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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Dossier 51

Gilles Perrault

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To purchase Dossier 51

Title: Dossier 51
Author: Gilles Perrault
Genre: Novel
Written: 1969 (Eng. 1971)
Length: 384 pages
Original in: French
Availability: Dossier 51 - US
Dossier 51 - UK
Dossier 51 - Canada
Le dossier 51 - France
Dossier 51 - Deutschland
  • French title: Le dossier 51
  • Translated by Douglas Parmee
  • Dossier 51 was made into a film, directed by Michel Deville, in 1978

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Our Assessment:

B : creative, unsettling take on the spy-novel

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Haaretz . 1/11/2011 Yossi Melman
The NY Times Book Rev. . 22/8/1971 Newgate Callendar
Sunday Times . 9/5/1971 Edmund Crispin
TLS . 2/7/1971 .

  From the Reviews:
  • "Dossier 51 is not only an original spy novel, it is also an interesting attempt to deal with the basic situation of our human lives: the ongoing struggle between the inner truth of each one of us -- the truth that seeks freedom of choice -- and the complex reality that forces us to make compromises." - Yossi Melman, Haaretz

  • "If Dossier 51 by Gilles Perrault is entertainment, then so was what the wolf had in mind for Red Riding Hood. (...) All of which M.Perrault handles with extraordinary skill. But in the end it is not the ghoulishness of the operation which terrifies, so much as its fatuity (.....) One can only say that the whole business is horribly convincing" - Edmund Crispin, Sunday Times

  • "The scheme is well carried through, and the translation is excellent. (...) The trick is certainly well done; is the result a novel ? It is indeed, and a very absorbing one. In spite of what might seem an unpromising form it has pace, action, suspense and psychological acuteness. Addicts of the spy novel will find their favourite dish served up with a new sauce." - 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:

       Dossier 51 is, on one level, a fairly straightforward spy novel: thirty-six year-old French diplomat Dominique Auphal has been promoted to a new position in an international organization, and a branch of the secret service wants to exploit him as an insider -- and: "Experience has shown that French political and diplomatic staff are eminently suitable for exploitation". In order to do so, they have to figure out how best to make him their man in the organization: having some dirt on him, i.e. leverage that can be used to make him amenable to their requirements (or that works simply as blackmail) seems the preferred method, and so they try to learn everything they can about Auphal, his family, and everyone he is and has been close to. Eventually, several plans are considered as to how to turn him and get him on board; eventually one is put into action -- and the results aren't quite the hoped-for ones.
       Yet Dossier 51 is unlike most spy novels in two respects. The first is in its mix of specificty and vagueness: the organization Auphal comes to work for (in a never-specified position, and with even its location given a code-name ('Delphi')), is identified only as O.R.V.A. -- one that has taken on new importance but whose function is never really discussed beyond the observation that:

the importance of O.R.V.A. has steadily increased in these five years, so that this organization has become the king-pin of French policy towards developing countries. O.R.V.A, which ranked as a C2 objective five years ago, is now classified as A1.
       More sinisterly, the organization looking into Auphal and trying to get their claws into him is never identified. It's unclear whether it's a foreign or even a French secret service -- though they do try to keep off the radar of the French police, suggesting however connected they are, this is so top secret that they can't involve these authorities -- and all the characters are identified by code-names, generally Greek gods (major and minor, indicating their relative positions) and occasionally also extending to the numeric codes that they use for their subjects. Even target Auphal himself is generally identified not by name but as "51" -- hence the title.
       However, what really sets Dossier 51 apart is that it is not a conventional narrative; instead, it merely presents the contents of 'Dossier 51', the file that builds up on Auphal as he is investigated and attempts are made to get control of him. So the novel actually consists solely of memoranda, reports, copied letters and transcribed recordings, etc. and readers are left to make a story out of this. Surprisingly, they can: Perrault uses this approach cleverly, and, for example, the guidance from superiors in their notes to the subordinates as to how the investigation is to be handled allows him to lead the reader along in their (often bumbling) efforts very well.
       More difficult, of course, is bringing to life the characters -- especially the ostensibly central one. Hard facts about Auphal are easily collected -- physical details, a résumé of education and work experience, and the like -- but otherwise he, and personal detail about him, are elusive, and they have to dig pretty hard to figure him out. By contrast, keeping tabs on his wife ('52') and her sexual adventures outside the home proves much easier.
       There is decent drama here -- helped by the mysterious-sinister figures and forces looking into Auphal, and early memos such as:
     You have failed to understand the first part of our memo 1975 PS of 12.9.1967.

     We repeat:
     'Obtain all information concerning Dominique Auphal.'
       When they mean all they really do mean all: Dossier 51 is plausibly bureaucratically (and very creepily) comprehensive. Sometimes really, really seeming to go into rather too much detail:
     Dossier 51 is being scrutinized. We shall give it our best attention.
     To enable us to make a typological analysis of the subject, we request early information as the precise width and thickness of the diving board of the Hilton Hotel swimming-pool in Rabat (photo no. 11 attached to the memorandum relating to ref. 2001 UR)
       Auphal is a tough nut to crack: he seems to lead a boring life, and:
His sexual activity seems somewhat below average. All our information concerning him suggests that he is interested only in his career.
       Indeed, his home life seems particularly bland, as insiders report that he and his wife get along but hardly seem devoted to one another, showing little affection but also hardly ever getting into any sort of disagreements: "they seem rather to be living together like two strangers". They do have two children, and there have been some disagreements about how they are raised, but on the whole they seem like a functional if rather unemotional family. Still, finding the wife a lover is one of the 'Operations' (code-name: Jumping) that the secret service tries to set into motion once Auphal's wife joins him in 'Delphi' (it does not go well).
       The secret service digs deeper in Auphal's past, and eventually decide on a way to try to get at him -- but their determined burrowing into his past and psyche ultimately turns out to be too successful by half, and they don't meet quite the success they were hoping for.
       There's rather a lot of back and forth, and the code names make it somewhat difficult to relate to some of what happens. Still, on the whole Perrault juggles and presents this well -- and there are some decent points of tension, including when different agents tread on each other's toes, and even quite a few amusing bits of how this bureaucracy (and for all the spy-business, it's still a bureaucracy) works, such as the last request in one memorandum:
     4) 5672 has asked for permission to indulge in sexual intercourse with 5354, as unless he does it will be difficult to remain her contact. As an exception to routine regulations, in view of 5354's peculiar characteristics, we consider it appropriate to grant this permission, subject to any contrary decision from you.
       (Alas, not soon later: "5672 reports that 5354 was caught by 53 on 1.5.1968 whilst engaged in sexual intercourse in the kitchen with the official chauffeur made available to 51 by the French Embassy in Delphi", and she lost her job over it.)
       In its depiction of data-collection Dossier 51 is, of course, old-fashioned, and yet the story still resonates effectively in the present data-age, as it's all too easy to extrapolate into the present. Seeking out Auphal's vulnerabilities -- and reducing him to simply a number ('51') --: his fate could just (or, sadly: even more so) easily me a modern one
       The nature of the narrative -- nearly four hundred pages of 'official' memoranda -- can make for a somewhat exhausting read. The constant references to numbers -- of subjects as well as previous memoranda -- can be hard to follow, and it is a surprisingly crowded novel. Some more personal touches -- there are copies of letters, as well as some transcribed conversations -- add a more conventional touch, but are still, of course, just pieces of the bigger puzzle. At least Perrault does show some humor in how he presents the bureaucracy, and some of their 'Operations' (and their failures) are quite amusing -- one can almost hear the desperate cries of 'Abort ! abort !'
       An interesting oddity, quite well done, given its premises.

- M.A.Orthofer, 1 December 2014

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Dossier 51: Reviews: Dossier 51 - the film: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       French author Gilles Perrault was born in 1931.

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