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the Complete Review
the complete review - non-fiction

The Adversary

Emmanuel Carrère

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

To purchase The Adversary

Title: The Adversary
Author: Emmanuel Carrère
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2000 (Eng. 2000)
Length: 191 pages
Original in: French
Availability: The Adversary - US
The Adversary - UK
The Adversary - Canada
L'adversaire - Canada
The Adversary - India
L'adversaire - France
Amok - Deutschland
L'avversario - Italia
El adversario - España
  • A True Story of Monstrous Deception
  • French title: L'adversaire
  • Translated by Linda Coverdale
  • L'adversaire was made into a film of the same title in 2002, directed by Nicole Garcia and starring Daniel Auteuil

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Our Assessment:

A- : good account of horrific events and a bizarre life

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Economist . 13/5/2000 .
FAZ . 7/1/2002 Stefan Maus
The Guardian . 20/1/2001 Chris Petit
The Independent . 20/1/2001 Dea Birkett
London Rev. of Books . 22/3/2001 Iain Bamforth
Neue Zürcher Zeitung . 7/8/2001 Martin Ebel
New Statesman . 29/1/2001 Patrick Marnham
The NY Times A 7/2/2001 Richard Bernstein
The NY Times Book Rev. . 6/5/2001 Julie Salmon
People . 2/4/2001 Pam Lambert
The Spectator . 30/12/2000 Anita Brookner
The Spectator . 20/1/2001 Harry Mount
TLS . 19/5/2000 Lucy Dallas

  Review Consensus:

  Not quite a consensus, but most impressed (and all think it is a fascinating story)

  From the Reviews:
  • "As with Capote's classic, morbid curiosity is part of the reader-appeal. But L'Adversaire long outlasts that initial thrill. (...) As a story, L'Adversaire is hard to beat. But it is rich in themes as well: social masks, conformity and credulity, wanting to be loved for oneself alone, madness, despair. Thanks to Mr Carrere's skill as a writer, these are pointed to rather than hammered out. L'Adversaire is the more chilling and powerful for its contained, spare prose. It is a thoroughly gripping read, but never a comfortable book." - The Economist

  • "Sehr sorgfältig hat Emmanuel Carrère diese Vorgeschichte und auch die Taten des mörderischen Hochstaplers recherchiert. (...) Der Fall des Jean-Claude Romand ist so atemberaubend, daß er nur in distanziertem Stil vorgetragen werden konnte. Jede rhetorische Ausschmückung wäre zu plumper Effekthascherei verdammt gewesen. In den besten Passagen seines Buches gelingt Carrère ein kühler, schnörkelloser Vortrag der immer irrsinnigeren Verstrickungen des Mörders." - Stefan Maus, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "Given such great material, what is wrong with The Adversary ? It asks too many rhetorical questions for a start, many of them the sort that sound better in, well, French. It also evokes too many superior fictions (.....) What is really wanted is more speculation on the prosaic complicities and collusions that grew up around his fabrications (.....) In translation, The Adversary too often reads like bad Primo Levi: a too slim, quasi-lucid (and quasi-bogus) philosophical and psychological inquiry into the nature of evil, verging on the lazy when it comes to the big imponderables" - Chris Petit, The Guardian

  • "Carrère is an observer, not an investigator. He simply reads and listens - to the killer's correspondence, to his one-time friends, to the trial. The Adversary is self-consciously in the style of Truman Capote's In Cold Blood (with which it will inevitably be compared), in sparse language without conjecture. (...) As much a portrait of the distance in a middle-class marriage as a murder tale, The Adversary imitates a classic. It might well also become one." - Dea Birkett, The Independent

  • "Carrere -- who, unfortunately, has not been well served by this translation, which fails to capture his dry, throwaway style -- considers some of these questions and has made a thorough inquiry into the daily problems and the slow growth of the deception" - Patrick Marnham, New Statesman

  • "(I)ntelligent and lucid (.....) (A) delicate yet penetrating examination of Mr. Romand's strange career (.....) The account has all the elements of a psychological thriller, but it is a kind of theological thriller as well. (...) Mr. Carrère's book is a startling exposé of the human capacity to do wrong and our equally startling capacity to look the other way." - Richard Bernstein, The New York Times

  • "What emerged from this obsessional stew of reportorial zeal and writerly introspection is The Adversary (another name, in both English and French, for the Devil), a fascinating meditation on Jean-Claude Romand and what his bizarre life might mean. Carrère's inquiry is highly personal, written in lucid prose that has been elegantly translated by Linda Coverdale. (...) Unable to sustain the philosophical burdens the author has imposed on it, this slender book doesn't end so much as fade away." - Julie Salmon, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Carrere's penetrating psychological insight and scalpel-sharp prose deftly strip bare this life "corrupted by lies."" - Pam Lambert, People

  • "It is no surprise that Emmanuel Carrère brings this extraordinary tale so brilliantly to life. He seems to have more than a little in common with Romand, not least the narcissistic streak. (...) Monsieur Carrère is so keen on himself that it sticks in the craw to acknowledge how very exciting his book is." - Harry Mount, The Spectator

  • "Almost the only consolation to be had from Classe de neige is that the horror, however brilliantly evoked, was imaginary; Adversaire is almost unbearable to read. One cannot help but wonder why Carrere feels the need to explore these territories repeatedly (.....) It is difficult to see what this book usefully adds to the debate in France over Jean-Claude Romand, yet impossible to deny its fascination" - Lucy Dallas, Times Literary Supplement

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 Adversary is an account of actual events. In a work of fiction the central character, Jean-Claude Romand, would hardly be believable. 'Web of deception' doesn't come close to describing what he wove, and how he got away with it for almost two decades is baffling. Only his desperate final acts -- the murder of his wife and children, then his parents and their dog (plus another attempted murder) -- are in some way comprehensible.
       Romand's life went awry when he didn't sit for his exams in his second year as a medical student. Rather than retake them he pretended he had passed and was continuing with his studies; the university bureaucracy allowed him to reregister as a second-year student for more than ten years, but he took no more exams and instead pretended to be advancing with his studies along with everyone else. With relatively few friends -- and by actually attending the same classes and studying diligently (but pointlessly) -- he managed to fool everyone. The woman he would marry was a classmate from early on, and even she never caught on.
       After completing his studies he claimed to have gotten a position with the World Health Organisation. He and his wife lived in Gex -- "situated in French territory, it is essentially a residential suburb of Geneva"" -- and he commuted across the border to WHO. All those years no one thought it suspicious that he never gave his office phone number out, or invited his wife to visit him .....
       Money was obviously a problem, since he wasn't earning any, but under the WHO-cover he also convinced relatives that he could invest their money at a higher rate of return if they handed it over to him, which they did. Trusting, gullible, foolish, it's fascinating to read how everyone was taken in. Eventually, of course, the house of cards began to fall: some of the 'investors' wanted their money back (the first died from a tumble down some stairs, when the only one with him was, coincidentally, Romand ...), and Romand's fairly lavish lifestyle eventually ate up all there was.
       Romand's solution is mass-murder -- with, eventually, what looks to be a pretty feeble stab at suicide to go with it. Carrère -- like all of France -- was fascinated by the story, and wanted to write about it. Early efforts to contact Romand met with no response, but in fact Romand was willing to help, and once the trial began some three years later Carrère picked up the story again, reporting on the trial for a magazine.
       Much of the book recounts the trial itself (as well as some of Carrere's reactions to what he's gotten himself into) -- though unfortunately it's not made exactly clear what Romand was on trial for. His guilt was self-evident, so presumably it was a matter of showing diminished capacity or something of that sort, but Carrere never makes it clear. For American readers the 'trial' will presumably be a bit baffling -- including bits such as the staged recreations of the crimes:

A policeman lay down on the bed and another officer, armed with a rolling pin, pretended to strike him in different postures. Jean-Claude had to give orders, correct mistakes, like a movie director. I'd seen photos of these reconstructions: they were sinister and somewhat farcical. Next, they moved to the children's bedroom, where they'd placed on what remained of the beds two little mannequins dressed in pyjamas purchased for the occasion (the bills for which appear in the dossier).
       The story is deeply disturbing -- these were horrific crimes -- but also fascinating, especially as Carrere wonders how Romand could get away with leading this fake life for so long, fooling absolutely everyone. Carrère tells the story well -- and also acknowledges his discomfort and ambivalence.
       Romand is a fascinating character, and it's amazing to see how such a flimsy invented life (based on claims that would crumble if anyone made even the slightest attempt at verifying them) could fool even those closest to him. An amazing, unsettling story.

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The Adversary: Reviews: L'Adversaire - the film: Other books by Emmanuel Carrere under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of French literature

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About the Author:

       French author Emmanuel Carrère was born in 1957. He has written numerous books, which have been widely translated.

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© 2005-2022 the complete review

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