Quirky, quintessentially French fiction has always been something which I’ve been drawn to as a reader. I love picking up unusual books with memorable scenes and characters, and it must be said that I’m quite a fan of the more madcap elements which can often be found in books written between Pas-de-Calais and Provence. Olivier Bourdeaut’s novella, Waiting for Bojangles, is just such a story.
I hadn’t heard of this book, or of its author, but I spotted the slim volume on a trip to the library, and was intrigued. The novella is Bourdeaut’s first published work, and is the recipient of three prizes in France. When I started to read the blurb, I knew that it was a story I wanted to read. The reviews which pepper its covers attracted me further; Elle France calls the novella ‘a joyful and witty mess’, and Spanish El Correo says it is ‘delightful and overwhelming’.
Waiting for Bojangles is partly narrated by an unnamed, and quite sweetly endearing young boy, who lives with his ‘eccentric family who grapple with the realities of mental illness in unique and whimsical ways.’ He lives in a beautiful old Paris apartment, with his rich parents, and a crane named Mademoiselle Superfluous, who likes to make her presence known. He tells us: ‘The elegant and surprising bird lived in our apartment, parading her undulating long black neck, white plumes jutting from her violently red eyes.’ Mademoiselle Superfluous ‘ate canned tuna fish, enjoyed classical music, wore custom-made jewelry, attended cocktail parties and had lost the knack for birdier things.’
His father continually calls his mother by different names: ‘… she’d turn to the mirror and greet the new Renee with a pout, the new Josephine with a regal gaze, the new Marylou with puffed-out cheeks.’ Only on one single day during the year does her name stay the same: ‘on February 15, her name was Georgette. It still wasn’t her real name, but Saint Georgette’s day was the day after Saint Valentine’s Day.’ The ‘Mr Bojangles’ of the novella’s title relates to a Nina Simone song which both parents love, and often dance to. His parents often speak in rhyme – which, I admit, did get a little tedious after a while – and are quite irresponsible, leaving all of their mail unopened, often serving dinner at midnight, and throwing endless parties for swathes of strange friends.
Chapters are told from the perspectives of both the young boy and his father; these shift from one to another, and back again. Of course, we learn more of the concrete details from the father, as he is evidently more aware of what the mother is going through. He is also not as distracted by everything else around him, as the boy can be. In the first chapter narrated by the father, he describes their first meeting: ‘I could see perfectly well that she wasn’t all there, that her delirious green eyes hid secret fault lines, and I ought to beware. That her plump, childish cheeks concealed a painful past, and that this beautiful young woman, who at first glance was droll and dazzling, had been through the mill and had emerged bruised and unraveling. I was thinking that that had to be why she danced so madly – both gladly and sadly – to forget her troubles, that’s all.’
There is a darkness lying behind the more whimsical details of the story. The boy’s mother, suffering from an unnamed mental illness, gets more and more ill as time passes. His father takes it upon himself to keep her safe and, longing to save her from hospitalisation, he moves the family from bustling Paris to an idyllic country house in Spain – crane and all. The boy comments: ‘… Dad had purchased a beautiful castle in the air. It was in Spain, far south of Paris. You had to drive a little, fly a little, drive a little more, and be very patient. Perched on a mountainside, floating above an all-white village where the streets were empty in the afternoon and full of people at night, all you could see from the castle was pine forests.’ At the point of moving, his parents offer him ‘early retirement’ by taking him out of school.
Throughout, I far preferred the perspective of the young boy. He observes things with more care; for instance, ‘The real problem was that she [his mother] was losing her mind and didn’t know where to find it.’ He also reveals, very early on, ‘I often didn’t understand my father. I did a little more as the years went by, but never completely. Which was fine with me.’ There is a real feeling of loneliness to this real character at times. I quite liked the way in which we were never quite certain of his age, particularly when his father plies him with such things as cigarettes and gin and tonics.
There is a lot left unsaid in Waiting for Bojangles. We never learn the names of the characters, or the condition which his mother suffers from; indeed, we do not know if she is ever diagnosed. These ambiguities fit very well with the story; they show just how the perceptions which one projects can be markedly different from their realities. His mother gets incredibly upset from time to time, but otherwise, he says, ‘she was rapturous about everything, found the world’s progress thrilling, and skipped along with it joyfully.’ She treats her son not like a child, but ‘more like a character from a book that she loved very dearly, and that could absorb all her attention in an instant.’
Regan Kramer’s 2019 translation was excellent; so much of the detail is captured with a great deal of fluency. Kramer has managed to capture a rhythm here, and to maintain elements such as rhyme schemes from the original. The translation itself is definitely one of the real strengths of the English version.
Overall, there is something quite beguiling about Waiting for Bojangles, and it is certainly a memorable story. However, in many ways, there is too little realism to it, despite the mother’s mental health difficulties. The family have almost too many eccentricities to make the more serious elements of the plot believable. There are shifts in the lives of the family as the mother becomes more unwell, but there is perhaps too much of a light touch here. Bourdeaut undoubtedly displays a great deal of imagination here. However, whilst in some ways I enjoyed the novella, in others, it did not quite work for me.