Monday 2 December 2013

Hector and the Search for Happiness

Hector and the Search for Happiness is an English translation of a French book, Le Voyage d'Hector ou la recherché du bonheur. Hector was originally published in France in 2002, and it took 8 years for the English translation to become available. Which is a great shame.

I had seen Hector  around the bookblogs a bit a while back, but I didn't know anything much more about it rather than the title, the covers were cute, and I hadn't heard of the author before. At some stage I learnt that it was French. And then I started seeing Sim get excited about the upcoming movie version over at Chapter1-Take1. I knew I would have to read it someday. And then one day my library had a copy, and I was about to go to a conference in Adelaide, and so had lots of time to fill in- sitting on planes, and in hotel rooms. Not that this slim volume (even in the large print format from my library) takes all that long to read.

I fell in love with Hector very early on. How could I not? Hector is a psychiatrist living and working in what I assume is Paris:

Hector's practice was in a city full of wide avenues lined with attractive old buildings.

Hector is a good psychiatrist, but he  is becoming increasingly dissatisfied with his work, as he can't make his patients happy. He can make the sick ones well, or at least manage their illnesses if he can't cure them, but he can't cure those with first world problems.
Basically , all of these well-dressed people said that they didn't like their lives, they questioned their choice of profession, they wondered whether they were married or nearly married to the right person, they had the impression that they were missing out on something important in life, that time was passing and they couldn't be everything that they wanted to be. 

The unhappy people are taking their toll on Hector. They're unhappy for no apparent reason. Hector gets more and more tired and unhappy himself.

He began to wonder whether he was in the right profession, whether he was happy with his life, whether he wasn't missing out on something. 

So he does what we all do when we need a break, and goes on holiday. Hector heads off on a bit of an around the world adventure to visit some far flung friends, but it's a busman's holiday- he's aiming to understand what makes people happy or unhappy. I love it that he decides to go to China mainly because of a character in Tin Tin's The Blue Lotus (see my review). The French are obsessed with Tin Tin, and have many, many windows devoted to him, I'll have to show you some sometime. Anyway, that tickled me.

Somewhat annoyingly every other destination is vague. In China, it seems that he goes to Hong Kong. Later he goes to a former French colony in Africa, where the people are poor, but the beer is good. Later he goes to the country of More, rather obviously America.

They were both going to the big country where there were more psychiatrists than anywhere else in the world. Notice that we say 'more psychiatrists than anywhere else in the world' but we could just as well say more swimming pools, more Nobel prizewinners, more strategic bombers, more apple pies, more computers, more natural parks, more libraries, more cheerleaders, more newspapers, more racoons, more of many more things, because it was the country of More, and had been for a long time.

I suspect Lelord's lack of specificity is to make it universal and global, but why not name names and give us actual settings when you actually mean them? Some are rather clear anyway, and I'm sure if I knew more about which former French colonies in Africa had had embargoes and yet still made good beer, then I'd be able to guess that one too. But why make me guess?

Hector makes some astute and oh so funny observations about our modern world, like when he gets upgraded to business class on a flight:

That part of the plane is called business class, just to make it seem as if the people sitting there are travelling on business and not for the pleasure of having a nice comfortable seat, champagne and their own private TV screen. 

My love affair with Hector stalled a bit when he got to the country of More. I'm not sure why. He still made insights and jokes. The style is odd from the get go- overly simplified. And I know lots of readers haven't warmed to that. Or the self-help novel vibe, a Sophie's World for the new millennium? I'm not sure if that's unfair or not.

It's fascinating to learn that Francois Lelord is himself a French psychiatrist, although he has been working in Vietnam and Thailand for some time. In this interview he somewhat mockingly says that a philosophical story written in a naive style is a French tradition- now that makes me feel better. Perhaps it is true? I haven't read Voltaire or Montesquieu, I haven't even heard of Montesquieu, but I have read Saint-Exupery's The Little Prince (another French obsession, possibly bigger than Tin Tin?), and it could well be.

Still I liked it all well enough that I will search out the second and third Hector books now available in English, Hector and the Secrets of Love and Hector and the Search for Lost Time- lets hope that one is about Proust, I'm not sure that it is, but that would make me happy. And I'll have to get to reading The Blue Lotus. Read 1 book, then need to read 3 more. It's the story of my life. And there's a movie to see- although paying more attention now, and they've made Hector English, which is rather dispiriting.

Books on France, a great 2013 challenge
 from Emma at 
Words and Peace

Dreaming of France is a wonderful Monday meme
from Paulita at An Accidental Blog


Paulita said...

Louise, I'm glad you read and reviewed this book. I remember feeling happy as I read about Hector's search for happiness. And I wasn't offended about being the country of More. I probably agreed with the assessment or I was too oblivious to be offended. Thanks for playing along today. Here’s my Dreaming of France meme

Jackie McGuinness said...

Will have to check this out!

Maria said...

Hi Louise, the book cover kind of reminds me about the Little Prince. I'd probably request the bf to gift me this book in English for Christmas. Seems like an interesting read!

Tamara said...

Always interested in a french story - might be tempted to challenge myself to try to read this one in French Like Maria, cover and story sounds a little like the Petit Prince, but I'll keep my eye out for it. for Paris in July 2013, I read and review Henry's walk to Paris - might interest your audience too..

Linda said...

That looks like a good book. I usually read mysteries but I will keep it in mind.