For his first work of fiction published by Grasset in January 2022, Doan Bui (also a journalist at The Obs) chose the Olympiads and the 296 windows of the fictitious Melbourne tower, integrated into the building complex, very real this one, whose history the reader discovers. Emblem of the 1970s and of a new town rehabilitated in the 13th arrondissement in the south of Paris, the Olympiades district spins the Olympic metaphor, each tower bearing the name of a host city of the Olympic Games (Mexico City, London, Grenoble, etc.) and the streets underground Olympic disciplines (Rue du Disque, Rue du Javelot, etc.). The author’s preamble, which begins like a cinema outline (Doan Bui’s book, moreover, appears a few months after the release of Olympiads, the latest film by Jacques Audiard), proposes to “accelerate the tape”, to “zoom in” on the different boxes of the puzzle to “collect the rumor of the mysterious lives that take place there, behind the windows, at night”. Of the Melbourne Tower’s 37 floors, it’s basically 5th that Doan Bui focuses his plot.
The Truong family lives in apartment 511. Alice and Victor Truong arrived in France in 1979 – they are among those who have been called the boat people (although they landed by plane, as the author ironically points out) and who fled Vietnam at the time of the war. Upon their arrival in France, they are sponsored by the Trudaine family, through which they manage to be accommodated in the London Tower and then in the Melbourne Tower. Throughout the novel, Doan Bui diverts the clichés linked to Asian immigration (Asians are always shy, frail, hardworking) and installs a weak line of demarcation between gratuitous kindness and well-meaning tinged with bad faith and racism of French families, like the Trudaines. We sail from one end to the other of the slider of exoticism, from durian to raclette cheese, from the private mansion of the 16th arrondissement to Tang Frères and to manicure institutes, from Anne-Maï Truong to Armelle Trudaine , the two girls born at the same time, who have the same initials (Anne-Maï finds them elsewhere in Armelle’s old clothes, graciously given to the Truongs by the Trudaines) but separated by a world. Thanks to an effective romantic system, the two women meet again years later: it is Armelle Trudaine, daughter of the benefactors of the Truongs, who, without recognizing her, dismisses Anne-Maï by Zoom at the end of the confinement. By the way, Doan Bui offers a hilarious satire of the world of work through the company Canina Inc., leader in the field of dog food.
Right next to them, in apartment 510, lives Clément Pasquier. After a difficult childhood, life in the tower and confinement seem to have the better of the mental health of the young man who spends a lot of time on forums of gamers. One fine day, he discovers himself to be the reincarnation of Michel Houellebecq’s dog: “Clément had realized that a subtle affinity bound him to the writer’s dog”. In a caustic fit of enthusiasm and then of jealousy, when he meets the famous writer on the Olympiades slab (also his real place of residence), he barks like a madman and attacks – even killing him, the dog of Houellebecq, who has the same first name as him. On the other side, apartment 512 is occupied by Ileana Antonescu. Romanian, she arrived in Paris after the fall of the Ceausescu regime and the death of her daughter Teodora. A pianist by training, raised in a literate family and speaking very good French, she never dares to play on the piano which sits in the living room of the family where she cleans – who is none other than Armelle Trudaine. , whose daughter she also keeps.
But the Melbourne Tower is also populated by invisible people, which make us think of the Jewish cousinhood that the hero hides in the cellars of the Château de Saint-Germain in Solal by Albert Cohen. In box 47, at 2e basement, settled Virgile. Senegalese, fanatic of Proust (he dreams of doing a thesis on the semicolon in the Looking for lost time), he is forced to live in the basement of the slab after losing his student visa. He is described as the “Master of stories”: he gives advice of all kinds to the other inhabitants of the basement and ends up coming back to the surface by first exercising on forums then by becoming ghostwriter and copywriter thanks to his writing skills. It was on the benches of the University of Paris 3 that he met Anne-Maï, an opportunity for Doan Bui to portray with humor the world of education and the little internal wars that are at stake there.
They all meet on the slab, in the corridors and elevators of the Tower – exactly 6 in number, a chapter being devoted to each. If Anne-Maï does not know that Virgile, her first love who has never heard from her again, is installed at 2e basement of the Tower where she grew up. She makes a moving encounter in the person of Ileana. Clément scrupulously tries to avoid his neighbors – but doesn’t always succeed. Alice Truong will be able to testify to the scene of the attack on the slab, which will earn the young man a stint in prison. The story begins with the construction of the Towers in the 1970s, goes around the months of confinement, also evokes the 1998 World Cup, its aftershock twenty years later, the death of Lady Di… and also paints the political and social portrait of these decades, until the utopian epilogue which takes the plot forward to 2045.
But beyond this formidable gallery of characters in search of identity, the reader knows that he has entered a very particular object, and this impression of reading will be confirmed until the very end. Indeed, the novel illustrates in a prototypical way what Gérard Genette calls “transtextuality” (see Palimpsests – Literature in the second degree published in 1982), that is to say everything that puts the text “in relation, manifest or secret, with other texts”.
According to Genette, there are five types of transtextual relationships: paratextuality (the relationship of a text with what surrounds it: title, subtitle, preamble, etc.), intertextuality (the literal presence of a text in a other: citation, mention), metatextuality (a more implicit relationship that places one text under the sign of another), hypertextuality (the transformation of an earlier text) and architextuality (the echo of other discourses of the same literary genre, here the novel).
Many types of discourse, stories, remarks, more or less fanciful and imaginary, welcome the reader from the threshold of the novel and constantly guide him by surrounding the text. From the discreet subtitle (The Tower or a Dog in Chinatown) to the author’s preamble via the epigraph which places the novel under the sign of Perec (remember in passing that Life Manual by Perec bears the subtitle ” Novels », and was published in 1978, one year after the completion of the construction of the Olympiades district), as well as by the many footnotes which litter the book, the paratext of Genette is well represented.
The intertext is easy to spot: Extension of the field of struggle by Michel Houellebecq is Clément Pasquier’s favorite book while Victor Truong swears by “Vik To Lou Go” and his most famous poem, “Tomorrow, from dawn…” (it is no coincidence that he bears the first name of the greatest French poet). During his meeting with Anne-Maï, Virgile evokes, for his part, the “a woman who was not his type” ofSwann’s Love. More implicitly, The Map and the territory by Michel Houellebecq could be the emblem of the metatext.
If hypertextuality is defined by Genette as “a relation of imitation or transformation” from one text to another, it is necessary to evoke here another aspect of what makes all the salt of the novel and confirms the talent of Doan Bui: “Technical aside 1 – The difference between dogs and men”; “BFM TV, special edition – September 15, 2020 – Alleged terrorist attack on Michel Houellebecq”; an advertising insert and an excerpt from a forum about “Crocoss” dog food, the report of a trial via @DoanBui’s own Twitter account, an excerpt from a Whatsapp group entitled “Family”…
Concerning the numerous footnotes which gravitate around the text of Doan Bui, one cannot say whether they are less and less serious or more and more brilliant. The first note talks about the number of escalators in Europe (according to ThyssenKrupp), the number of them that are broken and talks about the BES syndrome (Broken Elevator Syndrome), according to which escalator users have a kind of dizziness when they are about to set foot on an escalator that does not actually work. An illness from which “many of the inhabitants of the Olympiads suffer (due to maintenance problems)”, the author tells us. The final note of the novel is an imaginary cover of Elle Magazine dated 1er March 2040, titled “For the summer, dog love! “. Some notes take almost an entire page of the book, others simply detail what happens to additional characters. One of them refers to the author:
1. This is a journalist named Doan Bui who, it should be noted, does no honor to the profession since she has just violated the press ethics charter, according to which a professional in the press must not not lie about his duties to obtain information. Even more despicable: his way of speaking Vietnamese to coax this poor Alice Truong who fell into the trap. The journalist shows herself to be all the more bad professional that she will quote Jean Tourneur and his perfectly fanciful allegations on the tenant of 510.
All these levels of discourse produce an almost overflow of information, which echoes the one we experience every day, via the question of fake news and information, the author’s first job. At what level should poetic language be placed in the middle of that of video game forums, dating sites and user reviews? How to disentangle the false from the true within standardized and instrumentalized discourses? Without clearly answering these questions, Doan Bui’s novel transforms all the news of our real life, from the most tragic (the attacks of 2015) to the most absurd (the exhibition on the dog of Houellebecq). It also shows, through the touching character of Alice, that one can listen without contradiction to Justin Bieber in the shower and describe in his native language all the ways the rain has to fall:
At home, Alice and Victor never say anything, but in the car, they would tell each other sometimes. Between the first and second floors, they explain to Anne-Maï all the ways to say “it’s raining” in Vietnamese. From the word mua, rain, there are a thousand and one expressions to express the nuances of rain. Alice says “Mua king.” It is raining as if the drops form a water barrier. Victor: “Mua tam ta. It rains as if the drops were silkworms soaked in water like a baby’s diapers”. Alice: “Mua thu. It is raining like autumn”. Victor: “Mua bay. The rain is so fine that it looks like it flies away. Alice: “Mua dam de.” The rain is so strong that you wade in the rain”. Victor says, “Mua may. Alice glares at him. Mua may means cloud rain, it’s a metaphor for “making love”.
According to Wikipedia, the Melbourne Tower was originally intended to be part of the Olympics plan, but ultimately “never saw the light of day”. It was without taking into account the imagination of Doan Bui who erected this brilliant archi-textual system into a novel.
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Architextuality – Le Grand Continent
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