A Year in the Merde

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Stephen Clarke's comic treatment of a young Englishman's first nine months in Paris resembles a cross between Helen Fielding's bumbling Bridget Jones and Peter Mayle's treatments of Anglo-French culture clashes. In Paris to help set up a chain of English tearooms, Paul West encounters resistance to work by his French co-workers and odd indifference to the project by his boss, owner of four meat factories. Much more importantly, however, he tries to learn how to order a glass of beer and find a decent apartment.

Clarke strikes a good balance between Paul's work, his struggles to understand the French, and his love life, which fluctuates between nonexistent and unusually demanding, including a spell with his boss's insatiable daughter. Paul's bewilderments range from the French predilection for smelly cheeses to the constant labor strikes over trivial issues. Journalists strike to protest the dullness of the ongoing national election.

Much of the humor of A Year in the Merde comes from the efforts of Paul and the French to understand each other, with Paul speaking a halting French and the natives Pidgin English. His boss tries to convince Paul that the chain should be named My Tea Is Rich, a phrase that makes no sense to the Englishman, who is assured it will be hilarious to Parisians. Well into his sojourn, Paul and a fellow Brit find each other speaking English with a French twist.

The final third of the novel focuses on the possible effects of the looming war in Iraq and the growing French hostility toward the British. This political difference, however, only gives Clarke more ammunition for his war of misunderstanding between Paul and France. In addition to poking fun at food, sex, real estate, bureaucracy, pornography, expatriate writers, Hugh Grant, and a little more sex, this delightful, charming novel succeeds through making Paul the primary butt of a multitude of jokes.