Bird in a Cage, by Frédéric Dard and translated by David Bellos
Albert has been away from home for six years. He returns just before Christmas to an empty apartment unchanged since his mother’s death some four years past. Albert is alone and lonely.
He heads out onto the crowded streets of his Paris suburb and goes to a grand restaurant his mother always dreamed of eating in but never dared to. Now he’ll eat in it without her. Along the way he buys “a small silver cardboard birdcage sprinkled with glitter dust” with a tiny velvet bird inside. He has no tree to decorate, but the tiny ornament is a reminder of the past he’s lost.
The restaurant is grand and traditional and packed with families and Christmas shoppers. Dard describes it rather well, including how it doesn’t even smell like an ordinary restaurant:
Chiclet’s smelled of absinthe and snails, and of old wood too.
I loved that little snippet of description. Near Albert’s table is a woman with a small child. He can’t help but observe them:
The woman looked like Anna. She had dark hair as Anna did, the same dark and almond-shaped eyes, the same dusky complexion and the same witty, sensual lips that scared me. She might have been twenty-seven, which is what Anna would have been. She was very pretty and smartly dressed. The little girl didn’t have her eyes, or her hair, or her nose, but in spite of that she still managed to look like her mother.
We don’t yet know who Anna was. The woman flirts lightly with Albert, but eventually their meals come to their end and the woman leaves with the girl. Albert leaves too:
Let me be clear: I was not following them. I picked the same street simply because it was the way to my flat.
Of course, Albert, of course. He follows them to a nearby cinema. They buy a ticket; so does he. The usherette thinks they’re together and sits him next to the woman.
I could feel the human warmth of the woman, and it overwhelmed me. The perfume of her overcoat shattered me.
He’s not sure if she’s inviting his attention or simply indifferent, but he ends up going home with her. After that, things get complicated.
Bird in a Cage is a little gem of a novel. It’s 120 pages just and brilliantly judged. By going to that restaurant, buying that little bird in a cage, Albert has walked into a situation that wouldn’t be out of place in a Clouzot film and I ate the whole book up in practically one sitting.
It’s actually difficult to say a lot more without spoiling this. I’ve not really touched on the plot and I’d strongly recommend against reading any kind of synopsis. This is a book where you want to be as lost as Albert and where you want to discover alongside him what’s really going on.
Bird has melancholy, regret, passion and murder. It’s very much a psychological piece as Albert finds himself trapped between the horror of an incomprehensible nightmare inside the woman’s flat and the dream of some desperately needed human connection in the form of the woman herself. It is very, very good and exactly the kind of book I look to Pushkin for.
There are some stylistic issues. Dard massively overuses exclamation marks and really doesn’t need to since his plot is dramatic enough without them. There was a point where I started to find that slightly jarring, but then the intensity of the story kicked in and I stopped noticing quite so much. It’s a flaw, but not a fatal one and certainly not one that would make me hesitate to recommend this book to anyone with a taste for psychological noir fiction.
I’m conscious this is a particularly short review, but far better here to say too little than too much. I’ve already bought Pushkin’s second Dard, The Wicked Go to Hell, and I look forward to more. Dard was one of these insanely prolific writers (over 300 novels according to Wikipedia) so he should keep Pushkin busy for a while yet.
Guy Savage at His Futile Preoccupations reviewed this here and inspired me to read it. Thanks, as so often before, are due accordingly.