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The Incorrigible Optimists Club by Jean-Michel Guenassia

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Article by Swirl and Thread ©.
Posted in | .

‘A writer is being buried today. It’s like a final demonstration: an unexpected crowd – silent, respectful and anarchic – is blocking the streets and the boulevards around the Montparnasse cemetery……How absurd to pay homage to a man who was wrong about almost everything, was constantly misled, and who put his talents into defending the indefensible with conviction. They would have done better to attend the funerals of those who were right, whom he had despised and poured scorn on. No one went out of their way for them.’

Originally published in French as Le Club des Incorrigibles Optimistes and later translated by Euan Cameron, The Incorrigible Optimists Club by Jean-Michel Guenassia is described by La Parisienne as ‘a masterpiece.’ Garnering rave reviews across Europe, with over 650,000 copies sold, The Incorrigible Optimists Club is an epic read, an outstanding and quite momentous novel, ‘a truly lovable novel of growing up and of idealism and disappointment’.

Published with Atlantic Books in 2014, the translation by Euan Cameron is superb, seamlessly bringing the author’s words to a much wider and, dare I say, appreciative audience of readers. I picked up my copy some time back and I now regret not having read it sooner, as it carries such a fascinating historical element that has influenced some of the tragedies, past and present, that we have witnessed in recent years.

The Incorrigible Optimists Club introduces us to Michel Marini, a 12-year-old boy with a passion for reading and amateur photography. Michel is of mixed extraction with Italian and French blood coursing through him. He lives with his parents and two siblings, Frank and Juliette, in the Parisian suburbs. Life in the Marini household is complicated and over the years Michel finds peace between the pages of his books, a place where he can escape reality and lose himself in the worlds of others.

1959 in Paris is a tumultuous time as the Algerian War of Independence gathers momentum and Europe is unsettled with the East/West divide. Paris becomes a melting pot for free-thinkers, immigrants, existentialism, philosophers and artists but also a safe-haven for many who have escaped from their homes in the East, leaving everyone and everything behind.

Michel is a whizz at table soccer, or baby-foot as it is known in Paris. He plays it with his friends in many venues but it is in his local bistro, the Balto, that Michel spends most of his time. One day Michel’s curiosity is stoked….

‘At the far end of the restaurant, facing me, and behind the benches, was the door with the green curtains….An unshaven man in a stained, threadbare raincoat disappeared behind the curtain. What was he doing dressed like that at this time of year? It hadn’t rained for weeks. Stirred by curiosity, I drew back the curtain. In sprawling handwriting, someone had written on the door: ‘Incorrigible Optimists Club’. Heart racing, I moved forward cautiously. I got the greatest surprise of my life. I had walked into a chess club….It was not the chess club that was the surprise. It was seeing Jean-Paul Sartre and Joseph Kessel playing together in the smoky backroom of this working-class bistro.’

Can you imagine being in that room? Can you imagine a young boy of 12 witnessing such a scene? For Michel it was to have a very significant impact on him as the men in this room, this almost secret club, were to become his lifeline, his confidantes, his friends.

The Incorrigible Optimists Club was a raggle-taggle bunch of immigrants, men who had left their lives behind in the communist East for various reasons. With different beliefs and ideas, these men park their individual politics at the door and gather over a drink and a chess board. They take Michel under their wing, guiding him through some very tough times. As his family is decimated through words and actions, Michel seeks solace in this room. His brother and friend go to Algeria to fight, while his uncle and family return, his cousins, born pied-noirs, with no money and no home. His relationship with his parents is fraught as their marriage collapses around them and Michel struggles with personal friendships and the issues that arise.

The Incorrigible Optimists Club is a seriously educational novel but it is also a powerful examination of the complexities of youth, with the challenges and disappointments of life. The members of this club are a truly fascinating bunch with stories that just penetrate your heart. The vivid portrayal of their lives before Paris pulls at the heartstrings with remarkable descriptions and eloquent stories recounted. The references to life in the East and to the Algerian War are quite simply fascinating, forcing the reader to research and discover more about those dark years of history.

Michel suffers emotionally over the years with his life in constant upheaval, but these men, ‘this band of survivors and raconteurs’ are the mainstay, the constant that lead him forward and help him forge his path, his future.

The Incorrigible Optimists Club really is a novel of epic proportions. Le Figaro stated that it was ‘a magnificent generational portrait… A novel that occasionally makes you cry and often makes you laugh’. It is an outstanding read, an evocative coming-of-age tale with a fascinating historical backdrop. At over 600 pages, this is a book that needs commitment and focus. It is intense, it is passionate but it is also stunningly beautiful and compelling.

(c) Swirl and Thread

Order your copy online here.