Narcisse on a Tightrope
By Olivier Targowla
(Translated by Paul Curtis Daw)
Dalkey Archive Press — April 2021
ISBN: 9781628973242 — Paperback — 120 pp.
Resident patient in a psychiatric hospital for the past seventeen years, chronically ill Narcisse Dièze suffers from an undefinable malady: a condition composed from a medley of symptoms, characteristic of a broad phylogeny of illnesses. Now forty years old, he lives content in his peculiar state. He has passively borne the care of a staff of female nurses in perpetual flux, cooperatively taking his prescribed medications (comprising a rainbow of colors), heeding their instructions, and cheerfully accepting their desire to mate.
Through those seventeen years, Narcisse has fathered between thirty-five and one hundred seventy-one children. (An estimate, we are told: No one knows the exact number.) The befuddled Narcisse has no more explanation for his potent sexual attraction than for his ailment. When he enquires, the women invariable explain that it’s not love or infatuation. It’s merely transaction. They want a child, without the commitment to a man in their lives and Narcisse is a specimen who will can provide this. The women seem unworried about any genetic risk related to his mysterious disorder. Soon after one has slept with him, that nurse has left and a new one has arrived.
Abruptly, Narcisse’s doctors call inform him that they have finally reached a diagnosis for his illness: cerebral rheumatism. Moreover, this identification now clearly allows the pursuit of a cure. They explain that Narcisse will soon be able to leave the hospital to reenter the world.
The news renders Narcisse into a state of shock. So long confined to his own universe with its quirky – but predictable – characteristics, the timid and puzzled Narcisse is uncertain if he’s read to make the move, or if he is even really cured. After all, he feels no different. Yet, staying where he is also seems impossible. Beyond the pressure of the physicians for him to move on, the aging Narcisse seems to be is long-held magnetism and charm towards the nurses, and other patients arriving have begun to be competitors for his previously comfortable and predictable life there.
And so, Narcisse bravely chooses to go out in the world, going to meet up and stay with family and attempt a life of newfound independence and possibility, even if naïve of what that might entail. Like navigating a tightrope high above a crowd, Narcisse steps out, wavering, trying to keep balance and forward momentum.
An exemplar of contemporary French minimalist fiction, Narcisse on a Tightrope illustrates just how wonderful and important publishers of literature and translation are, as well as the translators who do the work of bringing new discoveries to English speakers. An obscure title from an author who is not particularly well known in France, Narcisse sur un fil originally published in 1989, the debut novel (novella) by a journalist who had previously published nonfiction titles. Targowla has since published four other novels (from the information I could glean.) This title represents his first work translated into any language, but one hopes that future translations by Paul Curtis Daw or others might be forthcoming, if indeed Targowla’s later work is anything on par with this.
Minimalism invites interpretation. In the absence of grandiose overt plot, flowery prose, or long philosophical text/dialogue, the starkness of a text begs for readers to look at themes more deeply, to synthesize meanings through analysis and consideration. Narcisse on a Tightrope does this, while also playfully entertaining the reader with the quirkiness and elements of absurdity in a narrative that is otherwise a snapshot of mundane existence.
It’s also an exploration of character, and to a small extent that character’s evolution of perception (of self and of the world.) The introduction to the novella by Warren Motte (a professor of French and comparative literature) points out the meaning inherent in the eponymous protagonist’s name. Most readers will probably already pick up on Narcisse, (the French version of Narcissus, of Greek mythology.) Indeed, Narcisse is quite narcissistic. He is defined by self-involved worry both in the hospital and outside. This isn’t to say that he’s utterly unreceptive to, or inconsiderate of, the emotions or needs of others. But he is very much preoccupied with how others view him, and what defines his state of mind – diseased or healthy. His nom de famille, Dièze, invokes the French term dièse, meaning tonally sharp (#): a note slightly off-key, slightly more in intensity. Again, matching the ardency and yearning in the character to move on from the hospital, despite his fears and the discomfort that might initially entail.
Both Motte and the official blurb for the novella characterize Narcisse as “an endearing misfit in the tradition of Walter Mitty and Forrest Gump.” (Which, tells me I should probably read Thurber’s short story.) That description is true. However, Narcisse is more than just a misfit in the roguish sense of a knave, he’s a knave in the sense of a Jack – an average Joe. His story is more than that of an odd, peculiar adventure. It’s one of a universal adventure, prosaic life, the uncertainty of existence. The always slightly confused Narcisse does not view his world (in the hospital, or later beyond) with indifference. He is, after all, very concerned about himself and what defines his state of being. But, he is casual and compliant, accepting the inexplicable things that have befallen him in the past, enjoying the oddities of present, and receptive (even if hesitant and fretful) to the future. Temporal connection happens for all this upon a reunion of Narcisse with one of the former nurses he slept with, whom he discovers indeed had a son fathered by him.
Though relatively short and minimalistic, Narcisse on a Tightrope is a rewarding reading experience of depth and compassion. For all the idiosyncrasies of its protagonist, the novella holds a universality that a broad range of readers can appreciate and dissect.