The Truth
About Marie

Jean-Philippe Toussaint
Matthew B. Smith

(Dalkey Archive Press)
After Marie made love with Jean-Christoph de G. ... he went off and died. Didn't go very far, though: he collapsed in the doorway of her tiny apartment there on rue de la Vrillière. Dead as a doornail.

Marie first met J-C in Tokyo --- she did fashion stuff, he raced horses --- and one of their earliest adventures comes when it's time to fly J-C's purebred race-horse Zahir back to Paris. The beast manages to slip out of his horse-trailer there on the grounds of Narita bringing everything to a standstill in the wind and the rain and the night. Cancel all flights ... there's a black stallion running loose on the tarmac: "its body twisting in a swirl of muscle and a spray of rainwater."

    Without pause, it galloped directly at the vehicles, fixed in the beams of their headlights, its eyes wild, savage, mad, its mane flapping in the wind, flinging mud and sweat in every direction.

"It was galloping at the vehicles, picking up speed on the Narita tarmac, as though preparing to take on the obstacle in front of it, this shifting phalanx of vehicles charging it, as though ready to leave the ground, to take flight into the sky, a winged Pegasus vanishing into the darkness to join the thunder and lightning."

§   §   §

It occurs to me that this is the most daunting horse-race I've ever attended, better than anything you'd see at the Kentucky Derby or Churchill Downs ... a horse in its wild black beauty, bringing an entire 21st Century complex to a halt. It's nuts.

As a matter of fact, The Truth about Marie is truly a goofy movie, a film-noir, the scenes laid out precisely, the characters forming themselves before our eyes so nicely. Despite the title, there is, I suspect, no "truth about Marie" ... for she refuses to hold in place. She is a phantasm in a fast arc, up from her small apartment in Paris, then to join J-C's extravagant thoroughbred-flying international sportsters, then back to ground again in the arms of her no-name lover on the salty beaches of Elba.

Toussaint is at his best with catastrophes, and there are several sprinkled thoughout The Truth about Marie. Not only do we get a corpse in Marie's bedroom doorway, and a champion racehorse loose on the flying fields ... but there's a terrific wind-up on in the isle of Elba: a fire ravaging the woods, killing off a few (more) horses, bringing narrator and Marie back together again after a long hiatus.

If we were to graph The Truth about Marie on a chart, it would be what stock traders call a "triple top." First a man kaput on the floor, Zafir, the loose black cannon on the plains of Narita, and another near-death on the fields of Napoleon's exile island.

And these three characters: Marie (the tough Parisian), cool Jean-Christoph (who captures Zahir by whispering endearments in his ear), and our anonymous narrator, willing, apparently, to take on any task that Marie may lay on him.

Toussaint's style is a nice marriage between Camus and Javier Marías. Imagine this: the emergency crew in Marie's apartment is trying to get some light. "Before even glancing at the body asprawl on the ground, they went to adjust the light in the room, in which there was no ceiling light but rather a multitude of small lamps Marie had collected over the course of many years, the Tizio from Richard Sapper, the chrome-headed Artemide Tolomeo, the Titania from Alberto meda and Paolo Rizzatto, the Itty Bitty from Outlook Zelco." The Itty Bitty from Zelco!

Just to confuse you, our narrator leaves early on in the book to consort with another lady named Marie. Then, briefly spots Marie I in Tokyo at a horserace, and finally, meets with her again on Elba, in lusty rapprochement: "Tiny beads of water covered her naked body, and the sun, drying her little by little, left almost invisible specks of salt on her skin, whose taste I imagined vividly on the tip of my tongue."

It is one of the damnedest plotlines I have run across: and Marie and her several loves only need 160 pages for their bizarre movie. After the defunct Jean-Christoph is hauled away by the Parisian medics, Marie gets in a huff because narrator left his chiffonier behind in her apartment when they parted and she demands that they drag it out onto the street right now. Her ability to turn salty quickly may be one of the Truths about Marie, though she comes with a virulence that may sweep over the rest of us when someone we know well much less intimately decides to pop off.

Another occurs at the end Marie's stay in Tokyo. We are shown her in the rain trying to get the attention of the pilots of the Lufthansa 747 cargo plane after the horse has been boarded to fly back to Paris. For some reason, J-C and Marie have been left there stranded on the wind- and rain-blown tarmac, far away from any of the passenger buildings, and they are supposed to be on the plane. Marie decides to take things into her own hands, and (perhaps) this will reveal the real Truth about her:

    Rising before them, immense, swollen, and out of proportion, was the imposing mass of a Boeing 747 Lufthansa cargo plane. There was no way to board the plane, no steps or ladder, all the exits were closed, prohibited, the front left door as well as those of the baggage hold in back. Water streamed down the white lacquered body of the plane as the rain continued to pour. Intimidated by the formidable dimensions of the machine towering before them --- almost thirty feet high with a wingspan of at least two hundred feet, its two vast wings casting shadows under their imperial reach --- they stood in awe on the tarmac. The steady hum of a set of air conditioners mixed with the deafening roar of an auxiliary engine running in the tail cone.

    The plane seemed ready to leave its parking area, the various attachments and rubber pipes serving to fuel the plane and load the freight had been removed, a few service vehicles remained on the tarmac around the plane, scissor lifts at rest, diesel generators, stair trucks, and tiny maintenance vehicles, the whole ensemble like a swarm of miniscule symbionts tending to an immobile giant. A dim light shone on the flight deck, behind the narrow convex windshield of the cockpit, a thin slit at the top of the plane's nose. Perhaps the pilots were looking over the route and studying their maps, waiting for instructions from the control tower in the half-light of the cockpit.

    Marie took a step forward and began shouting and waving her arms in the night. She was at the foot of the plane and was waving her arms like a ramp agent directing the plane on the tarmac, a tiny figure making huge gestures in the rain, trying to get the pilots' attention, gesturing with increasing enthusiasm, caught in the joy and pleasure of the moment, unperturbed by all the inconvenience, even feeling overwhelmingly happy to be there in the rain, stuck outside on the tarmac with all her bags, Marie's twenty-three bags, her large pearl-gray valise, her small dove-colored wheeled suitcase from Muji, her raffia purse with zippers at both ends, a large duffle bag fastened with a string laced through a row of eyelets, a computer case, a vanity case, not to mention more recent purchases, elegant cream-colored bags of glazed paper soaking in the rain, and three huge travel bags ready to explode (none of which were closed properly, Marie never closed anything, clothes spilled out small objects thrown in at the last minute spewed over the sides, a toilette case sat lopsided atop a pile of clothes, with the toilette case itself open, from which a blush brush escaped as well as an open toothpaste container), and, taken by whim, by a sense of lightness, of insouciance, of fancy, Marie began running around her bags on the tarmac, discovering a stunning likeness of form and a subtle coherence of color as she looked at the sprawling heap of her bags at her feet: a camaïeu of beige, ecru, and leather, with dove and sand-colored touches throughout (she'd find elegance in a shipwreck, Marie).

--- Mary Wisdom, M.A.
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