"Desolation" by Yasmina Reza

A novel by a well known French playwright. The fact that the author is primarily a playwright is fitting considering the approach and structure of this highly charged novel. Desolation is essentially written in the form of a soliloquy. A 73 year old man - Samuel Perlman - nearing the end of his life, rants, raves, reminisces, waxes nostalgic and contemplates his life, past loves, his wife, his affairs, his friends and neighbors, his Judaism, music and art, mainly to his son, who he finds as a “disappointment”. What disappoints him is his son’s attitude towards life, traveling around the world, living a life of leisure, and daring to declare himself “happy”. Samuel Perlman refuses to be happy and his long soliloquy is a justification to his son - as well as to himself - his reasons why. While the reader may find some sympathy for this character (he isn’t a total curmudgeon but awfully close) one may have a hard time digesting his rampant negativity and sense of hopelessness. For Samuel, unlike his son, had to deal with many compromises in his life, decisions that changed his trajectory, making him a man completely out of step with all those around him.


Sometimes stream of consciousness, other times philosophically insightful, other times the ravings of an angry old man, you can’t help but be fascinated by his view of existence, which is often bleak. However he does find beauty in things: music, his garden, the women in his life. There is a curious, albeit odd, romanticism about the way he sees the world. With that said, this is not a page after page rant that will turn the reader off. There is an awful lot of humor here as well (i.e. his recollection of his neighbor’s problems with Viagra). But it is his angry, condescending tone towards his son which is what makes this novel sometimes disturbing. On one hand you can tell that deep down he loves his son and his proud of him in an odd way. On the other hand, you sometimes flinch at his often dismissive tone, his envy of how much easier his son had in his life, never once seeming to recognize the fact that it could very well have been the way he brought up his son that allowed him to live the life he finds so distasteful.


At its core, the novel is about what “happiness” means and whether or not it is even actually possible to obtain it. For Perlman, he refuses it, although there is a sense that he did actually find it, though probably not in the manner in which he thought. In a time where there are hucksters at every turn promising those (usually for a fee) to find “happiness”, that it’s easily obtainable my merely dismissing the negative as if it doesn’t exist, this novel couldn’t be more timely. It pokes holes through the veneer of the “positivity cult”, sheds some light on the grey areas of life, that it’s perfectly okay for one to seek a sense of balance. “It means freeing yourself up”, Perlman says to one of his loves, “it means accepting that the most important thing is balance. It means calibrating your weight and your rhythm, like a planet revolving around the sun. You don’t wage battles with the outside world anymore, you no longer feel choked by the things you lack, you can even allow yourself to be sad.” There are echoes of French novelist Michel Houellebecq here and any fan of Houellebecq will definitely enjoy this. And like the novels of Houellebecq, this is a novel that will make you think. Definitely recommended.

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