Petite Fleur by Iosi Havilio

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Petite Fleur by Iosi Havilio

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Phil Lewis
Reviewed by Phil Lewis
Summary: One man's struggle with domestic life told through a single hypnotic paragraph. Clever, surreal, fast-paced and witty; consume in one sitting and then return to pick through what you've just experienced.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 144 Date: August 2017
Publisher: And Other Stories
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-1911508045

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Every now and then you read a book that leaves you thinking well I have no idea what just happened but I know I enjoyed it. This is how I felt after reading Petite Fleur, the fifth novel (perhaps long paragraph would be more appropriate) from cult Argentinian writer Iosi Havilio.

It tells the story of José, a self-centred man languishing somewhere in his mid-thirties. After the fireworks factory he works in burns down, José enthusiastically takes on the role of house-husband to increasingly distant partner Laura and their 1-year-old daughter Antonia. The book tracks his various schemes and musings, riffing on everything from Tolstoy to gardening to avant-garde jazz.

In one long paragraph we're submerged in a bizarre and very funny world somewhere between semi-intellectualised suburbia and murderous Sisyphean absurdism. The key to making sense of the seemingly random passage of events is open to interpretation. My own theory is that it lies in José's attempts to deal with the tedium of his life and the unfulfilled promises of domestic bliss. It reads like a checklist of gruesomely exaggerated middle-aged clichés – frantic DIY, lusting after much younger women, jealousy of a cultured singleton friend, hatred of a faux-enigmatic cult leader who temporarily enraptures his wife.

There's a telling passage near the end of the book where José is preparing his garden for grass seeds:

It was less a gardening activity than an inner struggle, a wistful desire to cloak aridity in life.

To say this book is merely a mid-life crisis novel would be doing it a disservice however. There's a major American Psycho-esque subplot involving a garish, jazz-loving neighbour who is murdered weekly by an increasingly gleeful José. While the symbolic meaning of this becomes slightly clearer later in the book, these inversely resuscitative superpowers remain largely unexplained, and are open to the reader's own interpretation.

I feel I don't quite have the right background/knowledge to fully do this book justice. I've read that Havilio is very influenced by another Argentinian writer, César Aira, who uses a flight forward technique where he tries to improvise his way out of corners he's written himself into, breaking various narrative rules in the process. I can definitely see this in Petite Fleur. Characters blaze white hot on the page (often lusted after and hated by José in equal measure), and then vanish completely. When everything gets graphically oedipal in the second half, I felt José's wife Laura was finally going to find some closure. As with most elements of this book, whether I was right or not is left for me to decide.

In trying to sum up Petite Fleur to friends, I found I could only really do it justice through comparisons. Aside from the obvious American Psycho meets Groundhog Day line, I found elements of A Clockwork Orange, strands of Kafka and Camus, and a fair amount of Lolita among its 120 or so paragraph-less pages. That's not to say it isn't its own book. It very much is. I've never read anything quite like it before.

Further recommendations: this is hard. At a stretch I'd recommend Nick Hornby, purely because he writes about men in a similar sort of predicament. I would stress though that Havilio is by far the more inventive author, and avid fans of Hornby going the other way may be left slightly perplexed.

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Buy Petite Fleur by Iosi Havilio at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Petite Fleur by Iosi Havilio at


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