It’s difficult to think of Jean-Christophe Valtat’s 03 as a novel as its publishers claim. Big print, lots of white space, 84 pages, one paragraph—almost no plot–but, fortunately, plenty of reflection on an incident that happened in the narrator’s life years ago. Nor do I have a clue at all about the title, 03, unless that is the possible mental age of the girl the narrator obsesses about.
The unnamed narrator—though looking back on an incident much earlier in his life—is sixteen years old at the time, and one day at a school bus stop in a French suburb, he observes a girl perhaps two years younger. She’s brought each day by her mother for another school bus than the narrator’s because she is clearly mentally retarded, though strikingly beautiful, and sent to a special school for handicapped students. And it is that lushness which attracts him to her, with all sorts of speculations about her future life and, of course, his. His life will be one of “privileges…thanks to my normal intelligence,” while hers may become one of exploitation, even abuse by men because of her extreme beauty and her innocence
The novel develops a fascinating triangulation of the two characters. The narrator is set off from the mainstream as much as the girl, because he’s insecure—largely because he’s not part of any social clique at his own school—thus every bit as much an outcast as the girl he can’t get out of his mind. Of himself he states,
“…the biggest problem I faced was my tendency, from very early on and anytime I could, to take things much too seriously, given my hostile surroundings and, above all, my sorry lack of dignity, one of the more charming features of macho adolescent males. So I could see that, where feelings were concerned, I too was slightly deficient, and that my latest romantic escapade merely rehashed the old drama of ‘feelings too deep for words,’ except this time nobody cared and no one would find out and no one would ever make fun of me. For if this young retarded girl stood as a reflection of my own failure to fit in, when I gazed narcissistically into the slimming mirror of my own weakness, her image also kept this weakness, for once, safely from view.”
The narrator’s extreme angst, his sense of being a social pariah, mirrors, then, his “own unhappy childhood reflected in this young girl.” But it also reverberates upon the adult inability to regard children as anything but their own lost selves, nostalgia for a time that cannot be recaptured. Children, he reflects, are the most oppressed creatures on earth. “Just look how they were led day and night to their bus stops, in rain or snow or gale-force winds, their bags excessively weighted down by the cumbersome learning of their teachers….”
Ergo, no exit from childhood except into the conformity of adulthood, sameness, lack of imagination and predictable routine.
The innocence of his love for the young girl achieves a kind of purity, repeatedly brought to his attention by her presence at the school bus stop but also her vulnerability and his own: “So while she was waiting there, frail to no end, like a signpost when they’ve torn off the sign, I saw all these possibilities in her that had become impossible, and I projected onto her fragility the immense waste of talent I was forced to observe every day in my closest friends and suffered a little too readily in myself, a waste that filled me with a vengeful bitterness and pride at having salvaged or developed a talent that would allow me to forget, even in the moment of giving up on them, my own irreparable limitations which, as they tightened within me, grew and grew.”
Ultimately, it’s a fear of growing up, of entering the adult world, and the focal point of his own youth—the vulnerable young girl—is every bit his own clear understanding that once he becomes a man, it’s all over as far as purity, innocence and difference are concerned.
03 has been seamlessly translated by Mitzi Angel.
By Jean-Christophe Valtat
Translated by Mitzi Angel
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 84 pp., $12
CHARLES R. LARSON is Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C.