed so much for each other. However, on the other hand it would be just as easy to empathize with the narrator’s compulsion to move on in search of his own happiness. Fargues’ skill lies in building, exploring and exploiting this tension with considerable mastery, deliberately muddying the waters and unsettling the reader’s moral instincts, whatever they may be. Indeed, it is much to his credit that he succeeds in forestalling any sense of the inevitability of the final outcome until the final stages of the book.

When the narrator does at last summon up the courage to leave his wife and pursue his newfound happiness with Alice, it is hard not to share his sense of relief, the feeling of liberation as he escapes from the excruciating claustrophobia of a dysfunctional relationship. Yet the final outcome of the process is also deeply unsatisfying. The characters in Fargues’ novel, the very situation in which they are trapped, could quite easily be seen as a skilful contrivance aimed at the vindication of the sort of self interest that has come to govern Western societies in the twenty-first century: in the absence of any clear collective moral code, the pursuit of individual happiness becomes paramount. When considered in this context, Fargues’ novel becomes a manifestation of a larger crisis of belief which extends beyond the traditional religious concept of the word and one which has engulfed our societies at every level. In I was behind you we see the reflections of a society whose only collective belief has become, somewhat paradoxically, its inability to believe collectively.

In the final scene of the novel, we find the narrator alone looking in on the fireworks of the new year celebrations in a hollow and somewhat anticlimactic celebration of his freedom. Is Fargues perhaps suggesting that such pursuits can only ever be destined to leave us looking in on the collectivitity and humanity to which we find ourselves no longer able to commit yet for which we continue to yearn in the most stubbornly human of ways?

Moreover, parallel to this central theme, the reader will also notice the presence of a racial subtext: that the narrator is white and his wife is black, that the mistress of the former is white and that his wife also chooses to be unfaithful with someone of her own colour, cannot escape our attention, and indeed the narrator himself explicitly points this out, observing that perhaps each feels more comfortable with someone whose ethnicity is closer to their own. As well as being concerned with individualism, I was behind you also seems to hint at a dissatisfaction with multiculturalism: a revindication of the power of kith and kin. And yet do both themes not stem from the same root? Does the mass individualism of multiculturalism not reflect the same loss of collective societal belief embodied by the narrator’s pursuit of individual happiness?

It would be difficult to accept the narrator’s final escape without further reflection, prompted by a novel that reveals to us a society whose inability to cohere penetrates to its core. Those with the patience and perceptivity to probe beneath the deceptively readable surface of a fine and powerful novel will doubtlessly encounter much food for thought.

Fargues, N. (2009) I Was Behind You, London: Pushkin Press.

 

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