Portrait Of The Writer As A Domesticated Animal

BOOK REVIEW by Willard Manus

PORTRAIT OF THE WRITER AS A DOMESTICATED ANIMAL is a much-needed antidote to the toxins in our bloodstream, toxins resulting from our hero-worship of such megalomaniac business tycoons as Bill Gates and Donald Trump. Written by French novelist Lydie Salvayre (and translated by William Pedersen), the novel satirizes not only the greed and pomposity of these "great men" but the sickeningly craven way our society defers to them.

Salvayre also pokes fun at herself. Writing in the first person, she takes on the persona of a moderately successful novelist who accepts an offer to become the biographer of Tobold the Hamburger King. "I'd be lying if I said that my only motive for throwing myself into this venture was financial," she confesses. "Several factors entered into the decision: a curiosity, more feigned than genuine, about the business world, a certain attraction to an environment that was so resolutely opposed to my own (I mean a place where literature meant nothing), and the desire to meet someone famous."

The narrator becomes his shadow, his ghost. She follows Tobold everywhere, jotting down his every word, recording all his actions. He insists that her work remain a secret and that she should pose as his hired escort, which meant wearing skin-tight dresses and teetering on ten-inch heels as she played the part "of a sassy, seductive woman who flaunts all of her assets without hiding anything."

Tobold's evolution is described by Salvayre with mordant, mocking humor. She describes how, as a 13-year-old juvenile delinquent, he took control of his gang by beating its leader to a pulp. Then, a few years later, he opened a sex club in Pigalle and made a quick fortune. "With the fierce will of a self-taught man, Tobold assimilated the abstract language of profit that remains foreign to the majority of men. He also understood the workings of the Free Market better than anyone."

Opening a chain of hamburger restaurants in the U.S. came next, followed by takeovers of communications and hi-tech companies. Soon this crass, illiterate, sex-crazed buccaneer becomes one of the richest men in the world, a man who lived for nothing but money and power. He dabbles at benevolent social work for a while, promising to eradicate universal poverty and hunger, only to come up with the idea of buying Third World countries and managing them as if they were fast-food outlets. This puts him back on the front pages of the world press--while the disillusioned narrator slinks home and writes "the first sentence of the novel you are now reading." (Dalkey Archive Press)