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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction



The Mercy Room
(Love Without Resistance)

by
Gilles Rozier


general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase The Mercy Room



Title: The Mercy Room
Author: Gilles Rozier
Genre: Novel
Written: 2003 (Eng. 2005)
Length: 138 pages
Original in: French
Availability: The Mercy Room - US
Love Without Resistance - UK
The Mercy Room - Canada
Un amour sans résistance - Canada
Un amour sans résistance - France
Eine Liebe ohne Widerstand - Deutschland
  • French title: Un amour sans résistance
  • Translated by Anthea Bell
  • UK title: Love Without Resistance
  • US title: The Mercy Room

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Our Assessment:

B- : ambitious, but ultimately doesn't work

See our review for fuller assessment.




Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
FAZ . 23/3/2004 Jörg Magenau
The Guardian . 2/4/2005 Natasha Walter
Neue Zürcher Zeitung . 27/4/2004 Steffen Richter
The NY Times Book Rev. . 14/5/2006 Michael Agovino
San Francisco Chronicle . 19/3/2006 Joseph Di Prisco
Die Welt . 20/3/2004 Tilman Krause
Die Zeit . 19/5/2004 Silja Ukena


  From the Reviews:
  • "Das Irritierende daran ist, daß es Rozier immer im ungewissen läßt, ob sein Erzähler ein Mann oder eine Frau ist. (...) Man liest zwei Bücher gleichzeitig. Die Wirklichkeit steht nicht fest. Es kommt auf die Perspektive an, unter der man sie betrachtet. (...) Systematisch schreibt er gegen die Grenzziehungen zwischen den Sprachen, den Völkern und den Geschlechtern an. Systematisch unterläuft er die starren Fronten von Gut und Böse, Heroismus und Anpassertum, Liebe und Egoismus." - Jörg Magenau, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "At the end of the book, as the narrator ruminates not just on the loss of his love, but also on the wider resonance of the Jewish Holocaust, it is hard not to feel that his prose has not quite risen to the enormity of his themes -- themes that have, after all, defeated much greater writers than Gilles Rozier." - Natasha Walter, The Guardian

  • "While it may be fun for book clubs to try to decipher the clues of the narrator's identity, this device that shows little faith in the story itself, which is simple but complex, with themes well worth exploration" - Michael Agovino, The New York Times Book Review

  • "(A) spare novel of sexual obsession and boundless desire. It is a story filled with pain. Terrible things happen routinely. And we are riveted, challenged and disturbed by the nameless narrator (...) From first page to last, this is a sad novel. In the end, a strange question will linger in the reader's mind. How is it possible for this narrator to tell a story of sexual obsession without identifying his or her sex ? Certainly, it is the author's prerogative to try, and technically, every sentence coheres in the translation. Every sentence reveals and conceals simultaneously. Is this a gimmick or a brilliant assault on conventional romantic, or erotic, expectation ?" - Joseph Di Prisco, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "Die Geschichte bewegt sich auf einer Metaebene, die sich ein deutscher Autor bei diesem Stoff (noch ?) kaum erlauben würde. Gilles Rozier balanciert mit diesem Buch, das auf den ersten Blick als Kolportage daherkommt und sich unter der Oberfläche als raffiniertes Spiel mit Versatzstücken und mentalen Mustern des deutsch-französischen Diskurses der letzten 200 Jahre zu erkennen gibt, auf sehr schmalem Grat. (...) Und dem gewöhnlichen Leser soll einfach eine spannende Story aus Frankreichs düsteren Jahren dargereicht werden. Die Balance gelingt -- jedoch nur um den Preis hoher und konstruierter Künstlichkeit. Das nötigt Respekt ab. Bewunderung, gar Liebe kann das Buch nicht wecken." - Tilman Krause, Die Welt

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:

       In Love Without Resistance (inanely retitled for the American market as The Mercy Room) the nameless narrator looks back at the years when the Germans occupied France during World War II.
       First-person narratives are common enough, but with his narrator Rozier tries for something more. Not so much in character or voice, but in identity: Rozier does not allow the character to define him or herself by sex, and the narrator's gender remains unknown throughout the text. (Interestingly enough, not all the reviewers got that .....)
       Given that sexual identity is a fairly prominent marker in almost every human being -- and given that the narrator actually has a a lot of sex in this novel -- this is quite a feat to pull off. Unfortunately, it feels like a stunt most of the time, more irritating than effective, paying attention (and one can't help but) to Rozier pull it off (and it ain't easy) more of a distraction than any sort of useful addition to the book.
       It sounds clever enough. After all, the narrator winds up hiding a Jew in the cellar, and then has lots of sex with him -- a doubly forbidden act if the narrator is a man -- but the payoff doesn't seem big enough. There are gains in the ambiguity, but also sex-specific losses -- for example, if it's a she, why isn't she concerned about getting pregnant ? if it's a he, how has he dealt with his homosexuality the rest of the time ?
       At least it isn't just an exercise in androgyny -- though there is that awkward interlude when the narrator gets married. It's a sexless marriage (thank god !), but in making the spouse of ambiguous sex as well Rozier goes way too far, and he comes nowhere near sustaining Claude/Jude as a believable character. (The spouse is named Claude in the original and the UK version, but apparently that wasn't ambiguous enough, and so s/he's called Jude in the American version; given that 'Jude' is the German word for 'Jew' (though s/he's not Jewish) this is yet another unnecessary distracting element.)
       The narrator taught German at a local school during the occupation. Dad was already a prisoner of war, Mom was trying to ignore everything around her, sister Anne was doing the local SS man (Volker Hammerschimmel ...) upstairs, and other sister Isabelle ... well, there's not much about her.
       The narrator's great love is the German language and literature -- a problematic thing when the Germans have just become the despised occupiers. Worse yet, they've outlawed many of his/her favourite writers -- notably Thomas Mann (Death in Venice is, of course much mentioned, in case the reader has missed the hint that maybe s/he's a homo). So the narrator builds a library in a hidden corner of the basement, where s/he keeps the forbidden books and goes to read to escape the ugly world around.
       Bilingual fluency is, of course, of interest to the occupiers, and the teacher is summoned by the local Nazis and hired to do occasional translation work. But there's not much about this (except the slight semi-collaborationist guilt s/he feels -- though when your sister is doing an SS-man everything becomes relative ...), and it's basically just a vehicle for the narrator to spot a Jew at local headquarters and slip him out and home and into the cellar, where s/he keeps him for the next two years -- as her sex-toy cum reading buddy.
       Rozier piles another layer of identity confusion on in having Herman ('her man' ? see, one can't stop reading into it ...) speak not German but Yiddish (similar enough to be understood by a German-speaker, though written with Hebrew letters (something the narrator -- hard as it is to believe -- did not know)). So the narrator learns Yiddish, and waxes eloquently about language and literature. (Rozier is apparently director of a French Centre for Yiddish Culture .....)
       There are some decent twists and turns, though the ending -- and especially what becomes of Herman (hint: it involves an identity mix-up !) -- is a bit rushed. But Rozier never finds the right pace to allow the many interesting issues he raises to properly unfold. He wastes a lot of space on the narrator's efforts to retrieve a book by Heine that Herman had stashed in the house where he used to live, for example, but doesn't give other things the proper time to develop and sink in. The family Rozier provides the narrator is of some interest -- particularly Anne and the men in her life (not a girl who makes good choices, though she sounds like a real bitch too), as well as the almost all-ignoring mother -- but too many parts just seem too forced.
       This is the sort of book that sounds good in theory -- the plot, the ideas, the approach -- but Rozier hasn't been able to make the best of it. It's a constructed book, and feels far too artificial -- especially since Rozier works the emotions so hard; constructed texts often fare much better if the presentation too is more clinical.
       Passable, but given all its ambition rather disappointing.

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Links:

The Mercy Room: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of French literature

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About the Author:

       French author Gilles Rozier was born in 1963. He is director of the Center for Yiddish Culture in Paris.

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© 2006-2008 the complete review

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