I believe in the god of carnage

Dear Yasmina,

Threading the thin line between civility and barbarity, you manage to convey, with acerbic wit, how civility and good intentions are slowly but steadily sacrificed to The God of Carnage (2008, tr. Christopher Hampton. Original: Le Dieu du carnage, 2007)

The play revolves around two middle-class couples who meet to discuss a fight that had taken place between their sons at school. The son of Annette and Alain Reille, the 11-year-old Ferdinand Reille, has beaten up the son of Véronique and Michel Vallon, Bruno Vallon, after the boy refused to let him join his gang. The two couples agree to meet at the Vallon’s apartment to settle the conflict in a civilised manner and arrange for the boys to work out their differences.

Véronique is an art historian writing a book about the atrocities of Darfur; her husband, Michel, runs a hardware store. Annette is a housewife with very low self-confidence, crushed under the pressures of motherhood and household; her husband, Alain, is a successful attorney who works for a pharmaceutical company that is about to be sued because one of their products has caused serious negative symptoms.

As the play opens, Véronique is reading an agreement they are all to sign about the damage done to her son’s teeth. Everything seems very civil and sophisticated: the couples are eating “clafoutis” around a table “covered with art books”, while they discuss the exact wording of the statement to be signed: we already feel they are tiptoeing around their mutual dislike, when they battle with the right words – was Ferdinand “armed” with a stick or “furnished” with a stick? The two couples seem very pleased with themselves and the seemingly reasonable way they are dealing with the conflict, but, underneath the veneer of civility, we can already feel a tense undercurrent.

Véronique believes that Ferdinand should be made to feel ashamed for his attack, while Annette disagrees and defends her child’s violent actions by pointing out that Ferdinand had been provoked by Bruno’s gang. Michel seems eager to get it all over with, and is quick to agree with the Reilles and to make light of the violence; Alain, in turn, couldn’t care less for Véronique’s self-righteousness, and claims that it is pointless to try to instil shame and regret in his son. To make matters worse, Alain spends the evening on his mobile, frequently interrupting the meeting to talk to his clients, advising them on how to avoid any legal consequences to their deeds.

As the evening progresses, the façade begins to fall apart, and the parents become increasingly childish. Annette, constantly on the brink of hysteria, loses control when Alain persists in being glued to his cell phone. Before long, the two couples’ diplomatic meeting will have degenerated into a yelling chaos: they will get into verbal battles and irrational arguments, their marriage and parenting methods will be put into question, and their many prejudices – misogyny, racism, homophobia – will come bubbling into the surface.

The highlight of the book for me was the way not only the differences between the couples slowly unravelled, but also the differences and weakness within each marriage: their resentments and lack of understanding will come to the foreground. The character’s multiple layers will be stripped off one by one, revealing their dark, contradictory sides. Once you get away with the rules of civility and the good intentions, only vanity, envy, fear, and a complete lack of scruples remain.

These well-bread, well-educated adults will turn into spoilt, unreasonable children – and their allegiances will frequently shift throughout the play: the roles of victims and executioners will be interchangeable. You push your characters to the edge, and they come very close to absurdism. Their kids’ fight at school will have proved to be harmless in the face of what these parents can do with each other. If, at first, we feel a certain voyeuristic Schadenfreude at the couples’ debasement, by the end we will eventually swallow hard at the distorted mirror you manage to hold up to us.

Yours truly,

J.


Anonymous

 Veronique, I believe in the god of carnage. The god whose rule has been unchallenged since time immemorial.”- Yasmina Reza, The God of Carnage

Children consume and fracture our lives. Children drag us towards disaster, it’s unavoidable. When you see those laughing couples casting off into the sea of matrimony, you say to yourself, they have no idea, poor things, they just have no idea, they’re happy. No one tells you anything when you start out. I have an old school pal who’s just about to have a child with his new girlfriend. I said to him, “A child, at your age, are you insane?” The ten or dozen good years left to us before we get cancer or a stroke, and you’re going to bugger yourself up with some brat?” – Yasmina Reza, The God of Carnage

Veronique: Think too much, I don’t know what that means. And I don’t see the point of existence without some kind of moral conception of the world.
Michel: See what I have to live with?!” – Yasmina Reza, The God of Carnage

Annette: Why are you letting them call my son an executioner? You come to their house to settle things and you get insulted and bullied and lectured on how to be a good citizen of the planet. Our son did well to clout yours and I wipe my ass with your bill of rights!
Michel: A mouthful of rum and bam, the real face appears.”  – Yasmina Reza, The God of Carnage


About the book

  • Faber Faber, tr. Christopher Hampton, 2008, 80 p. Goodreads
  • Originally published in 2007
  • Original title: Le dieu du carnage
  • My rating: 5 stars
  • The novel was made into a film, directed by Roman Polanski (2011, IMDb)
  • I read this book for Paris in July

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