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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Power of Flies

Lydie Salvayre

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

To purchase The Power of Flies

Title: The Power of Flies
Author: Lydie Salvayre
Genre: Novel
Written: 1995 (Eng. 2007)
Length: 186 pages
Original in: French
Availability: The Power of Flies - US
The Power of Flies - UK
The Power of Flies - Canada
La puissance des mouches - Canada
La puissance des mouches - France
Die Macht der Fliegen - Deutschland
  • French title: La puissance des mouches
  • Translated by Jane Kuntz

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Our Assessment:

B+ : artful look at the mind of someone driven to murder

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Bookforum . 12-1/2008 Stefanie Sobelle
Financial Times . 1/12/2007 Jonathan Gibbs
The Nation . 21/1/2008 Lorna Scott Fox
Neue Zürcher Zeitung . 31/1/2002 Milo Rau
The Observer . 13/1/2008 Lee Rourke
TLS . 21-8/12/2007 Lucy Dallas

  From the Reviews:
  • "Despite the brutality on display, The Power of Flies is compulsively readable and deeply funny; all of Salvayre’s work is governed by a subversive laughter that springs from trauma and hopelessness. This nimble translation by Jane Kuntz reveals the author’s delicate balance between trenchant humor, unrelenting irony, and both interfamilial and institutionalized violence." - Stefanie Sobelle, Bookforum

  • "With all this vagueness, you could accuse Lydie Salvayre of wilful inscrutability. But by keeping us in the dark, she forces us to lean closer to her creation, a haughty museum guide, as he holds forth on the iniquities of the world. Surprisingly, his single-minded negativity becomes almost endearing." - Jonathan Gibbs, Financial Times

  • "If the intimacy of any first-person voice courts empathy from the reader, this narrator -- full of self-pity when recalling the father's aggressions, full of smugness when reporting his own -- is very difficult to like. Salvayre's challenge to us, however unclear in this early book, is to feel compassion where the character shows none: to understand him as the heir to a violence that is historically founded and socially perpetuated. (...) For all its verbal antics and moments of grotesque or absurdist humor, The Power of Flies offers a despairing view of the psychological damage an alienated society inflicts upon the individual and of the consolations of philosophy." - Lorna Scott Fox, The Nation

  • "Salvayre is beguiled by our construction of memory into a believable narrative that gives us the answers we need. Although Salvayre's narrator exists in a personal hell akin to the 'sea in the dark of night, with one abyss above and one abyss below', there is a precision embedded deep within his maniacal blathering. And even the whiff of Camus's Meursault doesn't hamper a voice that repeatedly leads us towards the sense that an all-revealing epiphany is possible. The Power of Flies is further indication that the novel of ideas is still flourishing in France." - Lee Rourke, The Observer

  • "Jane Kuntz has done a good job with Salvayre's assured, fluid prose, which moves with ease from the lofty pronouncements to dirty-minded conversational French. There are a couple of lapses, but she has kept the central sense of character crucial to the book: one man's descent into inhumanity, with no one but Blaise Pascal for company." - 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 central character in The Power of Flies is a former museum guide, now on trial for murder. His is the only voice we hear, but the novel consists entirely of his conversations with those whose hands his fate is now in -- a judge, a doctor, the district attorney, etc. Their halves of the conversation -- or rather, their brief interruptions and questions (since he hardly lets them get anything in edgewise anyway) -- are, if at all, only reflected in his responses:

     You'd appreciate it if I could be brief, Your Honor ?
     If I got back to my story ?
     So, where were we ?
     Ah yes. Your nastiness will be your ruin, prophesizes my wife.
       He does ramble on, getting carried away with his accounts as he answers their questions and reveals the details of his life and work (the murder itself looming over all of this, but hardly directly addressed).
       He claims:
I don't like memories. I find them repulsive. Like reheated leftovers.
       But he does dredge them up for the doctor and the others -- indeed:
     But ever since I've been in prison, Doctor, I don't quite know what's happening to me; my memories are rushing back, and I'm experiencing an irrepressible desire to talk about them.
       He certainly has an unhappy childhood that he can blame, dominated by a hated and horrible father whom he accuses of 'murdering' his beloved mother over all the years they were together (among many other crimes). Obnoxious, brutal, unpredictable, the father terrorised the family, with the boy finding that:
     I'm punished for answering. And punished when I don't. I've figured out that, in the end, I'm being punished for existing.
       Married, his own domestic life is far from satisfactory either. But he seems to find some fulfillment -- for a while at least -- at his job, as a museum guide at the abbey Port-Royal des Champs. It's the Blaise Pascal-connexion that really sets him off:
He has thoroughly changed my life. Reading him has revived my memory. For years, you see, I had repudiated my past. I'd vowed to eradicate it, to let it sediment beneath layers of recollection until it became like a block of granite, like a tombstone. But reading Les Pensées caused this past to stir in my memory, like a child in a woman's womb.
       Indeed, he becomes quite Pascal-obsessed -- and the title of the book is also taken from one of the Pensées (VI.367):
The power of flies; they win battles, hinder our soul from acting, consume our body.
       Pascal becomes his guide, as it were, offering him all sorts of answers -- but whether his new-found obsession (and the guidance he reads into Les Pensées) proved beneficial seems, at best, questionable. A downward spiral soon leaves him completely down and out and ultimately, of course, a murderer.
       He admits:
     I get the feeling that the more I talk, the deeper I descend into a well of mystery.
       It's not quite that way for the reader, as his account does provide some answers; indeed, with this particularly horrible childhood which anything could be blamed on Salvayre almost makes it too easy to understand (or at least excuse) him.
       The manic, compulsive confessions, the Pascal-connexions he finds (and creates), and especially the interaction he has with others -- his boss, the people he leads around the abbey, his wife -- make for an often compelling tale of derangement. However, Salvayre's own background as a trained psychiatrist sometimes seems to have played too great a role in shaping the narrative, the case-study feel coming through the creative turns.
       Among the many small ideas that work particularly well is the protagonist's experience with a psychiatrist, who treated him for six years when he was a boy:
I'm a choice client. I don't utter a word. Nor does he. We sit facing each other, at rest. I like these silent breaks in a short, yet already boisterous life.
       Indeed, the therapist only blows it when he asks him to open up. Words and communication again prove no good. In this case, the boy lies, in order to say something, but his father has already taught him that it doesn't matter what he says: no matter what, he'll find himself punished for existing ..... Reading, too. is an escape, of sorts, -- one vigorously opposed and denigrated by his father -- but whether in childhood or when he finds Pascal as an adult the words aren't enough. Indeed, silence seems the far preferable alternative at almost every turn -- and if he had never picked up Pascal, so the suggestion, maybe he could have kept those memories properly bottled up .....
       Salvayre's character is a man of extremes, but she burdens him with such a horrible back-story that the extremes are too readily excusable: this man could convincingly blame his father for anything he wound up doing. The introspection on offer is often clever -- and certainly it's an engaging personal history -- but there's too little subtlety, as he even asks himself: "Could I be insane, perhaps ?" He's certainly mad -- clinically insane -- on some level, and in relying completely on such a character Salvayre makes her job both too easy and too difficult. It may be a convincing sort of case-study, and it is interesting as such, but there's far too little about the man that any reader could in any way relate to.

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The Power of Flies: Reviews: Lydie Salvayre: Other books by Lydie Salvayre under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       French author Lydie Salvayre has written numerous books.

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© 2007-2009 the complete review

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