Éric-Emmanuel Schmitt: Oscar And The Lady In Pink
There’s no mention made anywhere on Éric-Emmanuel Schmitt’s Oscar And The Lady In Pink (2002) that it’s the third title of a loose series called Le Cycle de l’Invisible, four books that deal in some way with world religions. And, if the tone of this novella is consistent with the rest, they do it in a lighthearted way.
From a brief scouring of the internet, it seems only this and the second title, Monsieur Ibrahim and the Flowers of the Koran, have been translated. Given their seeming brevity, it may have been wise to package them as a whole, and the US edition does this. But, at the same time, Oscar… stands fine on its own.
It’s an epistolary novel, the letters written by ten year old Oscar from his hospital bed. He writes the letters at the insistence of Granny Rose, an elderly nurse. What makes the letters interesting is that they are addressed to God.
To Oscar, writing is “fluffy, sissy, frilly, prissy, et cetera….just a lie to make things look better” but he takes to the task, introducing himself nicely, before going on to add:
I could just as easily put: ‘People call me Egghead, I only look about seven, I live in hospital because I’ve got cancer and I’ve never spoken to you because I don’t even believe you exist.’
Sadly, for Oscar, his cancer is terminal, and he seems to be the only one able to face up to it, even if nobody is brave enough to tell him, not his parents (“they were cowards who thought I was a coward!”), or his doctor:
Basically, people here were really disappointed with my transplant. My chemo was disappointing too but that didn’t matter so much because they could still put their hope in a transplant. Now I get the feeling the doctors don’t know what to suggest, I even think they feel sorry for me…[Dr Düsseldorf] looks so sad, like a Father Christmas who’s got no more presents left in his sack.
The conceit of the letters to God is that he imagines each day as being ten years of his life and then writing about them. Even if a tad precocious, the way this is done works well, the lack-lustre events of hospital life made to mirror the paths our lives take as we fall in love, marry, conceive, grow old, and reflect back on who we are. (“It’s great, being in a relationship. Specially in your fifties when you’ve been through quite a lot.”)
Oscar’s ‘relationship’ is with Peggy Blue (“Snow White like those photos of snow when the snow’s blue and not white.”), a young girl on the children’s ward. Like Egghead, the cutesy nicknames work well in giving an innocence to the children while hinting at their specific complaint. (“He’s not really called Bacon, he’s Yves but we call him bacon because it suits him so much better, given how badly he’s burned.”)
In each of the letters Oscar lays himself bare to God, something that would have more of a heartbreaking quality had it more gravitas. But there are lines which highlight his innocence and capture well the inquisitive nature of a child faced by strange reactions around him:
‘My illness is part of me. They shouldn’t behave differently because I’m ill. Or can they only love me when I’m well?’
Sadly, this childlike voice is soon taken over by an Oscar who, in twelve days, sounds like he has literally lived the hundred-and-twenty years and is using all that cached wisdom to strike a conclusion, a stumble at the finishing line that ruins the novella’s credibility by leading to a nasty display of moralising. Of all things, in an enjoyable story about acceptance, that’s the hardest thing to accept.
August 27, 2008