Novelist Amélie Nothomb is known for churning out a book without fail every year for the rentrée littéraire, wearing flamboyant hats and being extremely media-savvy. Her latest offering, Le Fait du Prince (the almost untranslatable title of which means something like “a prince’s prerogative’) is at the top of the French bestseller list. As a newcomer to her works, I decided to ignore the cynicism of some of my Parisian friends when I told them what I was reading and to give the book a sporting chance on behalf of Paris Update readers. It was a gamble well worth taking.
The narrator of the story is a French male nonentity. One Saturday morning, a strange man appears on his doorstep, asks to use the telephone, then promptly drops dead. The narrator is faced with the dilemma of what to do. Instead of following the expected course of action – calling an ambulance or the police – he leaves the body in his Parisian apartment and takes on the identity of the dead man. He even moves into the dead man’s well-appointed home in Versailles and meets his wife, who seems completely unsurprised to see him there.
As vastly improbable as this tale may seem, Nothomb makes a virtue out of the succession of unlikely events by musing on the role played by fate and coincidence, rather as a 17th-century moraliste might do. The book is even peppered with such amusing maxims as “There is a moment between the 15th and 16th mouthful of Champagne when every man is an aristocrat.” One of the novel’s delights is the wonderful limpidity of the writing.
The joy of the narrator, who has led an unexceptional life up until this point, at discovering the pleasures of a wealthy, hedonistic lifestyle is infectious. The fact that the two main (and almost the only) characters are strangely faceless and difficult to fathom only adds to the intrigue. It is the kind of book (both in its brevity and readability) that demands to be devoured in one sitting.
Given the enormous amounts of Champagne consumed by the two protagonists over the course of the story, Dom Pérignon or Veuve Clicquot would do well to buy up the film rights to the book immediately.