‘The Incorrigible Optimist Club’ by Jean Michel Guenassia

Initially I had a few doubts before setting off to read this novel, I didnt know if I would enjoy it. It is a book of considerable size, translated from its original text in French and is narrated by a young self assured boy. Few aspects of which I had some ‘not so good reading experiences’ with. BUT quickly, few pages into it, this thick French novel turned out to be very interesting and consuming. 

This was due to the interesting characters, the tragedies they faced in life, the principles and ideologies they held firmly to and discussed proudly. Also, most importantly, the great structure and simplicity in storytelling. The narrator has a very natural voice, clear and simple. There was an effortless flow and my interest in the story was consistently sustained till the end. With some books, half way through, I get exhausted either by the few irritating antiques of the character, a careless twist in the plot or a dragging-on storyline. However for this book, merely reading few pages into it and I was certain that reading it was going to be a good experience, and it did turn out to be a great one, with no hitches at all. 

As soon as I was introduced to Michel and his great passion for reading, I felt that I had found a friend. He was a compulsive reader, with an admirable ability to devour books very quickly. He reads all the time; as soon as he wakes up in the morning, at meal times – including Dinner time, while walking to school and during class times – by placing the book on his lap. One of his dangerous habit was reading while walking and he credits his guardian angels for protecting him from accidents. Reading also affected his punctuality to school, the more interesting the story, the more late he got as he had to stand somewhere and properly absorb whats happening. The period when he was reading Russian novels – like Anna Karenina – earned him a couple of detentions. 

For a young person of that age he is so well read, I wish I was that well read at that age or had a friend who read like him. He has a great taste in authors and novels. This book holds a special place in my heart for welcoming me into the bigger world of literature. He has introduced me to a list of great authors I need to read, why to read them and also how to read them in general. Michel is just the coolest kid ever. He is very normal, very kind, smart, rational and an overall every other thing nice person.

Like me, Michel is miserable at maths. This strengthened my connection to him and heightened my love for the book. A lot of his friends and even his family tried very hard to get him to understand the basic concepts but the knowledge of maths always escapes him. Having these maths illiteracy discussions made me feel good, because I know that Michel is a brilliant boy but he is just not good at maths, which is okay. He managed to fix this maths problem and show good maths results to his parents by copying from his best friend Nicolas, who was brilliant at maths yet lacking in Geography, which like me, Michel excelled in. He would neatly and skillfully copy down maths homework and exams by creating few variations in his work compared to that of Nicholas’s in order to avoid suspicion of cheating. I never copied, I just failed my maths papers and that was life for me then but I am a bit maths literate now after doing an Economics and Finance Degree at University. 

Michel is of Algerian and Italian descent. His two families dont get on well with each other because of their opposing nature. His fathers side, the Marini’s, who are Italians, are happy people, they are frivolous and generous. His mothers family, the Delaunays are wealthy Algerian business people – they are more business minded and serious. His father was working for the Delaunays when he met Michel’s mother. She got pregnant with their first born – Franck – and he got recruited for the war. Four years later, after he was released from being a Prisoner of War, his parents met again and decided to marry for the sake of their firstborn Franck and few years later Michel was born. His mother is the dominant of the two parents, considering the fact that her familys wealth and business is what Michel’s family are living comfortably off. His father also works for the Delaunay’s company owning few of their shops around Paris. She is very strict on the children, she makes demands and it must happen. Michel’s father is more understanding and has a sense of humor which doesnt augur well with the parenting strategies of Michel’s mum. So that is one of the internal strugles of the family. Part of this book follows the internal family disputes within Michel’s home. 

The Incorrigible Optimist Club is a name of a club in the backroom of a cafe bar called Balto where Michel plays Babyfoot, a popular table form of Football game that Michel was exceptionally good at. He was a notorious player, a champion, sometimes he would come out victorious while playing solo against partners. These games was installed in most bars, cafes and other eateries around Paris. This particular game of Babyfoot was very popular and attracted in alot of people. While playing the Babyfoot game at a cafe bar called Balto that he notices grown men entering into a secluded room, out at the back of the bar, going in with their drinks. It was an exclusive group for adults and on further inquisition, he sneaked in and after a few sessions just standing around and observing quietly, he blended in and became part of the club. 

The members of this club comprises of Eastern European men who fled their home countries under the worst of circumstances. There is a Russian, Polish, Romanian, a Greek and a Czhech person. Due to wars and the threat of executions they escaped to France, leaving their family behind. Through the book we are introduced to each of the member of the club and their backstory, how they came to be in France. They are all very interesting people who have been through alot and also they were qualified men and well recognized in their own countries. A significant number of the characters in this novel are Russians who share great stories of their life in Russia that led to their escape. The book is also like a History lesson, but much more interesting since it is narrated from a characters point of view. There were so many new things I learned from the book which I cant write them all here. But Ill tell you about how certain photograpy experts were assigned to photoshop pictures of leaders like Stalin, concealing flaws in the picture like their tired looking eyes, crumpled or stained clothes, making them appear like heroic god like leaders that they arrogantly believe themselves to be. Also they carefully took out pictures of fugitivess or rebels from all photographs, so not only are they killed but they are also errased entirely from history. Russian history is very interesting. 

Michel spends time at the club more often, listening to them joke, debate, argue and have passionate discussions of their individual political and world views. Intense – vulgar, loud and angry – arguments was common because they all had different strong points of views but it always died down, cooled with a round of drinks. Relationships between club members never severed because they were strong together. They sort out comfort from each other, knowing that they were going through the same thing living in a foreign country and they also were escapees from their old life, almost mercilessly leaving behind everything including their family and loved ones. During the course of reading this novel, I enjoyed how very passionate this men were, how they very unique their ideologies were and how they stuck by it. I loved the fact that they discussed alot about politics and the world. They debated and they had their an opinion about everything.

But then as the novel progressed, somewhere towards the end, Michel Marini himself became tired of these men, he loathed them for their very brittle response to one of his concerns of the heart. He felt at that moment, that it was better for him to hang out with his former friends, his younger friends who didnt talk about politics and radical views of changing the world yet who lived in the present moment, enjoying it – younger boys of his age, who talked about beautiful Parisiane girls instead of Politics. So I learned that there needs to be a balance, you can not just be feeling melancholic and bitter reminiscing of the past or anxious and hot headed scheming of the perfect future. Its better that one enjoys the life that they live now, taking more time out to smell the roses. I say this often in this blog, just live, not a little, but a lot more. I loved this quote from the book, that perfectly capture what it means to trully live.

“I make the most of each day as though it were a gift. For years I worked like a lunatic, without counting the hours spent, without taking rest. For nothing. That time was given to me and I lost it.  Nowadays, I read, I sleep, I listen to concerts in the radio, I roam around Paris, I chat to people, I take siestas, I feed the cats in the neighbourhood and when I have not got enough penny left, I either get by or get myself a job. I have the bare necessities and I’ve never been so happy in my life”

– by the character Sacha Markish.

He also hung out often with Cecile, his brother Francks girlfriend. She is also an interesting character who also loved reading but not to the extreme that Michel does. She was working on her Thesis in French Literature but was contemplating a Phsychology degree. Michel was good at conversing about deep and important things unlike Franck and she liked him for that. I liked the times when they hung out, drinking hot chocolate milk and eating pastries, figuring out their maths illiteracy problems and othet life problems. Also they often run around the park in Paris and hang out taking pictures beside the special Medicis fountain. I loved that beautiful part of the story. Nothing lovey happened, they were purely friends but Michel did fall in love later on. 

What I have learned is that we human beings are molded by circumstances that we face. Peoples views, beliefs and behaviours, stems from experiences in life, especially from our formative and younger years. What may seem normal to someone, may not be to another person and what may seem atrocious and wrong to one person may seem like a justified response and act to someone else. The nature of the Russians in this book, to a Fijian like me was very unusual and at times outright rude and intolerable. I could be quick to judge a lot of the actions and ideologies of these Eastern European men but after reading their back stories I have come to a point of undertstanding them. The way they are is a sort of defense system against danger, a personal nature that ensures they continue surviving considering the environment and the former reality they have lived in. They are conditioned to be that way as a result of circumstances they have faced in life. So I feel that we should not be quick to judge but instead seek to understand. Its not easy, especially in this fast paced world but we should try to take some time out to do so. 

I loved this book, it is the perfect French novel and I would love to read more novels like it. Particularly modern French writers and also books about readers like Michel Marini. I dont know if I would meet another character as interesting as Michel. I hope to read one soon, but then Michel is a very unique one, he has a special place in my heart. I would like to learn French, so I could read this novel and other French novels in its original form and definitely travel to France, immersing myself into the French life and culture. This is a book that as soon as I finished, I wanted to start reading from the begining all over again. The author was very kind and understanding toward his characters. There were no bad people in this novel, there were just a lot of human beings, real flawed humans, who are products of circumstances and environments they were born to and the greatest evils was the war and those iconic leaders who led them. I loved this novel through and through. 


Author: Kaliova

I write for the pleasure of it, to better express myself, justify myself,  defend myself and I even write to better understand myself.

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