Mesmerising and powerful, Article 353 is a perfect example of noir as incisive social commentary. This is about more than the thrill of a crime story, although don’t let me mislead you, it is a totally gripping read. However, this novel is a rare piece of writing, a novel that speaks to our humanity with incredible clarity of thought. Article 353 is a biting social drama, a gripping psychological thriller and an incisive morality tale. There are weighty themes in this insightful novel, the obvious ones are the nature of guilt, mitigation and the law, but there are other concerns here too. This novel is elegantly written, there is a beautiful simplicity of style that makes this so readable you will probably want to devour it in one sitting.
Article 353 is a genuinely modern noir (a much over-used term but appropriate here). It is distinctly French in character, there are echoes of Simenon, Vuillard, Garnier and Manchette in Article 353, although Viel has a unique voice. The narration borders on the surreal but the story reflects a grounded and gritty realism. This is a universal story, Kermeur’s plight is bound up with the decline of his fishing/coastal community in the post-industrial age, but he could be a car worker in Detroit or a coal miner in South Wales. Viel grew up in the Breton region and so Kermeur is a shipwright from Finistère, Viel’s love of the region and empathy with it’s people shines through this story. Article 353 fizzes with intelligence and perception, an apparently straightforward story has some very subtle undertones, but more than anything a deep understanding and compassion.
Article 353 might appear on the surface as a revenger’s tale, a wronged man striking out at the man he perceives to be the cause of his troubles, and surely, that is key to the novel. As a study in cause and effect it’s as strong a piece of work as you will read anywhere. It reminds me of Graeme McCrea Burnet’s His Bloody Project. We see a man humiliated, wounded, morally degraded and suffering from despair; Kermeur is unable to see a way out of the crisis his life has sunk into. However, Kermeur’s story, although it occupies the majority of the novel, is not the only thing going on here, this is a far more nuanced tale than that. It’s a quietly angry account of the plunder of an area, a region essentially run down but where the people are desperate to rebuild their community – to survive. A place ripe for the vultures to swoop in and clean up with no concern for the local cost. In that sense it’s a political novel, a novel of economic recklessness and criminal greed contributing to the sad decline of a community.
“I can’t say it happened more here than other places, but heaven’s been hard on us for a long time, on the harbour there, the trails along the coast, the village streets, and even the town council meetings, you felt the weariness.”
One of the things that resonates most at the end of the novel is the judge’s tale. The man who sits the other side of the table as we listen to Kermeur’s story. The judge doesn’t say much, Kermeur finds it hard to read him, is he sympathetic or condemnatory? He just listens. This is also about him, or rather us; how we hear Kermeur’s story, how we interpret it and respond to it. How the law and the strictures and norms of society dictate/limit our/the judge’s freedom of response. That brings us to Article 353, read the novel for an explanation.
As Kermeur faces the judge for the first time, before he unfolds a story oozing pain and humiliation, a tale of knock backs and overwhelming circumstances, he says this:
“Its about a run-of-the-mill swindle, Your Honour, that’s all.”
Both the story and the scam are anything but run-of-the-mill. Many pensioners and redundant workers have become victims of fraud totalling billions of $, £, and €.
Viel offers up the culprit on page one, briefly detailing his role in the death of Lazenec: QED, case closed. However, no crime occurs within a vacuum, so why would Kermeur push a man overboard and watch him drown? Kermeur’s confession to the examining magistrate slowly reveals the man and his motives. As readers, we ask the hypothetical question: what would we do in Kermeur’s place? How far can a person be pushed before snapping? Can mitigation justify or explain a terrible crime? That is a simplification but the issues raised are a fascinating area of debate.
Article 353 is set on the Finistère Peninsula, across the river from the city of Brest. Kermeur was a shipwright at the arsenal but they have laid off many workers, including him, the business is in its death throes. The day of the incident, Kermeur is standing on the deck of a fishing boat watching a fully clothed man floundering is in the water, begging for help, but Kermeur turns a deaf ear to his pleas. He turns the boat around and heads the five miles back to port and calmly ties up on Dock A slip 93 as usual. Later, when the police come for him, he offers no resistance. Meekly allowing himself to be handcuffed and taken away.
The juge d’instruction is a young man, maybe thirty, in a neutral tone he asks Kermeur to take it from the beginning:
The mayor, Le Giff, takes care of Kermeur when he loses his job, he’s given him the gate house at the chateau, it’s a bit run down but it’ll do for Kermeur and his son. The chateau is put up for sale, it’s in such a dilapidated state that Kermeur doubts it will sell. Then charismatic real estate developer, Lazenec, arrives; a saviour, he sees “potential”, he buys the chateau. Everyone is in thrall to the newcomer, he has big plans, everyone signs up and the council bend over backwards to help. Lazenec wants to transform the Peninsula, creating “The Saint-Tropez of Finistère”. Kermeur will soon get his redundancy/compensation money from the arsenal. He just wants a chance of a better future for his community and particularly for his son, Erwan. What happened to bring Kermeur, his son, the mayor and the community so low? A subtle and nuanced tale of woe follows.
As Kermeur tells his story and details every misstep, he prefaces it with ‘should have’, ‘could have’ as if it were a matter of choice, but was it? That’s a matter for each reader. The translation by William Rodarmor, beautifully captures the intent and style of Viel’s novel. Article 353 will leave you richer for the experience of reading it. A beautiful, poetic novel.
Tanguy Viel has one previous novel available in English, The Absolute Perfection of Crime, winner of the Prix Fénéon and the Prix Littéraire de la Vocation. Article 353 is winner of the Grand Prix RTL-Lire and the Prix François Mauriac.
Paul Burke 5/5
Article 353 by Tanguy Viel
Other Press 9781590519332 pbk Feb 2019