Lighting up a satire
IN “The Little Girl & the Cigarette,” the first of 10 novels by French author Benoit Duteurtre to be translated into English, a condemned cop killer’s request for a final cigarette transforms him into a media hero. Meanwhile, a bureaucrat’s secret cigarette in a bathroom leads to accusations of pedophilia after a little girl catches him blowing smoke out the unscrewed window, his pants pulled down below his knees and a screwdriver in his hands. How to explain such drastically divergent fates? Blame it on the children -- and that includes you.
In this satiric novel, published in France in 2005, children wield virtually unlimited power over adults, running rampant in municipal buildings, snatching seats on public transit and refusing to yield them to seniors or exhausted commuters. Meanwhile, laws erase liberties for adults, who resemble children more every day. Smoking, long the very image of adult sophistication and freedom, has been snuffed out of public life. Sound familiar? “The Little Girl & the Cigarette” questions our need to be coddled by the state. When we happily sacrifice liberty, do we regress to childhood?
The novel opens moments before the scheduled execution of death-row inmate Desire Johnson, who requests one last cigarette. For the warden, this creates a dilemma: Paragraph 176.b of the prison code forbids smoking, and smoke alarms could spark a riot among prisoners forced to quit if Desire lights up. But Article 47 of the Code of Application of Punishment guarantees condemned prisoners a final wish, including a cigarette. His quandary reveals a profound truth: In a hyper-regulated society, criminal behavior is unavoidable, because every decision violates some code somewhere.
Tobacco executives seize the opportunity to associate “tobacco with life as no ad campaign had managed to do before.” Headlines scream: “When Anti-Smoking Saves a Murderer”; “Yes to Lethal Injection, No to Cigarettes!”; “No to Tobacco, No to the Death Penalty!” The Supreme Court exhaustively debates Desire’s right to a final cigarette, roundly dismissing his court-appointed attorney’s appeal for a commutation. Such nitpicking over banalities while consciously ignoring more important questions certainly seems to touch a collective nerve. Americans, after all, have seen special prosecutors fixate on sexual liaisons in the Oval Office, not to mention paternalistic regulation of personal choices, while people and corporations pollute the environment. As for Desire, he exploits media coverage of his final cigarette, gathering flowers on live television to write the words “Long Live Life” in colorful petals before he sits down to light up. The cop killer is now an advocate for flowers, children -- and life.
The prisoner’s fate contrasts sharply with that of the unnamed lowly bureaucrat, a man content to live without a car, television or children. He and his partner devote themselves to epicurean pleasure. When the 5-year-old girl catches him smoking in an administration toilet stall and tells her mother that he touched her, nobody has trouble believing it. His resentment of children, combined with the cardinal sin of smoking, outs him as a dangerous pervert. The mere risk that he could be a pedophile is enough to justify locking him up -- suspicion versus freedom as an actuarial calculation.
Police and investigators accuse him of harboring a dangerous attraction to children, and although he feels no sexual pull, his accusers have a point: He is obsessed with children. Throughout the novel, he complains bitterly about a mandate that brought day-care centers to municipal buildings. He envies children’s freedom, calls them brats and makes faces at those who irritate him. He even admits that the key pleasure of smoking is the adolescent thrill of breaking a rule -- and getting caught. In a sense, he acts more childishly than the kids he hates. He complains that the nanny state infantilizes adults. But has rebellion freed him? Duteurtre suggests that our obsession with children is pure narcissism -- we outlaw our freedoms not because we love children but because we want to be them. And when we rebel, we do it because we long for the reassurance that having boundaries gives.
It is maddening to watch this bureaucrat refuse to acknowledge his own childish behavior -- like puffing secretly upstairs in a relative’s nonsmoking home -- as he rails against everyone else. On one hand, you empathize with his fight for personal liberties. On the other, you wish he’d just grow up and behave. Ultimately, he comes off as whiny, self-absorbed and unsympathetic. But this is precisely the point: We can see him no other way.
The bureaucrat and Desire are cut from the same cloth: lacking in ambition and mostly concerned with their own pleasure. Desire never once agonizes about his impending execution; his only concern is that final cigarette. But because he keeps his request simple and plays the game -- loving children, vowing to quit tobacco after having his final cigarette and creating a spectacle on national television -- he maneuvers his way into hearts and minds.
Ironically, it’s the bureaucrat who insists on questioning the rules. After his imprisonment, terrorists force hostages to compete for their lives in an “American Idol"-style reality show. Losers are decapitated. Seeing that all is lost, the bureaucrat trades himself for a captive. But true to form, he demands an equal trade -- for the middle-aged Canadian store manager, an “unattractive man who’s neither young nor old” and who lacks any talent for showbiz. Even the terrorists see the perversion in this, proclaiming: “We have standards, too!” *