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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Collaborators

Pierre Siniac

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To purchase The Collaborators

Title: The Collaborators
Author: Pierre Siniac
Genre: Novel
Written: 1997 (Eng. 2010)
Length: 489 pages
Original in: French
Availability: The Collaborators - US
The Collaborators - UK
The Collaborators - Canada
Ferdinaud Céline - Canada
Ferdinaud Céline - France
  • French title: Ferdinaud Céline
  • Translated by Jordan Stump

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Our Assessment:

B : fairly amusing if somewhat convoluted crime novel set in the literary world

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
TLS . 10/9/2010 Christopher Butler

  From the Reviews:
  • "(It) may be prolix and wildly self-indulgent, but is continuously entertaining." - Christopher Butler, 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 Collaborators is one of the rare instances where the title of the English translation is superior to the original one: this is, indeed, a book full of collaboration and collaborators -- including some unwitting ones. It is also anything but a straightforward novel, both moving back and forth in time and switching from first to third person narration. Information is only revealed piecemeal and in a roundabout way (with heavy but also ambiguous hints dropped along the way) -- and little is what it at first seems.
       The opening scenes of the novel are set in 1995, with the appearance of two previously unknown writers on the popular Book Culture TV program. Jean-Rémi Dochin and Charles Gastinel have co-authored the bestselling sensation of the season, Dancing the Brown Java, a novel set during the German Occupation of France during World War II. Already in these opening pages the reader learns that this is an arrangement of convenience (or duress), rather than an honest collaboration, and that these aren't equal partners -- and even what the hold the one has over the other involves. But the details only emerge later, as the book almost immediately turns the clock back five years, and tells the whole sorry story of how the book came into being.
       Dochin was down and out in 1990, a would-be writer who couldn't get a break -- or, by that time, even a proper hotel room. After he's turned away at yet another establishment, a friendly tip sends him to the Halte du Bon Accueil, an inn off the beaten path that welcomes the unwanted (and occasionally unwashed) -- and their pets. The owner, Ferdinaud Céline, a woman in her seventies, tells the newcomer that she used to be a bookseller and is thrilled to see that he is writing a book. He quickly becomes a local fixture, with the old woman doing everything she can to help him to get on with his book.
       She tells him, over and over, that she's convinced of his genius, and he's convinced she knows her stuff (her library is an impressive one). She even offers to type a clean copy for him, and slowly the book takes on the form of a finished manuscript. All along Dochin has his nagging doubts about the quality of his stuff, but Céline constantly reassures him that it's brilliant.
       Dochin doesn't want to submit it to a major publisher, and finally settles on small-time publisher Gastinel -- and he is floored by it. But he solicits a second opinion, and also decides that it's too big for him to handle on his own. Once he's sure that he's not deluding himself about the work he makes sure that Dochin is aboard with his plans -- willingly or not (or rather, knowing that Dochin will be unwilling, he puts everything in place to assure that things go just as he wants them to).
       A major concern for all the actors, at least until publication day, is who gets to see the manuscript, which is kept under tight wraps. Dochin does go behind Céline's back in soliciting a first opinion, but few got their hands on the manuscript early on. Still, as Gastinel notes, it's: "Like the book was some kind of chameleon!"
       Dochin still has his doubts about the book -- and then the great acclaim it receives upon publication:

All this acclaim ... something doesn't add up
       It continues to gnaw at him:
But there was still something I couldn't get out of my head. How could so many critics have been won over by anything as richly substandard as my worthless, pointless prose ? They're all serious, well-informed people, mostly, so what gives ?
       Well, for one thing Céline saw in the tarot cards that: "anyone who didn't like the novel would be calling down a jinx on himself". And when those who are (or might have been ...) critical of the book -- influential literary critics, in particular -- start dying under somewhat mysterious circumstances it would seem that there is yet more going on behind the scenes.
       As it turns out, quite a lot is happening behind the scenes: The Collaborators is several layers deep in its deceptions. The fact that Dancing the Brown Java is only the first of several planned volumes -- and that it is based on real life and people, collaborators with the Germans who did not act very honorably during the Occupation (and then emerged and lived largely untarred and scathed in the new Republics ...) -- also means there are quite few interested parties -- some of whose identities are only revealed very late along the way.
       Siniac constructs -- and unfolds -- his elaborate thriller fairly amusingly and well. The humor is occasionally too simple (Céline's refuge-inn, the way the characters -- including Gastinel and the literary critics -- are often close to caricature), and the plotting (or rather the way pieces of information are revealed) can get too convoluted. And while the hints are often quite well placed -- it's pretty clear very early on what helpful Céline is up to, but only becomes entirely clear much later, and Siniac adds quite a lot more to it that comes entirely unexpectedly -- the presentation (and the voices -- sometimes Dochin, sometimes an omniscient narrator) can get a bit more dizzying than probably need be. And a few necessary bits and piece aren't convincing, even with the leeway one allows such a semi-serious book (in particular the delays until Dochin gets his hands on a finished copy of the book).
       The literary establishment is skewered throughout, but Siniac's satire is generally rather simplistic, and the book is more successful on the traditional-thriller level (where he does, indeed, offer some good twists). The humor also stands at some odds with some of the brutality -- quickly dealt with, but quite ugly. The language, purposefully 'common' and everyday also feels a bit forced (and over-jovial).
       The Collaborators could have used a tighter edit, but even so the nearly five hundred pages go fast. It's clever and fun enough, and does offer some very good twists. A decent reading-pleasure, an amusing and quite creative thriller.

- M.A.Orthofer, 8 March 2010

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The Collaborators: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       French author Pierre Siniac lived 1928 to 2002.

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