The Erasers [1953/1964] – ★★★★
French author Alain Robbe-Grillet (1922 –2008) was one of the main proponents of the experimental Nouveau Roman (French New Novel) style in literature. In this book of his, translated from the French by Richard Howard, the story concerns special agent Wallas who arrives to one obscure Flemish town to investigate the murder of one Professor Dupont. He is only yet another one dead in the series of gruesome murders that have already been committed in town: “in nine days, nine violent deaths have occurred one after another, of which at least six are definitely murders” [Robbe-Grillet/Howard, 1953/64: 57]. One possible witness is Professor Dupont’s housekeeper Madame Smite, but she cannot provide any help. On the scene was also Doctor Juard who took the victim, the wounded man, to the hospital where he allegedly died. Commissioner Laurent and Wallas have started a murder investigation, seeking an assassin, but was there even a murder? Was there even an assassin? Then, there emerges one horrifying and unbelievable possibility – did the guilty man himself [took] charge of the investigation? [1953/64: 200].What is the truth? The Erasers is a mystery novel that constantly questions reality, offering multiple perspectives on the same situation. It is a refreshingly different, kaleidoscopic murder mystery that puts the absurdity and the ambiguity front and centre.
From the very first page, Robbe-Grillet takes an unusual approach in his story. It is set against a rather grim urban landscape of one industrial city. That small town atmosphere and hints of conspiracy and bigger drama lurking behind the quietness of country life are reminiscent of the work of Simenon, but the dreamy plot where events sometimes repeat themselves and come full circle seems to be the author’s own invention. In fact, The Erasers has been called a literary ouroboros (in mythology, this was a serpent that ate its own tail) because of the circular nature of the story. Special Agent Wallas finds itself in some labyrinthic streets, often lost while trying to (unsuccessfully) buy very special erasers in newsagent’s shops. Questions upon questions pile up in his tricky investigation and soon names are dropped: Assassin Garinati, Merchant Marchant, some Group Leader Bona and Chief Fabius. Every character seems to have a hidden agenda, and Commissioner Laurent soon has plenty of versions of what might have happened to Professor Dupont, among which are a botched burglary, a murder by a terrorist organisation and a suicide. Strange witnesses emerge, including a man who pestered the supposed murderer just after or before the commission of his crime and Dupont’s estranged wife. There seems to be no end to possibilities of what happened to the murdered man, but paradoxically and ironically it turns out that the most “common sense” and logical possibility is also the most unbelievable one.
Perhaps at times unnecessarily confusing, The Erasers is also quite suspenseful. In fact, it is clear that Alain Robbe-Grillet can hold his reader’s attention in this story almost effortlessly, pulling them into his narrative whose intrigue grows with each page turned. Every word and sentence seem to be weighted and the reader is caught in almost Hitchcockian suspense. The author “plays” with the reader the way the story characters seems “to play” with each other. Time and space shift in the story and that is why Robbe-Grillet’s work is often described as being metaphysical in nature. There is a collective omniscient narrative, that seems to know the thoughts of individual characters, and each of them at some point is “narrating” the story from their own unique perspective. It becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish between perceptions, ideas, guesses, flashbacks and pseudo-flashbacks, on the one hand, and the objective reality, on the other. Memories also “intervene” when individual characters “voice” their thoughts. But, does objective reality even exists? The “reality” at any given point seems to be made up of other people’s thoughts, feelings and perceptions and all only about their perceivable facts. Facts do change in this detective story and that also depends on who you are in the story, too. The author seems to be asking another question, too: can reality, facts or truth be guessed by paying very close attention to certain seemingly innocuous objects in this story?
The Erasers turns the concept of a murder mystery on its head and deconstructs the so-called traditional French novel. With its strong sense of a film noir that inexplicably mixes reality and fantasy, The Erasers is one idiosyncratic, uncanny novel whose reality is complex and that constantly puts its readers’ perceptions to the test, compounding and confusing such basic murder mystery concepts as investigators and criminals, suspects and victims, and the dead and the living.