Best Books of 2011: Eat Him If You Like by Jean Teule

on Tuesday, December 6, 2011
Never have I laughed so hard at humankind's capacity for horrific depravity as I did while reading Jean Teule's deliciously vile novella Eat Him If You Like. Based on a true event that took place in the French village of Hautefaye during the Franco-Prussian war of the 1870s, it is a bold testament to the dangers (and idiocy) of the mob in desperate times. Deputy Mayor Alain de Money heads to the village fair for purely altruistic reasons: he wants to buy a heifer for his poor neighbour and find someone to repair another unfortunate friend's roof. Only a week from joining the French army, he is initially greeted by all around in the usual, friendly manner befitting a popular public figure. But the villagers are on edge, with the region ravaged by drought and its people beaten down by a constant flow of bad news from the front. When one of them believes he hears Alain utter a pro-Prussian comment, the Deputy Mayor is singled out as a traitor and set upon with increasing savageness by pretty much everyone in Hautefaye.

Each short chapter brings a new level of wanton violence to the unfortunate Alain; he is beaten, tortured, drawn, quartered and ultimately burnt alive in extremely graphic detail. Yet there's something vaguely Monty Pythonesque about the absurdity of the whole affair. It is hard not to laugh when they start referring to him as "Prussian" (I couldn't help think of the blasphemer scene in Life of Brian), or when they refuse to believe it is their popular Deputy Mayor, having beaten him to an unrecognisable pulp. Similarly I found myself choking with laughter and incredulity at the townsfolk's ability to twist every word Alain or his friends say in his defence to bolster their belief in his treason. God knows why, but I even chuckled when they spread his bubbling fat like butter on their stale bread.

Like Brodeck's Report by Philippe Claudel, one of my favourite books of last year, Eat Him If You Like is a savage rumination on collective guilt that will sit uncomfortably with you long after you put it down. And while it might be a ghastly little book, it's one that I'd recommend without hesitation. I just wouldn't read it over breakfast. Particularly if you're having toast.


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