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‘We need the literature of other countries to expand our
horizons and stimulate our ideas. Without it, we are not only
diminished, we are starved’
(The Times, Magnus Linklater 29/06/05)
A Friend in the Dark
by Pascal Ruter
Age Range: 12+
Victor feels he’s a failure at everything – school, girls and making his dad feel better about his mum having left them. He struggles with school work, particularly with maths and nearly always comes bottom of the class. When Marie, the cleverest girl in his class helps him with his maths homework an unlikely friendship begins to develop. Before long Victor learns that Marie will need his help and it’s a challenge that will test his ability to the full.
French author Pascal Ruter’s novel, eloquently translated by Emma Mandley, mixes pathos and humour as it deals sensitively with the traumatic experience of Marie as she gradually loses her sight, Victor’s learning ‘difficulties’, whilst also exploring the importance of friendship. At the same time he injects some sparkling humour into Victor’s musings and dialogue. He is such an endearing character that the reader laughs with him when he gets mixed up. His faux pax at a lunch with Marie’s parents is hilarious. When her dad talks about art he asks Victor what he thinks of Pollock (Jackson). Victor thinks they are talking about a fish and there follows an amusing conversation of misunderstanding. His mix up of unfortunate words is equally as funny – ‘Wow! Kamasutra! … one of my favourite desserts’ says Victor. Maria’s bewildered parents eventually realise that he means Tiramisu.
There is also witty dialogue between Victor and his best friend Haisam, known as the Honourable Egyptian and a chess expert. But Victor is also capable of some serious, almost philosophical observations as he tries to understand life and growing up. He explains how he used to hate reading until Marie changed all that – ‘what was there to learn from made-up stories? … I’d always felt that books were a bit like loaded pistols and needed to be handled with caution.’
Victor is often self-depreciating in his thinking and appears completely unaware of how powerfully observed it can be: ‘Being passionate about Panhards, chess or music, or even collecting things seems, to me like a self-protection mechanism: it helps to keep other people at arm’s length and stops you getting too involved with them. That way you can avoid feeling compassion, which is a most uncomfortable emotion.’
The vulnerability of both characters shines through the narrative. Despite Marie’s disability she has always demonstrated a strength and determination to achieve her goal, but as the roles reverse it is Victor who has grown in confidence becoming stronger through their friendship.