Why would someone bequeathe their entire fortune to an absolute stranger? Why would someone keep on buying a dog of the same breed and call them the same name, over fifty years’ span, only to end their life a day after the unfortunate canine gets fatally hit by a car? Why would a husband swell with obsessive veneration of his wife’s ex, to the point of insisting that she re-take her former spouse’s surname? Why would a couple suddenly fall out of love upon getting rescued from a snowy cave by a young girl with cystic fibrosis? Random questions, mystical answers, elegant plot twists, and an obligatory moral lesson – all this neatly packaged in four short stories gathered under the kind of title glancing upon which could surely elicit a number of fatigued eye rolls from early-morning subway commuters. Invisible Love.
From a title like this one expects something saccharine, something romantic and sufficiently sentimental. And yes, there’s plenty of nostalgically wistful moments in this Franco-Belgian prose that make one sigh and recollect tender childhood moments of hot cacao on Sunday mornings. Yet Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt, with his numerous European literary regalia, does his readership one better and, in four tales of mystery, fantasy, and romance, paints relatable revelations about human character, each wrapped into a poignant moral parable.
The first tale, Two Gentlemen from Brussels, is about the evolution of marriage in the microcosm of two very different families whose trajectories were brought together through sheer coincidence. They both got married on the same day, in the same church, except one couple enjoyed the hefty benefit of state, ecclesiatic, and societal recognition, while the other, consisting of two men, had to cherish their love in secret and to whisper their modest “I do’s” in a delicate echo to the first couple’s loud proclamations. Two families secretly bound, two vasty contrasting fortunes, and yet, in Life’s insufferably sarcastic snark, both come to roughly the same educational conclusions as their journeys approach that final sunset. Loving is difficult and sometimes destructive, yet we march on, like tired soldiers under a weathered banner, for better or worse, for richer or poorer…
The second tale, The Dog, is just sad. A man and his dog, a symbiosis to which multiple praises were sung over the centuries. A Nazi concentration camp survivor and his only friend, his canine friend, emerge as epitomes of endurance and devotion. They persevere, like spring’s first flowers, through food shortages, violence, and even in death, inspiring those they left behind to go on living and loving, drinking good whisky and hurriedly making love.
Ménage a Trois, aptly, comes third and tells of a frustrated, impoverished widow in the last days of her bloom, earnestly endeavouring to gold-dig her way out of misery and into the upper-middle (at the very least) stratum. She procures a requisite specimen, a Danish diplomat, who propels her into precisely the kind of luxury she dreamt of. It’s perfect, except there’s one tiny little thing. The Dane is obsessed with her ex-husband, or rather his music, looking to publish it, to celebrate it, to commemorate the composer, to elevate the dead relation into the ranks of national heritage, pushing his new wife deeper into the throes of this macabre joke. We do find out who the composer is at the end of the story – he’s really famous and really real, and suddenly the story makes excellent sense. The moral takeaway, nonetheless, is blatantly clear: you can never really bolt the door to your past, no matter how expertly you barricade it from unwelcome intruders.
Finally, The Ghost Child is as banal as it is psychologically acute. A success-studded model family and their never-healing, scarlet-red stigmata – a child, a hope of a child, a ghost of a child, a barren memory of a child. What happens when individuals used to perfection are suddenly thrown into a throbbing cauldron of defective chaos imposed in a cruel dictum of chromosomes, genetic disorders, the whimsies of DNA? Can modelesque bodies, enviable careers, and vacations in the Alps overpower the terrible stench of doubt, disappointment, and loss? When all manner of puppet theatre becomes futile, how does one “keep calm and carry on”? Fate can have the snarkiest of humours, which is what our perfectionist characters discover, in a fairy uncomfortable experience. The lesson? No matter what decision you make, however educated, however reasoned, Life will always find a way to get the last laugh. Be prepared, if you can.
Image: Rene Magritte, A Friend of Order