What makes a man capable of feeding his children cocoa puffs and milk before murdering them?
The Adversary: A True Story of Monstrous Deception. By Emmanuel Carrère. Translated by Linda Coverdale. Picador, 191 pp., $13, paperback.
By Janice Harayda
Does reading the New York Times Book Review on Sundays feel like a penance to you? Consider switching to the weekend edition of the Wall Street Journal. It has a small but superb book review section, distinguished especially by a feature called “Five Best” in which a different expert each week picks and describes the five best books on a subject.
The “experts” aren’t usually the people you might expect, literary critics and English professors. But they do hit the mark week after week. A case in point: On Memorial Day weekend Sen. John McCain chose his five favorite books about “soldiers in wartime.” And who could disagree with his choice of, for example, Erich Maria Remarque’s great anti-war novel, All Quiet on the Western Front?
Last month the Journal listed the five best books about “the criminal mind,” selected by Theodore Dalrymple, the pen name for the astringent British psychiatrist and former prison doctor Anthony Daniels. Again, bingo.
Dalrymple’s choices included perhaps the best true crime book of the decade: Emmanuel Carrère’s The Adversary, the story of a middle-class Frenchman and the “pride of his village” who led a double life. After failing to complete medical school, Jean-Claude Romand married, had two children, and stayed close to his parents, all the while passing himself off as a respected doctor with the World Health Organization, just across the border in Geneva. Romand kept up the pose for more than 17 years, supporting his family by embezzling money from relatives and others. When exposure became certain, he could see no way out except to murder his wife, children, and parents.
Yet this remarkable – and remarkably elegant story – has a depth absent from similar accounts on American news shows. Carrère does not focus on the minutiae of evidence or the grandstanding of lawyers. One question above all interests him: How could a man keep up such a monstrous fiction, including feeding his children cocoa puffs with milk before murdering them in their beds? The answer has social, financial, psychological and religious dimensions, all artfully woven into fewer than 200 pages. And the implications extend far beyond Roman’s village – you could say, all the way to Virginia Tech.
Best line: “The father had been shot in the back, the mother full in the chest. Certainly she – perhaps both of them – had known that they were dying at the hands of their son … The priest promised [at their funeral] that now they saw God. For believers, the moment of death is the moment when one sees God no longer through a glass darkly but face-to-face. Even nonbelievers believe in something of the sort, that in the instant of passing to the other side, the dying see the movie of their whole lives flash by, its meaning clear at last. And this vision that should have brought the elderly Romands the joy of accomplishment had been the triumph of deception and evil. They should have seen God and in his place they had seen, taking on the features of their beloved son, the one the Bible calls Satan, ‘the adversary.’”
Worst line: None
Recommendation? A great book-club book. And Holt has given it an exemplary reading group guide. It’s the only reading group guide I’ve seen that actually suggests other books you might want to read as well … even if they weren’t published by Holt. This is shocking by the standards of the self-absorbed guides of most publishers, who rarely suggest that you buy a book by another firm.
Reading group guide: www.henryholt.com/readingguides/
Published: 2000 (First American edition), January 2002 (Picador paperback).
Furthermore: Dalrymple’s “Five Best” column appeared in the Wall Street Journal (Eastern edition), June 9, 2007, page P8.
© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.