Sun, Feb 27, 2011 - Page 14 News List

Paperback: UK: Arrogant, adventurous and bewildered

In ‘Hate: A Romance,’ four young characters come of age as Paris embraces a thriving gay culture that is also starting to recognize the threat of AIDS

By Mark Ravenhill  /  The Guardian, LONDON

Hate: A Romance by Tristan Garcia

Fiction often trails some distance behind the traumatic events of the present. It took a decade before there was a substantial fictional response to the slaughter of the World War I, while the narrative of the Holocaust is still being explored. Responses to the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s were, however, rapid. In 1982, a complex series of illnesses were first identified as Aids and “Silence equals Death” soon became a popular slogan for gay activists campaigning for better recognition and treatment for AIDS. Gay writers in the 1980s felt a moral and political imperative to respond quickly to the crisis.

Fiction of the past 20 years has dealt less confidently with the aftermath of AIDS in the West. The contemporary issues are more subtle and complex: We have had the arrival of an effective combination therapy, the continuing lives of a generation who (like me) had assumed they faced certain death, and the “bug chasers” who actively look to be infected with the HIV virus and “barebackers” who enjoy the thrill of unprotected sex.

So Tristan Garcia’s Hate: A Romance (first published in France in 2008 as La meilleure part des hommes) is a welcome and a rare novel. Its ambitious narrative begins in the 1980s. The story — four young characters coming of age as a city embraces a thriving gay culture which is also starting to recognize the threat of AIDS — is familiar territory from 1980s fiction. But while the first wave of AIDS fiction was overwhelmingly American, Hate: A Romance is a very French story. Garcia’s characters are university-educated Parisians, the direct descendants of Jean-Luc Godard’s “children of Karl Marx and Coca Cola”. The reader senses that Garcia, like Godard, shares a complex relationship with his characters: He is sympathetic to young people who are guided more by their reading of Foucault and Spinoza than they are by common sense (this is Garcia’s first novel, but he is a published philosopher), while laughing with us at their more pretentious thoughts and poses.


Hate: A Romance

By Tristan Garcia

288 Pages

Faber & Faber

Something of the freshness of Garcia’s perspective can also be explained by his age. Born in 1981, he is writing a historical novel, a vivid imagining of the Paris gay scene of the 1980s and 1990s and of the feuds conducted by gay activists in the French media of the period. This can sometimes make for disconcerting reading if — as I was — you were there at the time. Garcia’s imagined past doesn’t always quite match up with my remembered one. But the opening chapters of the book capture a mood that I found instantly recognizable: the excitement of being young, intellectually arrogant, sexually adventurous and bewildered by the arrival of the AIDS epidemic.

As his narrative charts events leading up to the present day, Garcia is able to explore new territory for AIDS fiction. His characters barely acknowledge the arrival of combination therapy in 1996 and the promise that it brings of turning AIDS from a terminal disease into a chronic condition. By then they are too consumed by the feud that provides the central thread of the novel, that between the gay activist Dominique Rossi, who moves ever closer to the center of the French political establishment, and the radical William Miller, who rejects safer sex as a heterosexual constraint and promotes barebacking as a political act of defiance. There’s also an equally bitter rift between Miller and the media philosopher Leibowitz, as Miller moves from a pro-Palestinian stance to a paranoid anti-Semitism.

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