Posts Tagged ‘Jean Echenoz’

‘Special Envoy’ by Jean Echenoz – A Playful if Shallow 1960s Spy Romp


‘Special Envoy’ by Jean Echenoz   (2016) – 240 pages                Translated from the French by Sam Taylor



‘Special Envoy’ is the fourth novel by Jean Echenoz I have read.  I’ve had great praise for him in previous reviews. For his novel ‘Piano’ I wrote, “I do believe that Jean Echenoz is one of the true giants of the literary world today whose works should not be missed.”

However this one you can probably skip.

‘Special Envoy’ is a madcap spy caper that begins in Paris and eventually finds several of the characters in Pyongyang, North Korea with Kim Jong-un. It has plenty of casual sex and many preposterous kidnappings and murders along the way.   Echenoz must surely realize that he has written an anachronism, a 1960s spy novel.  Ian Fleming and James Bond live.  There is no real point to this novel beyond entertainment.

The only requirements for a female in ‘Special Envoy’ are that she be very good looking and compliant and agreeable to sex with any good looking man she happens to meet.  It is the type of tale where a thirty year old woman is called “the girl”.

“On the other hand, after several walks in different parks and museums and other preliminary chores, Tausk will end up screwing the platinum-bunned assistant who, over time, will prove a very good way of killing time.  Charlotte will even reveal herself to be an insatiable if somewhat exhausting partner, to the point that Tausk, by now firm friends with Hyacinth again, will invite him to form a threesome.” 

Echenoz can only be making fun of these laid-back attitudes. I think what Echenoz had in mind when he wrote ‘Special Envoy’ was parodying these old spy novels but instead wound up creating his own dusty old spy novel.  In this day and age, I believe that James Bond is so ridiculous he is beyond parody.   When you try to parody these old 1960s spy novels you must be careful or you will wind up with your own 1960s spy novel.

However there are still sure signs of Echenoz’ talent as a fiction writer even though ‘Special Envoy’ did not really work for me.  The scenes sparkle with their own comic energy, and the outrageous characters and outlandish plot kept my interest throughout.

I prefer the more substantial works of Jean Echenoz.  He is too good a writer to waste on this kind of meaningless stuff.


Grade :    B


‘Piano’ by Jean Echenoz – In Purgatory with Peggy Lee and Dean Martin

‘Piano’ by Jean Echenoz   (2003)  –  179 pages      Translated by Mark Polizzotti


‘Piano’ is a wilder ride than usual into Jean Echenoz land.  Here we have the story of Max, a Parisian piano virtuoso.  We follow him as he battles stage fright and longs for some alcoholic drinks before each performance.  That’s why he has a minder named Bernie who must somehow keep him in check.

But there is trouble ahead.  Even on the first page of the novel Echenoz informs us that ‘He (Max) is going to die a violent death in twenty two days’.  ‘Piano’ is divided into three parts.  The first part has Max in Paris performing concerts.  The second part Max has died and is in purgatory under the supervision of dead celebrities Peggy Lee and Dean Martin.  In the third part Max returns to Paris which now we assume must be an urban zone of Hell.

After reading his two most recent novels, I decided Jean Echenoz is a modern master writer whose backlist would be well worth reading.  Both ‘Lightning’ and ‘1914’ are historical novels written in precise clean prose that I found stimulating and appealing.

‘Piano’, written in 2003, is a much different puppy than these two more recent fact-based novels.  Pianist Max is an obvious creature of the imagination, and his antic journey into purgatory and back to Paris is of course an invention.  ‘Piano’ is a lighter-than-air playful story that put a smile on my face from beginning to end.

As far as I can tell there is no real point to Max’s journey, but in this case any objective is beside the point.  We tag along with Max as he prepares for concerts and finds women to whom he is attracted.  He lives with his sister and has never been married, but there is this woman named Rose from his past and a new woman in his apartment building.  Later when he meets Peggy Lee and Dean Martin in purgatory the story becomes far-fetched but so funny we don’t care.  Max’s adventures after returning to Paris are delightfully wacky.

One thing that sets Echenoz apart from other modern writers is the concision of his prose.  His sentences are not short, but they carry so much detail and feeling that the novels themselves are usually on the short side.

Jean Echenoz

Jean Echenoz

Now that I’ve read both sides of Echenoz, the real documentary side in ‘Lightning’ and ‘1914’ and the surreal whimsical side in ‘Piano’, I can’t decide which I like better.  You would think that these two sides could not exist within the same writer, but there must be some force within Echenoz that conjoins them.

I will continue my exploration of the work of Jean Echenoz over the coming years, because I do believe that he is one of the true giants of the literary world today whose works should not be missed.

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