Sunday, 30 December 2007

Cracking The French Code

I had such low expectations for the book, the laughs that followed page after page after page became even more satisfying.

And it was a big surprise to see it in print while I was in Malacca. One of the great things that ended an annus horribilis on a good note.



French comprehension
Those who don't understand French also do not understand the French. Now, with this book, you can

first published in The Star, 30 December 2007

I admit I know almost nothing about France or the French, other than Napoleon Bonaparte, the Eiffel Tower, Asterix, the guillotine, the works of Alexandre Dumas, and the French penchant for scapegoating. I also know about the French stereotypes perpetrated by the British in sitcoms like 'Allo, 'Allo and Mind Your Language.

Just when I thought I didn't need to know any more, comes this little volume called Talk To The Snail: Ten Commandments for Understanding the French.

"Don't go to France without reading this book", the back cover warns. I'm not sure I would want to go to France, even after reading this book. There are so many ways you could offend the French, and they have just as many ways of returning the favour (Americans and their "freedom fries" - hah! "Amateurish" would be an overstatement).

Verbal faux pas are all too easy to commit, and French etiquette holds many pitfalls for both the uninitiated novice and well-seasoned expatriate.

But have no fear. If you've gotten a copy, you're in good hands – almost.

Talk to the Snail is the brainchild of British (who else?) journalist and author Stephen Clarke. He had honed his edge through writing comedy skits for radio and stand-up comedy, which explains why he is that good.

The Brits are masters of the sardonic wit. You know who they are: Simon Cowell, Jeremy Clarkson, Hugh Laurie, etc. By the end of the second chapter, I added Clarke to the list.

Before this book there were three others, which he wrote under three different names, and published under his own label to give away to friends and other interested parties.

One of them, A Year in the Merde, a quasi-fictional account of the author's experiences in France, went on to become a runaway best-seller.

Other titles in that vein, Merde, Actually and Merde Happens hold equal promise, and reinforce the author's fixation with the French word for ... "excrement". What's next, Merde, He Wrote?

On the first page, the author offers his "sincerest apologies" to the French, a disclaimer that grows evermore fraudulent as the book progresses. A couple of pages after that another lie is exposed – there are actually 11 commandments!

I like him already.

I've learned more French in this book than I would care to. There are words or phrases I already knew, plus some I've only heard of once or twice.

And, of course: "There's a French word/phrase for that?" – a reaction that keeps recurring as the pages flipped.

Phonetic pronunciation guides are provided, though I doubt they would be of much help.

With regards to the usual Anglo-Saxon stereotype of France and its citizens, Clarke does not hold back. The wit is razor-sharp, the language acerbic, and political correctness is unceremoniously defenestrated. The fnotes, which were reminiscent of Terry Pratchett, added to the fun factor.

Then the fun had to stop about halfway through when I needed my inhaler.

Revelations in the aforementioned pages may sound over-the-top, but France is a country where you wouldn't last a week if: (a) you don't speak French; and (b) you are not well acquainted with the idiosyncrasies of the French.

Clarke has lived there for over a decade, so he does - or should - know what he's talking about.

Of course, it's not all about lazy workers who are constantly on strike, dodgy real estate agents, bad drivers, surly restaurant help and insufferable service counter staff. There are praises for their culinary tastes, easygoing attitude, aptitude for romance and pride in their culture.


On the contrary, some "common mistakes" in French are
not entirely meaningless


Clarke sounds like a cynical Francophobe most of the time, but it all hints at his covert admiration of the French and their lifestyle - pitfalls and all.

Would I recommend this book? I don't know. I loved it, however. But make no mistake - this is no Lonely Planet guidebook, but it is a good read for anyone who wants to go to France, and a tantalising peek into what Clarke's other Merde-themed novels might have to offer.



Talk to the Snail
Ten Commandments for Understanding the French


Stephen Clarke
Transworld Publishers
262 pages (Hardcover)
Non-Fiction
ISBN: 9780593057223

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