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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Paper Tiger

Olivier Rolin

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To purchase Paper Tiger

Title: Paper Tiger
Author: Olivier Rolin
Genre: Novel
Written: 2002 (Eng. 2007)
Length: 203 pages
Original in: French
Availability: Paper Tiger - US
Paper Tiger - UK
Paper Tiger - Canada
Tigre en papier - Canada
Tigre en papier - France
Die Papiertiger von Paris - Deutschland
  • French title: Tigre en papier
  • Translated by William Cloonan

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Our Assessment:

B : effective contemporary look at Paris-1968 and afterwards

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Economist . 16/11/2002 .
FAZ . 17/1/2004 .
The NY Times Book Rev. . 15/4/2007 Alison McCulloch
Rev. of Contemp. Fiction . Summer/2007 Jeremy M. Davies
TLS . 21/2/2003 Richard Vinen
Die Welt A 27/12/2003 Marko Martin
Die Zeit . 1/4/2004 Markus Clauer

  Review Consensus:


  From the Reviews:
  • "The novel takes us on a tour of a generation and its myths: Mao, Che, Vietnam (where we follow a search for the memory of the dead father of the narrator-author), the B-52 bomber, Pompidou ("le président Pompe"), Beirut. With little respect for the logic of time, the prose reads like the fractured, haunted narrative of a man who has looked deeply into himself and been changed by the experience. Mr Rolin quite possibly has a great novel in him. In the meantime, this one will do very well." - The Economist

  • "(W)enn schon nicht das große Epochenwerk, dann doch eines der intelligentesten nachgereichten literarischen Zeugnisse dazu." - Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "It sounds like heavy going, and it is. (...) (B)ut there are also treats that make the car ride worth taking" - Alison McCulloch, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Rolin's first novel to appear in English is a remarkable, breathless flood of language: an attempt to outdistance the futility of memory -- particularly that of an epoch and ideology that now seem, regretfully, to exist outside of time: co-opted and without consequence (a paper tiger) -- with no other weapon than wit. Its melancholy is decisive: the narrator worries that the children of the present are incapable of understanding that there was a time when the world could have turned out differently, while fearing too that The Cause was never more than romantic idiocy and ill-informed fanaticism." - Jeremy M. Davies, Review of Contemporary Fiction

  • "He captures the comic horror of a certain kind of political activism in the early 1970s. (...) Rolin's book is about regret, loss and nostalgia. He does not describe the era under discussion as a belle epoque -- on the contrary, he presents it as a sad and sordid time when the present seemed to be sandwiched between an important past and a brilliant future." - Richard Vinen, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Und doch sind Die Papiertiger von Paris alles andere als papierne Aufarbeitung, sondern mit Verve und einem ästhetischen Gespür geschrieben, das nur noch einer einzigen "Sache" dienstbar ist -- jener der Literatur. (...) (P)ackend bis zur letzten Zeile." - Marko Martin, Die Welt

  • "Dieser ebenso schlaue wie enervierend mit Kulturgut protzende Roman will aber auch das Gegenteil beweisen: dass Menschenverstand, dass Sinn für Schönheit, Kultur und Geschichte den Alten und seinesgleichen vor Schlimmerem bewährt haben." - Markus Clauer, Die Zeit

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:

       Paper Tiger goes in circles, the narrator literally driving around and around Paris one night, as if in the hope of being able to encircle and grasp it:

How long have we been driving around ? Two, three hours ? How many circumnavigations have we made, Thirteen's daughter and me, at the controls of Remember ?
       It's almost as if the city itself remains unreachable: as they pass by the narrator lists the store-names and the billboards, all that Paris has become, but it's all just passed by. They just drive.
       The narrator was a member of 'The Cause', a radical activist group that flowered in the politicized days of Paris, 1968, and engaged in more violent and subversive activity than the mere student protests of the day. Among the other members of The Cause was 'Thirteen'. He died twenty years ago, and on this car-ride the narrator is trying to explain to his daughter Marie, who was four when her father died, who he was and what he fought for. (The narrator's own father was killed in Indochina when he was still an infant, and he also describes his own journey in trying to come to grips with that death; "I don't know any more about my father than you do about yours", he says, but this long drive into night is an attempt to change that.)
       The narrator has now reached "the prophylactic age. The time of workouts in the gym and colon exams ...", a far cry from his radical youth. But a lot of time has passed:
Fewer years separate that era from the end of the war than today from then. You had to get old to begin to realize that your youth, your generation's youth, had been completely thrown off course by the proximity of the mass of death, the world war, the defeat, the collaboration.
       He describes the idealism and ambition of The Cause -- though it remained always more idealism and ambition than offering any realistic programme. They were so intent on change that they hardly focussed on what ends to achieve, drawn towards exotic, comprehensive Maoism without much thought as to all the implications.
       The Cause gave all of them a purpose and identity ("we were not so much 'individuals'; nobody was an 'I' at the time") -- one that still lingers. As the narrator explains:
your father was part of us, part of this multiple being, somewhere between a hero and a clown, that's called "us". (.....) (S)ince part this sort of sponge called "us" is still alive, your father is still partly alive through us, OK ? And the opposite as well: we're a little dead through him.
       The narrator describes the comrades and co-conspirators and what they tried to do (and what moved them to do it) -- but it is like driving in circles. It was adventure and it was sincere conviction, but it also wasn't enough. The narrator also describes the disillusionment of what came after, of the different futures they found. He had a difficult transition -- "I don't like the year 2000 very much, but frankly I detested the 1970s" --, as did Thirteen. Not surprisingly, the book moves towards the narrator's description of Thirteen's death.
       Paper Tiger is a very French story, from the billboards and shopfronts they constantly pass by to the still-lingering effects and fallout from the French experience in Indochina (different from America's Viet Nam) and World War II (far different than in, say, Germany or Russia, yet still leaving a deep mark on the national psyche) to, especially, the failures of the '68-generation. It is seen specifically from a contemporary perspective (literally at the dawn of a new millennium -- "in several days it will be the first solstice of the twenty-first century"), with the burnt-out narrator still having trouble coming to terms with it all, his audience a girl born long after most of the events he describes (and a political naïf who hasn't even heard of the Comintern ("Go look it up in an encyclopedia. You'll find it on the Internet.")) He tries to explain the times (and The Cause) to her (and thus also to the reader), but the disconnect remains: these are events of those times -- impossible for the narrator or Thirteen to leave behind, but also impossible for Marie to fully understand.
       Rolin's approach makes Paper Tiger a less than straightforward read. Marie is at the narrator's side, but there's little conversation: it's almost entirely one long monologue. Much of it is presented in the second person, as if desperately trying to put the reader in the protagonist's position ("You hoped to see the green flash, but you never did. You would go home silently, confused and disappointed."), but it's a lot to demand here, and it comes as a relief when he switches to a first-person perspective. Still, there's considerable power to much of the story, and the mix of philosophizing and action-accounts makes, at the very least, for a mostly gripping read.
       Certainly, those familiar with French history, politics, and society over the past few decades will have an easier time with this very national narrative, but it should also be of interest to other readers. An interesting document of the times, and a rewarding if not easy read.

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Paper Tiger: Reviews: Other books by Olivier Rolin under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of French literature

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About the Author:

       French author Olivier Rolin was born in 1947.

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© 2007-2021 the complete review

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