Saturday 17 March 2018

Review: More than meets the outsider's eye

The Eye of the Ventriloquist
Paul Chatenoud (Translation by Allaye O'Connor) Les Cygnes: €20
A classic rebel examines Ireland, love and alcohol, writes Adam Alexander

'I am often thought of as being a lucky man," says new author Paul Chatenoud in his book, The Eye of the Ventriloquist. "This isn't the case. Luck is an attitude towards something we want accompanied by perseverance."

Having persevered well into his late 60s, Chatenoud says this is the long-awaited book he always wanted to write. One gets the feeling, though, that the passing of time was not as necessary in giving him the ability to do it as it was in losing the fear to finally express himself. "I didn't know what I was going to write," he says. "Until I understood that not knowing, I might say it all the better."

Translated from the French by Allaye O'Connor, the result is an unorthodox free-wheeling autobiography of sorts, the main pre-occupations of which are life, love and merciless Yank-bashing. No less than you'd expect from a Frenchman. Written by a self-confessed, incurable "black sheep", it is also an homage to free thinking, with hard-won insights into the human condition, including overcoming such various setbacks as a heart attack, cancer scares and full-blown alcoholism.

Creator of the first music bookshop in Paris, Chatenoud came to live in Ireland in the 1980s, lovingly restoring a cottage high on a hill above the town of Ardara in Co Donegal and turning it -- "out of financial necessity" -- into one of Ireland's most beautifully situated and widely written-about guest-houses.

It is from this wonderful vantage point overlooking the Atlantic that he has cast his beady eye over Ireland for a quarter of a century. He prefers to call this his "ventriloquist's eye" -- in reference to a portrait of Napoleon -- but it is, of course, the classic 'outsider's' eye too. As a result, Chatenoud's book has pitched in at just the right time to remind us what lured someone like him from France to Ireland. "The conviviality, mutual help and human warmth" of the Irish people, the lack of social pretence in the pub, and even the helpfulness of the police. This is the old Ireland he is describing, of course, before the Celtic Tiger.

But perhaps the more valuable part of Chatenoud's book comes in describing what Philip Larkin called The Life With a Hole in It and the "crater" inside him that he tried hopelessly to fill with alcohol.

Through his experience, we learn why only people who have been through the same thing can lend that critical "helping hand". "They taught me that drinking a reassuring glass when faced with a problem will not make my crater go away," he says. "Which is why alcoholism is not about having a problem with alcohol. It's a gaping hole of love which we fill up with alcohol."

Chatenoud, who was born in Morocco, lost his mother when he was two and a half, so it is not hard to see where the hole might have come from.

"Alas," though, "most human beings have a crater of one sort or another to fill," he says, and "if it isn't alcohol, then it's tobacco, drugs, work, glory or whatever you like ... " that they use to fill it. However, "the void, the absence, the crater cannot be filled by just anything", he warns. But "when it is filled with art, we all benefit". Indeed we do, and Chatenoud's effective technique of dealing with former lovers and former guests at his Irish cottage in anonymous bite-size anecdotal chunks are easy to digest and often witty.

Such as the story of the female Italian guest who offered to iron his son's shirt for him, as opposed to the American woman who asked him to iron her dress. "The moral being," says Chatenoud, "it's better to marry an Italian woman than an American one." Not that Chatenoud, who is divorced, sounds as if he will ever marry anybody again. He is your classic rebel, idealist, and commitment-phobe. "Commitment, for me, is like waiting on death row," he says. "It doesn't suit me. I need to know that I can reverse."

But Chatenoud's timely, erudite and devil-may-care book denies that his eye is also the classic roving one. "At times, I am taken for a seducer. They are mistaken. It is only the eye of the ventriloquist that they see."

Sunday Independent

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