Fear And Self-Loathing In Paris: The Tenant by Roland Topor

on Sunday, April 3, 2011
Back in January I had a bit of a whinge about how my reading year had already been spoiled by the sheer brilliance of I. J. Singer's The Brothers Ashkenazi. Nothing, reasoned January me, could possibly hope to come close. Not to say I wasn't trying. I followed it up with The Border Trilogy for godsakes! But, as I fumbled my way through that and other supposed classics, hoping to find some spark of significance in their pages, I began to resign myself to eleven months of trashy magazines, vampire novels and pretty much anything written by Jodi Picoult. In other words, I was getting ready to give up on reading literary fiction altogether. Well, thank Franz I didn't because, in what can only be described as a random act of obscure reading, I stumbled across a work that has joined The Brothers Askenazi in my all-time top ten list. Take that, Women's Day Recommended Reading List!

Unlike with Singer's book, I have struggled to figure out how best to write about The Tenant, Roland Topor's nightmarish vision of big city alienation and paranoia. A month after the fact, I am still thoroughly disturbed by it. You may already be familiar with the story thanks to Roman Polanski's excellent adaptation, but chances are, like me, you will not have known it was based on a novel. As one friend put it, he had always assumed The Tenant was Polanski trying to out-Kafka Kafka. It is an interesting comment on the public's perception of the great auteur that the film is seen to have sprung from his mind, but it is precisely that perception which has relegated Topor to the shadows and denied him the critical attention he so greatly deserves.

The Tenant is a deceptively simple affair, depicting the mental collapse of Trelkovsky, a young man who moves into a new apartment following the suicide of its former tenant. From the outset, Trelkovsky senses something isn't right. His neighbours chastise him for the slightest of indiscretions. He feels he is being constantly watched. The neighbours try to involve him in a petition, possibly against himself. Worst of all, he feels the needs to change his ways in order to conform to their expectations of how a fellow tenant ought to behave. His descent into absolute despair, needless to say, is fast and spectacular.

Like the greatest works of Poe or Hitchcock, this is horror in its purest form, without the need for anything supernatural to scare the hell out of the reader. As Trelkovsky alienates everyone around him, as his paranoid conviction that his friends and neighbours are engaged in a dastardly conspiracy to actually turn him into the former tenant reaches an horrific crescendo, the book becomes as difficult to read as it is to put down. Indeed, the image of this haggard young man, fully dressed and made up as the young woman who had jumped to her death from his apartment's ledge, is even more harrowing than the denouement at the end of Psycho. And yet, I finished the book with a sense of euphoria, dazzled by the author's ability to toy so effortlessly with my mental wellbeing. Topor's trump card lies in the ending, where we are forced to reassess all that has come before and question it was real or simply a figment of Trelkovsky's shattered imagination.

I suspect The Tenant is the sort of book that lends itself to multiple readings and, as such, I'll definitely be back. I just may need a bit of time to recover before I do. Someone pass me the Picoult...


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