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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


The Scapegoat

Daniel Pennac

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To purchase The Scapegoat

Title: The Scapegoat
Author: Daniel Pennac
Genre: Novel
Written: 1985 (Eng. 1998)
Length: 215 pages
Original in: French
Availability: The Scapegoat - US
The Scapegoat - UK
The Scapegoat - Canada
Au Bonheur des ogres - Canada
Au Bonheur des ogres - France
Paradies der Ungeheuer - Deutschland
Il paradiso degli orchi - Italia
La felicidad de los ogros - España
  • French title: Au Bonheur des ogres
  • Translated by Ian Monk

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Our Assessment:

B : amusing though not entirely successful mystery

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Daily Telegraph . 24/7/2002 Max Davidson
The LA Times C- 19/12/1999 Eugen Weber

  From the Reviews:
  • "It is a charming, idiosyncratic tale." - Max Davidson, Daily Telegraph

  • "Unfortunately, and despite the best efforts of an imaginative and resourceful translator, Ian Monk, what can amuse in French works less well in English. The three fantasies that the Harvill Press offers to English-language readers suggest that, like broccoli and clerihews, Pennac's prose is an acquired taste, especially when divorced from an original French that made its comedy more comic, its wordplay more playful, its evocations more evocative, its social commentary less banal." - Eugen Weber, The Los Angeles Times

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 hero and narrator of Pennac's crime thrillers (there are half a dozen of them by now, at least in French) is hapless Benjamin Malaussène. Malaussène goes through life as a scapegoat, a quality he has turned to professional advantage. In this novel, one of the first in the series, Malaussène, works at "the Store". Nominally he is in Quality Control, but in fact he is the person called upon to take the rap when customers come in with complaints.
       Malaussène excels at his job. Customers come in complaining of nightmarish mishaps regarding their recent purchases, all out for their pound of flesh. Malaussène manages to assume all blame, breaking down, abjectly guilty. The customers take pity, the Store doesn't have to replace the goods, and everybody is happy. It is a fun idea, and Pennac spins it out nicely.
       There's more to Malaussène. He is also pretty much the guardian of a load of half-brothers and sisters, and a particularly foul smelling dog. They all live together in chaotic but generally happy circumstances in Paris' Belleville district -- one noted for a large immigrant population and considered fairly seedy. Malaussène and his clan fit right in.
       More than anything The Scapegoat is about colour and description. Pennac does a good job of describing Belleville, his family, the department store, the odd characters that populate it, and the police.
       There is also, incidentally, a plot. Of sorts. Which is where the police come in. People keep getting themselves blown up at the Store, and they keep doing so in the immediate vicinity of Malaussène. He is investigated, and he investigates.
       The mystery part of the book is not its greatest strength. Pennac contrives an okay plot and denouement, but most of the fun is in what happens around it.
       There is a bit too much of the dog, and some of the other pieces don't fit ideally together either. A love affair is thrown in -- Malaussène meets a shop-lifting journalist -- as well as a fair bit of social commentary.
       Malaussène is a modern French character who might strike Americans as quite unusual. Semi-intellectual, extremely laid-back, liberal, loving, he is a sympathetic though perhaps too much larger-than-life character.
       Pennac's literary aspirations also shine through -- the department store's book section (they have a book section !) includes works by Hermann Broch, Jan Potocki, and Gadda (whose That Awful Mess on Via Merulana Malaussène is reading). This preposterous selection is enough to break the hearts of readers on the other side of the Atlantic (well, the three of you who have actually heard of these authors).
       Perec-translator and Oulipo member Ian Monk does an honorable job of translating a book that is so heavy on slang that it almost sinks even in the original. Monk's version is decidedly British, which means it rings odd in many American ears. Whether an American version would be preferable is open to debate; we found Monk's efforts good enough. A great deal is inevitably awkward, but the gist and the freewheeling feel of the novel do shine through. The language will, however, be an obvious annoyance to many (and particularly American) readers.

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The Scapegoat: Reviews: Daniel Pennac: Other books by Daniel Pennac under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       French author Daniel Pennac was born in Casablanca in 1944.

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