Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The Erasers

Nine murders have taken place in nine days, all at exactly the same time. Special agent Wallas is sent to investigate the most recent death. He's new at the job and it's a confusing case. He spends a lot of time walking the streets and getting lost. He stops in at several shops to buy an eraser.

Soon the reader is as confused as Wallas. It's difficult to know what's real and what's imagined. Even the identity of certain characters, who are often described in terms of the coats they wear, becomes blurred. The writing is packed with banal detail, often in the form of numbers and measurements, as though this is the only way to pin down what's demonstrably real:

...on a bed of toast, spread with margarine, is arranged a broad filet of herring with silvery-blue skin; to the right, five quarters of tomato, to the left, three slices of hard-boiled egg; set on top, at specific points, three black olives.

Finally Wallas, who is on job probation, begins to doubt himself. At the post office he receives a "pneumatic message" that appears to be incriminating. It seems that he physically resembles the alleged murderer and has the same type of gun that was used in the shooting. When he returns to the scene of the crime, he ends up killing the man whose death he was sent to investigate.


Roy-Dauzet - Minister of the Interior, who, distrusting his own police force, sends Wallas to take charge of the investigation.

Commissioner Laurent - the local police chief.

Daniel Dupont - a professor who receives a superficial gunshot wound.

Albert Dupont - a wood exporter mistakenly identified in the newspaper as the original victim, later killed in an auto accident.

Dr. Juard - a gynecologist who issues a fake death certificate to protect Daniel Dupont's life.

Marchat - a wood exporter in collusion with Juard and Daniel Dupont who comes to believe that he is the next victim.

Garinati - bungles the murder of Daniel Dupont.

Jean Bonaventure - Garinati's boss, aka Bona.

Fabius - the best sleuth in Europe, adept at disguises, Wallas's immediate superior.

Madame Dupont - Daniel Dupont's estranged wife, from whom Wallas purchases an eraser.

Jean - Daniel Dupont's illegitimate son, who may or may not exist.

Anna Smite - Daniel Dupont's half-deaf housekeeper who thinks Juard killed Dupont.

Juliette Dexter, Emilie Lebermann, and Madame Jean - post office employees.

Andre WS - the addressee of the "pneumatic message," described by post employees as resembling Wallas; the message's sender is indicated by a set of initials, J.B.

Madame Bax - a watcher at a window.

Nameless drunk - keeps turning up at the Cafe des Allies, where Wallas is lodging, to ask meaningless riddles.

Nouveau Roman

The Erasers was first published in 1953 as Les Gommes. At its most superficial, it could be read as a humourless parody of a detective novel, a recursive tale that keeps doubling back on itself. At a deeper level, it's a statement about the nature of reality.

The author, Alain Robbe-Grillet, was a leading figure in the nouveau roman movement. The translation is by Richard Howard.