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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Little Girl and the Cigarette

Benoît Duteurtre

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To purchase The Little Girl and the Cigarette

Title: The Little Girl and the Cigarette
Author: Benoît Duteurtre
Genre: Novel
Written: 2005 (Eng. 2007)
Length: 188 pages
Original in: French
Availability: The Little Girl and the Cigarette - US
The Little Girl and the Cigarette - UK
The Little Girl and the Cigarette - Canada
La petite fille et la cigarette - Canada
La petite fille et la cigarette - France
  • French title: La petite fille et la cigarette
  • Translated by Charlotte Mandell

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Our Assessment:

B- : hit-and-miss satire

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The LA Times . 4/3/2007 Karrie Higgins
Le Point . 2/6/2005 Elisabeth Lévy
The Village Voice . 8/2/2007 David Ng

  From the Reviews:
  • "Duteurtre suggests that our obsession with children is pure narcissism -- we outlaw our freedoms not because we love children but because we want to be them. And when we rebel, we do it because we long for the reassurance that having boundaries gives. It is maddening to watch this bureaucrat refuse to acknowledge his own childish behavior -- like puffing secretly upstairs in a relative's nonsmoking home -- as he rails against everyone else. On one hand, you empathize with his fight for personal liberties. On the other, you wish he'd just grow up and behave. Ultimately, he comes off as whiny, self-absorbed and unsympathetic. But this is precisely the point: We can see him no other way." - Karrie Higgins, The Los Angeles Times

  • "Ce livre a l'air drôle. Il est terrifiant." - Elisabeth Lévy, Le Point

  • "The novel's cynicism can feel smug at times (.....) The novel comes to fullest life when being as mean as possible to as many people as possible, which is quite often. As an unfiltered hit of misanthropy, the book goes down strong and bitter, leaving behind a craving for more." - David Ng, The Village Voice

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Little Girl and the Cigarette has a decent premise, and starts out with an amusing catch-22. It is set in a sort of alternate world of what the world is coming too, everything over-regulated and with best intentions causing more havoc and harm than good. Political correctness is the only remaining guiding force -- with predictable results.
       The novel moves in alternating chapters, one set devoted to condemned man Désiré Johnson (told in the third person), the others narrated by a civil servant. It begins with Désiré just minutes before his execution. He's allowed one last wish, and what he asks for is a last cigarette. The law says he's entitled to that; unfortunately, the law also says that smoking is not permitted in these (or any) facilities. This catch-22 brings the proceedings to a screeching halt, and the matter is referred to the Supreme Court.
       The General Tobacco Company takes up his cause (thrilled to find that: "the newspapers for once associated tobacco with life as no ad campaign had managed to do before"), and events unfold in a way so that even Désiré's stunningly incompetent lawyer, Maren Pataki, can't live up to her nickname, 'Sudden Death'.
       The other story-line involves a narrator who works as a technical adviser for the General Services Department. A daily irritation in his life is that half the offices in the buildings of Administrative City where he works have been given over to nurseries and daycare centres, to prove how child-friendly and forward-looking the mayor is. Almost everybody thinks this is wonderful -- but not the narrator, who can't stand kids and really can't stand them constantly coming underfoot and running around the halls at his workplace.
       The narrator is also a smoker, something frowned upon -- and widely prohibited. This, too, annoys him:

How could I have imagined that after these years of relative freedom, my social life was going to be translated into a return to childhood with its prohibitions, while children were rewarded with ever-increasing rights ?
       Ah, yes, it's a world turned upside-down, and he just won't stand for it. Children are incomplete beings, he thinks, and the way it used to be was much better.
       Ultimately, his smoking habit does him in: he likes to sneak a smoke at work, but doing so entails an elaborate ritual of hiding in the toilet and opening the window (to escape the omnipresent smoke detectors), and one day while he's doing his dirty deed five-year-old Amandine comes into the bathroom and pushes against the stall door where he's hiding ... and which he had forgotten to lock. He yells at the little girl ("Get out of here, you stupid idiot !") -- and again when he passes her outside -- and thinks that's pretty much the end of it. Of course, it's not.
       Accused of child molestation, he's locked up soon enough -- and when his girlfriend hires celebrity-lawyer-of-the-day Pataki his fate looks like it's sealed.
       Duteurtre is writing a satire, and up to that point he's more or less on track. Yes, it's all very exaggerated, but amusingly enough, for the most part, the world of over- (and frequently self-defeating) regulation one that certainly strikes a chord with European readers and their nanny-states -- and with enough that is familiar to Americans too. But Duteurtre takes a couple of steps that undermine the satire, because they're simply too unbelievable -- first and foremost his insistence on having everyone treat all childish claims as incontrovertible. Deference to (and coddling of) children is plausible enough, but when the inspector on the case claims: "You know, in my profession, there is only one absolute rule: children never lie" the book loses any basis in reality. Even the most deluded parent knows that children's tales, even at their best, are not reliable, and that truth is often elusive for them. But Duteurtre inists on a world where it is otherwise -- the examining magistrate restates it, too: "there is no question of doubting the word of a child".
       Political correctness taken to all extremes could not come to this conclusion, yet Duteurtre makes it central to his story. Worse yet, the way he does it is lazy and unconvincing: he could just as easily get his narrator railroaded on this flimsy evidence without such over-the-top deference. It also feels lazy because there's no effort by the narrator or his (admittedly incompetent) attorney to question the child's account (which, in court, is barely an account of events at all).
       The narrator also does himself (and the readers) no favours by merely ranting instead of trying to defend or explain himself. The system has gone nuts, but even he would surely recognise that merely railing about that fact serves little purpose. (Perhaps Duteurtre felt this was the only approach he could take, because if his narrator had even half-played along with the system he would obviously have gotten off, given how flimsy the case against him is.)
       As if all that weren't enough, Duteurtre imagines a terrorist group in the Near East (calling themselves 'John Wayne's Conscience') kidnapping a group of people and creating a reality-TV (well, Internet) show, A Martyr Idol, on which the hostages will compete against one another, with those receiving the fewest votes from the voting public each month to be executed. This modestly funny idea (see also Amélie Nothomb's Acide sulfurique) is, by itself, fine enough -- but, of course, Duteurtre has to tie it in with his labelled-as-child-molesting smoker-narrator, which also feels too forced (and rushed).

       Satire is notoriously difficult to pull off, and while Duteurtre scores a few good hits The Little Girl and the Cigarette ultimately falls apart when he begins lashing out too wildly and blindly. He can't resist the temptation to take the absurd to all extremes, but when he does it isn't funny or powerful enough to get away with it (few satirists can). He also lets the story itself get out of hand, rushing through it rather than lingering over the absurdities -- too bad, because he writes well (much better than, say, a Max Barry (see, for example, Jennifer Government)) His unsympathetic, over-reacting narrator also doesn't help matters .....
       The Little Girl and the Cigarette offers some fun, but -- except for the smoking-madness -- isn't very convincing satire (in part also because it seems unsure of what exactly to target, making for a muddled bag).

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The Little Girl and the Cigarette: Reviews: Benoît Duteurtre: Other books by Benoît Duteurtre under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of French literature

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About the Author:

       French author Benoît Duteurtre was born in 1960.

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© 2007-2008 the complete review

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