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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Article 353

Tanguy Viel

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To purchase Article 353

Title: Article 353
Author: Tanguy Viel
Genre: Novel
Written: 2017 (Eng. 2019)
Length: 146 pages
Original in: French
Availability: Article 353 - US
Article 353 - UK
Article 353 - Canada
Article 353 du code pénal - Canada
Article 353 du code pénal - France
Selbstjustiz - Deutschland
Articolo 353 del codice penale - Italia
Artículo 353 del código penal - España
  • French title: Article 353 du code pénal
  • Translated by William Rodarmor

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Our Assessment:

B+ : smooth telling; neat (if dubious) spin on questions of guilt and culpability

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
L'Express . 31/1/2017 Patrick Perrot
Le Figaro . 18/1/2017 Alice Ferney
Le Monde . 5/1/2017 Eric Loret
NZZ . 23/12/2017 Paul Jandl
Die Welt . 2/12/2017 Elmar Krekeler

  From the Reviews:
  • "Tanguy Viel adopte le style qui convient, une "écriture parlé", de celle qu'on rencontre au coin de la rue et qui raconte la vie, et qui révèle aussi, la réflexion nourrie d'un homme qui sait ce qu'il a fait. Au delà du récit, ce qui m' a plu, c'est la confrontation entre le droit, la morale et l'éthique qui se joue au sein du bureau de ce juge. Qui en sortira vainqueur ?" - Patrick Perrot, L'Express

  • "Qui sont les vrais coupables? demande Tanguy Viel avec son texte plein des tendresses de son personnage. Un style d'abord haché, comme un mal-écrire recherché (qui disparaîtra), en restitue l'émotion et l'humilité. (...) Drame personnel, histoire collective et universelle, cet exposé d'un homme abattu qui remercie l'alcool et le vent pour la légèreté qu'ils apportent résonne devant son juge comme une magnifique leçon sur l'existence." - Alice Ferney, Le Figaro

  • "Er lebt von einem Monolog, der tastend versucht, Wirklichkeit zurückzuerobern. (...) Manches schrammt hart am Kitsch vorbei, und als solide Kapitalismuskritik ist Selbstjustiz wohl auch nicht zu gebrauchen. Aber dieser kleine, anrührende Roman kommt aus den Herzkammern der Rechtschaffenheit." - Paul Jandl, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "Man muss ein bisschen vorsichtig sein, wenn man sich mit Tanguy Viels Büchern beschäftigt. Man lässt sich leicht anstecken von Viels in diesem Fall nahezu unendlicher Meeres-und-Möwen-Metapherngischt, die immer mal wieder aufrauscht. (...) Selbstjustiz ist ein Buch, das funktioniert wie ein sanfter Schleifstein. Es schärft den Kopf, das Herz und das literarische Gespür." - Elmar Krekeler, 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:

       Article 353 begins with Antoine Lazenec going overboard, about five miles out to sea, and the only other person aboard this Merrry Fisher, Martial Kermeur -- who is telling the story --, revving up the engine and heading back for the docks, leaving Lazenec behind to presumably quickly drown. Just how much Kermeur helped Lazenec over the side is unclear at that point, but he's not surprised when the police come to his home a few hours later to arrest him.
       After this brief prologue-chapter Article 353 is presented as a three-part quasi-confession, Lazenec describing his interaction with the young ("thirty at the most") examining magistrate -- juge d'instruction -- who takes his statement to determine whether he should be charged with a crime and, if so, what the charge should be. (While technically a judge (and then referred to as such throughout by Kermeur), essentially the magistrate does what an American district attorney does, deciding whether the defendant should be charged, and what those charges should be; the actual prosecution/court trial -- if any -- is then the separate, next stage of the process.)
       Right at the start of their interaction, Kermeur has a request -- though he doesn't phrase it as such:

     It would be nice to have these handcuffs off, I said. Me, I can't talk unless my hands are free.
       The softy judge obliges -- a symbolic freeing that already signals exactly how this is going to go; he might as well have opened the door there and then and sent Kermeur home.
       Kermeur's passive approach -- he doesn't actually ask for the handcuffs to be removed -- is also revealing. Similarly, in his description of Lazenec going overboard at the very start of the novel, he studiously avoided mentioning whether Lazenec was pushed or in some way fell -- i.e. just how big a part he played in helping the man into the frigid water. Kermeur admits to abandoning Lazenec to his fate, but initially avoids revealing the extent to which he played a part in seeing that he came to this fate: here already he presents himself as bystander, and events as though they happen to and around him, suggesting he has little say in them (and hence also isn't responsible for whatever happens). So also with the handcuffs: he makes some claims -- it would be nice to be free of them; he can't talk freely unless his hands are free -- but makes no actual request (much less demand): he leaves the situation for others to assess and then act. (Even at the very end, when a clearer picture has emerged, Kermeur can try to convince himself -- and the judge, and the reader -- that: "I didn't really kill him. In terms of finishing it off physically, the sea did a lot better job than I did".)
       Leaving open for the time just how reliable a narrator Kermeur is, he is immediately presented as a manipulative one, carefully presenting his story in a very particular way. And even before the details are revealed readers are primed for it being a sob story, with Kermeur obviously a victim of some sort.
       Viel almost immediately adds another element that's meant to evoke sympathy: Kermeur reveals that his son Erwan is in a "ten-by-ten-cell" at that very moment -- i.e. already locked up for some crime. (Kermeur does not reveal the exact nature of his son's crime, or the length of the sentence, until very late in his account, the one big flaw in Viel's presentation, since, as such, it is a manipulation of the narrative that is aimed purely at the reader: the magistrate of course came into this deposition with that information, and must have consulted the files; the extent to which Erwan's case may be an extenuating factor is dragged out and played up solely for the reader's benefit (if one can call it that).)
       We're also primed for something really terrible having been done to Kermeur and indeed the whole town he lives in by Kermeur's early mention that the local mayor, Le Goff, who had been close to him (and shared the same first name) had offed himself, Kermeur observing that it was clear: "at least one person would wind up like that. A suicide".
       Kermeur lives in a small seaside town, on a somewhat isolated peninsula. There's a nearby city, but it's still separated from town by a bridge. Kermeur's wife left him, but his son stayed with him. Around the time Erwan was ten someone showed up to look at the property on whose ground the two of them lived -- Lazenec. And Lazenec immediately sees potential in the property -- and the whole seaside town. He buys the place and begins a huge redevelopment scheme, planning on creating: "a seaside resort here on Brest Bay !"
       The town could certainly needs a boost. Like many of the locals, Kermeur worked at the local Arsenal shipyard -- and like most of the workers there was laid off, with no new industry coming in to take the place of this major employer. But those who were laid off were in line for a layoff bonus -- a tidy sum, which many of them planned to invest in fishing boats.
       Lazenec gets wind of Kermeur's pot of cash -- and all the pots in town -- and invites Kermeur to invest in his development project. Kermeur puts his life savings in. As do some thirty other locals -- while the mayor invests the town's money.
       Things go predictably. Kermeur and the locals hold out hope -- in a nice twist, Lazenec leaves them dangling by sticking around, his: "stroke of genius", as Kermeur acknowledges:
     In a way, it would have been easier if Lazenec had just skipped out, left the area and changed his name. We would've run from law firm to law firm filing hopeless suits against the bankers, the insurers, and the notaires connected with the project, at least it would have kept us busy.
       Eventually, when he understands what's happened, Erwan acts out, in a way a seventeen-year-old would. He's tried and convicted; he gets a prison sentence. And then, finally, Lazenec pushes his luck too hard, playing at acting magnanimously and inviting Kermeur out on his boat. And we know how that ended .....
       Kermeur isn't sure how his story plays with the judge, but Viel certainly suggests that Kermeur is trying his damnedest to find the right way to make his case:
     The judge didn't react. All the time I was talking, shooting sentences into the air like arrows, looking to see where they would land, what file they would hit or bounce off of and spread across his desk like so many future tales, he didn't react, no sir.
       Despite the seeming lack of feedback, Kermeur's instincts are good. When he's essentially done, he makes sure to frame the determination the judge has to make in the best possible way for him:
The circumstances. Yes, the circumstances, I said. I'm not trying to win your sympathy, I said, but there are circumstances, after all.
       Article 353 of the French Penal Code -- printed in full near the end of the novel -- states that: "The law does not ask judges to account for the ways they reach decisions [...] The law asks of them only this one question, which contains the full measure of their duty: Are you fully convinced ?" (The French phrasing -- "Avez-vous une intime conviction ?" is nicely even more personal.) I.e. if judges get sweet-talked by a defendant, no matter how egregious the crime, they don't have to justify their reasons for letting them go; it's between them and their conscience. (Interestingly, Article 353 -- and that famous sentence, "Avez-vous une intime conviction ?" -- has a long, long history: it was introduced into the French penal code in 1791.)
       The judge does remind Kermeur at the end of their conversation:
     There was another big silence, and then I said: Is this going to cost me big time ?
     I don't know, he said.
     You don't know ?
     No, it depends.
     On what ?
     On me.
       But even if the judge plays coy about showing his cards at that moment, it's pretty clear which direction this is headed.
       Yes, Article 353 is a novel about the letter of the law meeting ideals of justice being served -- whereby this quirky little other letter of the law, Article 353, gives a lot of leeway to the juge d'instruction. There's no question that Kermeur -- and many others -- were screwed over, by a system and by one specific person. There's no question they didn't get justice for that. As to whether that absolves Kermeur for the actions he took -- well, Viel suggests the legal system should be (and indeed technically is) flexible enough to allow for that. Not everyone may agree. (For what it's worth: the outcome seems like an absolutely outrageous travesty to me.)
       Article 353 is also very much a book about story-telling, the narrator carefully framing and presenting his tale so as to best position himself for absolution from what is in fact a horrific crime. Viel's smooth prose adds to the seductiveness of Kermeur's sob story, and the novel reads effortlessly and grippingly. Hints of manipulation pop up throughout -- not least in Kermeur's controlling and shaping the narrative (rather than the more formal question-and-answer session one might expect if this were a serious interrogation), itself explained in a way to try to win over yet more sympathy:
But let me tell it the way I want to, let it be like a wild river that sometimes overflows its banks, because I don't have a lot of knowledge and laws like you do, and because telling it my way, I don't know, it eases my heart a little, as if I were floating, or something like that
       Pleading ignorance, of the law and generally, helps nudge the decision-making process away from the purely legal, and of course the naïve sap of a judge falls for it hook, line, and sinker. Nevertheless, this also isn't the usual sort of story of a criminal getting away with something, since Kermeur is also a sympathetic sucker, who was unquestioningly taken advantage of -- in a way many people can relate to, and which certainly both reflects and plays well in contemporary economies.
       There are a few odds touches too many that Viel brings in, notably major events from Kermeur's life -- an almost-win at the lottery and a carnival ride accident -- that feel like Viel's just laying it on too thick, but otherwise this is an exceptionally well-written novel that completely and easily sucks the reader in. As to Article 353's conclusion and moral, it seems at least to this reader beyond dubious. But then, there's a lot of injustice in this world .....

- M.A.Orthofer, 11 March 2019

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Article 353: Reviews: Other books by Tanguy Viel under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       French author Tanguy Viel was born in 1973.

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© 2019-2021 the complete review

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