I first encountered The Truth About the Harry Querbert Affair by Jöel Dicker last August, here, in Spain. The book was being promoted as an international best-seller, a debut crime novel by an Austrian writer who had already been top of the literary charts in the rest of Europe. So, as you can imagine, I bought it. Imagine my surprise when I found a corny, deeply affected and verging-on-chauvinistic novel. I thought it was me: it was summer, I was tired, and all the likes, so I tried to keep reading. I gave up on page 80. Imagine my surprise when the English translation hit Twitter a few months back. I know myself and I know that I very much prefer reading in English than in Spanish, so, I wrote about all this to the publishers and they kindly sent me a review copy, and not only that, a signed review copy!
But the real question is, did my dislike of the book have to do with the translation?
August 30, 1975: the day fifteen-year-old Nola Kellergan is glimpsed fleeing through the woods before she disappears; the day Somerset, New Hampshire, lost its innocence.
Thirty-three years later, Marcus Goldman, a successful young novelist, visits Somerset to see his mentor, Harry Quebert, one of America’s most respected writers, and to find a cure for his writer’s block as his publisher’s deadline looms. But Marcus’s plans are violently upended when Harry is suddenly and sensationally implicated in the cold-case murder of Nola Kellergan—whom, he admits, he had an affair with. As the national media convicts Harry, Marcus launches his own investigation, following a trail of clues through his mentor’s books, the backwoods and isolated beaches of New Hampshire, and the hidden history of Somerset’s citizens and the man they hold most dear. To save Harry, his writing career, and eventually even himself, Marcus must answer three questions, all of which are mysteriously connected: Who killed Nola Kellergan? What happened one misty morning in Somerset in the summer of 1975? And how do you write a successful and true novel?
The answer is: the English translation was less affected than the Spanish, but in short, no. The novel still had all the features that first bugged me *. To begin with, Marcus Goldman is an egocentric, self-absorbed, too proud and self-tortured writer. The English translation did not help this and even though some may think this makes for a complex, unlikable narrator, it does not. All throughout the novel he kept reminding me of a parody of Nick Carraway from The Great Gatsby, probably because of his obsession to write “the next great American novel”. He defines himself as “writer” first and foremost and all the other characters call him that, making it a horrible time for him even though he is fighting to be a writer once again. I thought he was also quite incoherent, but, once the novel was over and I had his name engraved in my mind – for everyone seems to know it as if “Marcus” had the same connotations as “Ernest” does for us, book lovers – I discovered that he just wanted to be the center of attention, no matter what. Also, the reader establishes a conneciton between Goldman and Dicker and it is almost impossible to evade it.
The Harry Querbert from the title is another story. He is a literature professor at a small, East coast college and he seems to have gotten Marcus from the start. Furthermore, he challenges him and is constantly trying to upset him and make him come out of his comfort zone. All that, until he is jailed for the alleged murder of Nora Kellergan, and then Harry becomes a poor, fragile, old man who is in desperate need of Marcus. His apparently amazing life on a big house by the sea, in a little town that respects him ends up being an only a façade that clever Marcus dismantles, only for Harry to tell him not to commit the same mistakes he did: Marcus should marry and not end up completely alone in life. And I will come back to the marriage issue in the next paragraph.
But what I found most unsettling was Nola Kellergan’s character. She is the 15-year old who was murdered back in 1975. I will spoil some of the supposed fun here and tell you that 33 year-old Harry had an affair with Nola. I know, Lolita is there, it is a classic and most people love it, fine. It was not the age difference what really shocked me, it was how ideal Nola was, for a retrograde 1950’s ideal of a woman. And what I found most unsettling was that such a model could – and actually does – to nowadays audiences. Nola is constantly taking care of Harry, she wants to marry him, so that she can take care of him and he can write. She says to him, “I am nothing without you” and then, she is described in her perfection as “She was discreet, invisible, omnipresent.” So, there you have it. All these years my mom’s, and my grandmothers’ generations have fought to be heard, for acknowledging that they were there, and now an international best-seller constructs the epitome of femininity and desirability as an invisible and voiceless woman. But not even the author knows how to catalogue Nora: she is described both as a child and as sexual, grown-up woman who is manipulative and uses sex – sex she does not want to have – to save her man. That is the discourse behind Nora, who also happens to be Southern and raises a lot of questions about the construction of Southern women in American (and now international) literature. Eventually, in Harry’s writer Heaven, Nora becomes what he really wanted: a character, someone who is his creation and is completely under his control. Need I say more?
So, you may be wondering why I read this. For a start, I thought it was partly duty and partly curiosity. I cannot have a crime fiction blog and do not read the latest international best seller. Or I thought it shouldn’t be so, from now on I will evaluate the impact of the novel and my choices more carefully. But, another great reason is that The Truth About the Harry Querbert Affair is a page-turner in a very classical, masculine and patriarchal way. It is more the story of the relationship between Marcus and Harry, a sidekick to a great man. Disciple and pupil. Professor and student. And because it is so masculine – there are lots of boxing, sports and classically constructed men’s values and strengths involved- the story suffers. Love interests are unambitious blonde girls, women want nothing more than to get married or help the main characters, and, finally, Goldman’s mother is the most overt representation when she tells Marcus to get married to a girl who can have a child every 9 months.
There were goo things too, and they mostly had to do with the way the novel is constructed. I read somewhere that it is a very post-modern novel and, if you take into account the structure, it really is. The chapters include Marcus’ reality plus, at least, two other levels of written fiction and I am ignoring the stories and lies characters tell to each other, because if I include them, the whole novel is a riddle. I think Dicker did an amazing job at structuring his debut novel and also at keeping the pace. There were only a few times in the 800-long page book that I lost interest, and it was not for longer than 10 pages. Dicker really wants the reader to keep reading and he does a good job at making it easy for us.
Would I recommend The Truth About the Harry Querbert Affair to anyone? Yes. And why? Because all-and-clasically masculine crime fiction productions seem to be on the rise again. True Detective and Sherlock are only two other great examples of this. This new fahsion could bring us down, but I think it makes for the perfect time to ask ourselves why these productions succeed and why, even when we criticize it – guilty – we are able to read and watch them.
* Disclaimer: I was glad I did not like this novel is because I have been very, very lucky with all the review copies I have been getting and, some months ago, I thought that either I was losing it with books or I had finally discovered what I am trully passionate about. Turns out I had no reason to be worried. Thanks to everyone who keeps recommending/offering me books. You nail it 99% of the time.