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Gemini is two stories in one; it is the story of Alexandre Surin and his generation, and it is the story of the twins, Alexandre’s nephews, collectively known as Jean-Paul, and their generation. The two stories are separate, but they are told simultaneously and overlap in the middle. The first part, covering the period from 1918 to 1950, relates Edouard’s marital and extramarital life, the twins’ boyhood togetherness, and the personal and professional scandals of Alexandre. This section of the book ends in quadruple disaster: Maria-Barbara, Edouard’s wife, is arrested and deported; Alexandre is murdered; Edouard dies of diabetes; and the arrival of Sophie, Jean’s fiancee, fatally compromises the twins’ fraternal pact. The second part, covering roughly the period from 1950 to 1961, includes Sophie’s break with Jean, Jean’s flight from Paul on an extended solo honeymoon around the world, and Paul’s failed attempt to catch up to his brother and recement the bond of twinship. These two chronological divisions can also be viewed as Jean-Paul’s successive phases of adolescence and maturity; as the presence, then absence, of a father in the Surin family; as the country of France followed by the context of Europe; and as a sequel to the adventures of Michel Tournier’s Robinson and Friday from his earlier book, Vendredi: Ou, Les Limbes du Pacifique (1967, revised 1972; Friday: Or, The Other Island, 1969).

The novel opens in the year 1937, when the twins are seven and their father is thirty. Edouard leads a divided life between the city of Florence and Maria-Barbara in France, but Jean and Paul are inseparable. Their mother, divorced from her own body by repeated childbirth, has become sterile. The name of their hometown in Britanny, Pierres Sonnantes, French for “Chiming Stones,” seems to echo the Japanese rock gardens visited by Paul some twenty years later. The town’s main road divides La Cassine, the home of the Surin brood, from the grounds of the old Charterhouse of Guildo, which is now shared by Sainte-Brigitte (an establishment for retarded children) and Edouard’s weaving workshops.

Some years earlier, at the Catholic College du Thabor, Alexandre joined a homosexual band called “The Foils.” Later, when a twist of fate kills his older brother Gustave, Alexandre falls heir to a garbage empire and is transformed from family black sheep to a sort of inverted prodigal son. In a subplot reminiscent of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies (1954) and the Italian film Mondo Cane (1961), “Monsieur Surin” directs six landfill sites with cynical competence, while “Monsieur Alexandre” loses his heart successively to Eustache Lafille, Daniel, Fabienne, and Murillo, constructed homosexual stereotypes with symbolic names. As Adolf Hitler looms in the background, this “dandy of sewage” provokes his own end on the docks of Casablanca.

The voice of Paul, narrating retrospectively, unveils the inner mystery of identical twins and chronicles the major stages in the development of the pair. These stages can be summarized in three steps: Jean-Paul, Paul minus Jean, and Paul equals Jean. The whole of this movement might be called, “Genesis of a Meteor,” the anthropocentric creation of a brother to earth and sky. Paul discloses the outstandingly formative moments of his shared life. Franz, the only one who understands Jean-Paul’s private communications, and an innocent band of handicapped girls drown like lemmings. A pair of binoculars (trade-named JUMO, “Gemini”), a present, suggests to Paul a cinema experience of life. An angle and a reverse angle together make for a spherical panorama. Paul has instructed Jean in playing at “Bep,” a ritualized game of role reversal first seen in Tournier’s Friday . The...

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two go shopping independently, buy the same clothes, and shock each other in the dressing-room mirror. Unfortunately, Jean suffocates in his brother’s embrace and progresses to exogamy via three betrayals: When he rides the Centrifuge with a strong garageman at the county fair; when he sows his wild oats with Denise Malacanthe, the leader of the mill-working girls; and when he brings Sophie home with him to a house empty of parents. Maria-Barbara has now been added to the account of Buchenwald. Edouard, having lost both his lovers and his chance to be a war hero, exhausts his health in a pointless search for his wife.

The story seems to be over, but it is relaunched when Sophie breaks away from her engagement with Jean under the influence of the sinister housekeeper, Meline. Jean feels compelled to embark on a solo honeymoon around the world, after the manner of Jules Verne. Paul desperately retraces his twin’s exact itinerary, covering Venice, Iceland, Djerba, Tokyo, Vancouver, Montreal, and finally Berlin. While in Berlin, Paul’s left side is crushed in a tunnel collapse as he tries to crawl from the Soviet sector to the French sector of the walled city. Doubly amputated, he “grows” phantom limbs to replace the lost members. This imaginary prosthesis is both an extension of Jean and a sensor through which Paul can become one with the elemental forces of nature, the “meteors.” As the novel closes, Paul convalesces on the bay near his old home, his silent reflections accounting for the pages just read. He is alone with Meline.