Wednesday, 6 March 2013

The Man Who Walked Through Walls by Marcel Aymé

A collection of funny and fantastical short stories, Marcel Aymé's The Man Who Walked Through Walls (Le Passe-muraille), is a classic of French literature, loved by children and adults alike.

Monsieur Dutilleul has always been able to walk through walls but has never bothered using his gift, given the general availability of doors. One day, however, his bullying boss drives him to desperate measures, and he develops a taste for intramural travel... 

The titular tale sets the tone for this collection of ten stories from the great French humourist, novelist and children's writer Marcel Aymé. Elements of science-fiction and fantasy are present throughout this volume, written under Nazi occupation during the Second World War, which pokes fun at the occupiers and occupied alike.
Amazon description

I am embarrassed to say I had not heard of Marcel Aymé until I came across his work  while searching for magic realist books. I was somewhat relieved to hear that my bibliophile husband hadn't either. And yet Aymé is a writer described by George Simenon as The greatest French writer of the day.

Unfortunately little of Aymé's writing has been translated into English, which, if this collection of short stories is anything to go by, is a great shame. 

There are ten short stories in this book and nearly all can be considered magic realism. I was reminded of Kafka when I read the book. Aymé's approach is to take a fantastical element, set it in a realistic setting and follow the internal logic to its conclusion.This appeals to me - as I said in my review of The Peculiar Sadness of Lemon Cake I like there to be a logic within the story. Dutilleul, the man who walks through walls, starts hardly using his "gift" at all but a series of actions and events take him down a slippery path. Likewise the woman who can duplicate herself starts with just one other self , but after a while her other selves are duplicating and the numbers increase exponentially. 
Jean Marais' tribute to writer Marcel Aymé
Jean Marais' tribute to writer Marcel Aymé (Photo credit: towse)

Some of the stories are amusing surrealism, but others have a dark tone to them. Published in 1943, the stories reference the grim reality of life in occupied France. The most striking is Tickets on Time in which in response to shortages the government decides "to put unproductive consumers to death" by rationing the number of days they are alive. Unproductive is defined to include the rich, elderly, unemployed, writers and artists and of course Jews. Sadly the subject matter is still relevant in 2013.

My favourite story was The Seven-League Boots. This story looks at a gang of boys and their relationships, and the wider context of social status. Not until the end is there much sign of magic realism. In this and in all the stories, Aymé's strength is the characterization of the stories' participants. Despite being short stories the characters' motives and emotions are well defined and explored. No wonder Simenon admire Aymé so much. 

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