Pascal Garnier (2012) The Panda Theory Gallic Books, London; 145 pp.; ISBN 978-1-908313-23-2
Gabriel once had all the things that people believe bring happiness – a wife and daughter, a job with travel, a home and sufficient income to go on holidays. One day all this crumbles about him. His wife and daughter are murdered by a pair of teenagers and all that Gabriel held dear, all sense of right and wrong in the world, are destroyed. For Christians, the angel Gabriel is the messenger of god. In this story, god has abandoned the world and Gabriel is a harbinger of its pointlessness. He sets aside his past and takes to a life of wandering, performing good and bad deeds as if there were no difference between them. Both ultimately are devoid of meaning.
The novel opens as Gabriel arrives in a small Breton town that always has a whiff of manure about it. He soon becomes involved with José, a bistro owner, and Madeleine, the receptionist at the hotel where he stays. Later he meets a couple, Marco and Rita, who are down on their luck. To each of them he brings some joy. José’s wife is very ill and Gabriel helps him and his two children cope as news of her condition worsens. Madeleine is lonely and he brings her some sense of love and a vision of an alternative to her current job. Initially his assistance to Marco and Rita is purely monetary, but later he helps them realise they love each other, despite all the suffering and ugliness that their love has to endure.
Gabriel knows what it is to have felt happiness in life, and how transient it is. Though he brings some happiness to those around him, he knows this will be fleeting and that they should not become attached to it.
At one point, Gabriel wins a giant toy panda in a shooting gallery at a fun fair. The panda sits in José’s bistro, its arms always outstretched and welcoming, accepting everything that goes on around it without judgement. It reflects Gabriel’s own view that life is without morals or purpose, so we just have to accept good and evil and follow them to their logical conclusions.
Although Gabriel carries the name of an angel, an old man in town tells him that these days even angels are not to be trusted. They all look like haunted junkies now.
One night, Gabriel, José, Madeleine and Rita spend the night together eating, drinking and dancing. Though they are all suffering, for a short time they seem like a family together. As dawn breaks and José heads home, the window is thrown open and the happy dream of the night flies away. There cannot be, and will not be, any long term happiness.
Gabriel carries his beliefs to their logical conclusion. He is the messenger of the mindless universe. But it is love for Madeleine that almost changes the course of his life. Will it be enough to put pay to his wandering and restore meaning and morality back into his existence?
Pascal Garnier, who died in 2010, has written a bleak but compelling novel that examines a life where all that is precious and hopeful has been torn away. It is a confronting and sobering exposition that forces us to consider how we would react in the same circumstances. In truth, can any of us really know?