The One with the Devon Island’s Guests

Pierre Bayard, La Vérité sur Les dix petits nègres (2019)

Let’s start with the totally inappropriate use of the N word as the title of this book. It refers to Agatha Christie’s bestselling mystery “And then there were none”, which was originally published as 1939 as “Ten Little Niggers” in the UK, as the killing of 10 guests on a deserted Devon island is based on an eponymous British (or American) nursery rhyme. It is interesting to note that right from the start it was published in the US under the title “And then there were none”, because it was offensive, and the rest of the world has been catching up ever since. This title has finally been recognized as unsavory (to say the least) by the mid-80s in the UK, and the outrage has just arrived recently to the shores of France (which is often very reactionary in this area, sadly), so that most French people have only heard of this book under the N- word title.

I have been on a Pierre Bayard binge ever since I was reminded of his existence by a recent podcast. (I had read him first in the post-baby haze, a billion years ago). So I had to borrow everything from Bayard that my library had, and then I had to order some more (2 titles should actually be coming in the post soon). Bayard is a professor of literature and a psychoanalyst. He is influenced by structuralists but don’t be intimidated by his pedigree: reading his books is actually a lot of fun!

The book is told by an unnamed narrator who plays with us readers. He starts by complaining that Agatha Christie didn’t bring the right solution to this mystery and prides himself of having committed the perfect crime. He also insists that he doesn’t even want to tell us if he’s male or female so all the sentences use s/he or his/her. After summing up the main events as told in Christie’s book, he explains why the traditional resolution is not the real one. And then he ends up explaining his own version.

Of course, if you want to go along with this book, you have to be comfortable with the idea that books characters have a life of their own outside of the pages. Which is what Bayard calls integrationism (structuralist theoreticians have created a language of their own), as opposed to Bayard’s segregationists who believe that characters are purely limited to what their creator has written down. As a writer of several short stories I am actually quite the integrationist, even before being aware of it!

It’s the perfect book for Christie’s readers who like to play amateur detectives. Christie herself said that all the elements of the solution were present in her books, but I don’t know how she would have reacted to Bayard’s books. Of course, you need to have read the original novel first, but beware, Bayard is very liberal with spoilers of other Christie’s books too.

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