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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Special Envoy

Jean Echenoz

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To purchase Special Envoy

Title: Special Envoy
Author: Jean Echenoz
Genre: Novel
Written: 2016 (Eng. 2017)
Length: 240 pages
Original in: French
Availability: Special Envoy - US
Special Envoy - UK
Special Envoy - Canada
Envoyée spéciale - Canada
Envoyée spéciale - France
Unsere Frau in Pjöngjang - Deutschland
Enviada especial - España
  • A Spy Novel
  • French title: Envoyée spéciale
  • Translated by Sam Taylor

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Our Assessment:

B+ : playfully written fun

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Le Monde . 13/1/2016 Florence Bouchy
NZZ . 23/9/2017 Albrecht Buschmann
The NY Times Book Rev. . 10/12/2017 Alex Berenson
El País . 20/4/2017 J.Aparicio Maydeu
Le Temps . 7/1/2016 Isabelle Rüf
Die Zeit . 9/11/2017 Ronald Düker

  From the Reviews:
  • "Il y a néanmoins quelque chose d’étrange, dans un récit ouvertement situé de nos jours, à lire les aven­tures fomentées par de vieux ­barbouzes qui s’adjoignent les services de véritables bras cassés. Tout droit sortis des années 1970 ou 1980, certes mis à l’écart par leur hiérarchie, ils ­détonnent un peu à l’heure de Big Brother et du renseignement technologique." - Florence Bouchy, Le Monde

  • "Das alles bereitet grosses Vergnügen: Weil die Thrillerhandlung straff gespannt ist, dabei einerseits mit vielen Einzelheiten anschaulich wird (...), andererseits derart mit Details garniert ist (...), dass die Detailliertheit selbst ins Absurde kippt." - Albrecht Buschmann, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "Special Envoy is an exceedingly French spy thriller. Which is to say, it’s not really a thriller at all, and even less about spying. (...) None of this seems either very realistic or very meaningful (.....) I’m not exactly criticizing, either; I don’t think Echenoz wants us to care too much. He occasionally even breaks the fourth wall, berating himself for the plot’s thinness. " - Alex Berenson, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Esos impagables guiños metaficcionales que ponen la tramoya al descubierto y los apóstrofes al lector, que teatralizan el relato y distorsionan los personajes, resultan fundamentales para que el lector advierta hasta qué punto Echenoz se siente cómodo jugando a escribir una novela de espías de pega." - Javier Aparicio Maydeu, El País

  • "A la fin du bal, reste le plaisir de s’être senti mené par un danseur confirmé, d’avoir joui de l’élégance de la syntaxe, appris deux ou trois vocables, retrouvé des morceaux de jazz et dansé avec des silhouettes désarmantes, pathétiques, immondes, vivantes." - Isabelle Rüf, Le Temps

  • "Dieser Roman lebt nicht von der Handlung. Es geht hier, wie immer bei diesem Schriftsteller, ganz radikal und einzig und allein um die Erzählkunst. (...) Dass es so großen Spaß macht, diesen Roman zu lesen, liegt wohl daran, dass man den Spaß spürt, den es gemacht haben muss, ihn zu schreiben." - Ronald Düker, Die Zeit

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Special Envoy is billed as A Spy Novel -- at least in its English edition (though not the French original) -- and there is indeed international intrigue and an elaborate plot in the novel that eventually finds several of the characters in North Korea, their mission nothing less than: "You're going to destabilize North Korea". But it's also a whole lot more, and less, than that.
       The novel opens:

     I want a woman, the general declared. A woman is what I need, you see.
       At sixty-eight, General Bourgeaud hasn't completely been put out to pasture, but he's certainly no longer in the thick of things. Still, he can't help himself and: "continues to organize a few operations on the sly". He wants a woman for his latest, rather ambitious plan -- but his declaration can also be read entirely personally. In this neatly, if very elaborately plotted novel both aims are achieved (though the personal is not much more than incidental, one more loose end (involving several stations and characters) tied up in the end).
       Paul Objat is entrusted with finding the woman appropriate for the grand plan the General has, and he has exactly the right one in mind.
       Thirty-four-year-old Constance is married to Lou Tausk -- whose actual name is Louis-Charles Coste. Lou has done well for himself, a songwriter slightly above one-hit-wonder-grade. But, although he's enjoyed some success with several songs, it's one he wrote fifteen years earlier -- 'Excessif' -- that has set him up for life. And it was Constance -- under the stage name of So Thalasso -- who provided the original vocals. And among the places where the song has enjoyed particularly great success is Korea -- especially North Korea.
       The idea is to use Constance to shake things up in North Korea, but the way they go about this is anything but straightforward. It involves kidnapping her -- and making it appear to be an actual kidnapping -- and then preparing her for her mission, before finally sending her off to Pyongyang. And while, in its basic outlines, that's simple enough, Echenoz makes something rather more of it.
       Special Envoy is a novel of relationships, pasts and futures, and the connections we make. It is part spy-thriller, beginning with the elaborate kidnapping of Constance. But Echenoz doesn't play by the usual genre (or, arguably, real-life) rules. For example Lou, advised by his fancy lawyer brother, isn't particularly responsive to the kidnappers' demands; he more or less goes on with life as usual and soon enough is involved in a passionate (at first) affair with another woman. No one is out looking for or trying to save Constance.
       Lou has his reasons for not involving the police: in his younger days he was involved in a crime for which only his partner was fingered -- a partner that now also returns into his life, and the story. (He also has another partner, professionally, whose actions also weigh on the plot.) Pasts -- distant and recent --, and not-quite-forgotten (mis)deeds weigh on the present.
       Meanwhile, Constance is kept isolated but otherwise well; indeed, her two main (and not well-informed, as to what is going on) minders, Jean-Pierre and Christian, become rather too mindful, and look to protect her, slightly complicating things. (But only slightly, because there's only so far they can spirit her away, and Objat quickly gets things back on this unusual track.)
       Eventually, Constance is sent to North Korea, along with minders Jean-Pierre and Christian -- who, however, are quickly and efficiently disengaged from their charge by the local authorities, and forced to while away their time like tourists. But Constance manages to infiltrate, as it were, the local upper ranks, and soon is involved with their mark, a high ranking official whom they plan to extricate. Others follow to North Korea, and eventually there's even quite an exciting escape-sequence. But, no, despite the (not too excessive) body-count, North Korea isn't much destabilized by all these antics.
       Special Envoy moves smoothly along, but only partially in spy-genre mode. There's suspense -- quite a bit, and quite a variety, as there are various overlapping threads, and the potential for conflict and clashes seems always near at hand -- but Echenoz generally opts for the slyly anticlimactic, the deëscalation when things come to a head. Though there is more than just the occasional crash-and-burn, personally and professionally. Sometimes predictable -- bringing the pet dog along to North Korea is obviously not a good idea --, sometimes entirely surprising.
       Among the novel's successes is in its evocation of place: Paris, the French countryside where Constance is kept hidden, and even North Korea, which Echenoz describes convincingly. But most of the fun of Special Envoy comes from the simple telling. The tale is enjoyable too, but uneven; as a spy thriller it probably doesn't meet expectations: Echenoz might be using the grid, but he doesn't paint by the numbers. But the telling is most enjoyable, and often entertainingly self-aware, the author getting caught up in the pleasures of the texts and the occasional digression -- and then explaining and excusing himself -- or playing along with the fiction, including ending a chapter by noting:
We will, of course, provide you with more details of this story, as and when they reach us, in the next chapter.
       So also, for example, after one brief digression almost as much space is devoted to another explaining it:
     We thought it would be good if this little-known zoological phenomenon were brought to the attention of the wider public. Naturally, said public has the right to object that such a piece of information seems purely digressive, a mere didactic amusement, permitting us to bring the chapter to a smooth ending without any connection to our actual story. To this objection, which is of course admissible, we would like to respond as we did earlier: for now.
       Indeed, Special Envoy is a densely interconnected narrative, with a fairly large cast, behaving in ways that, even as they seem plausible, given the circumstances, are often rather odd -- notably in the placid acceptance of the unusual (and there's a lot that's unusual). Practically everything matters and is, in some way, significant, from the first (the general's wish for a woman) to the end -- and often in entirely unexpected ways. The connections, especially among the characters, are particularly nicely handled.
       It's as much about style as content or story, and their interplay -- as Echenoz suggests, quite explicitly, with a Pierre Michon(-on-TV)-cameo, Constance stumbling upon an interview with him while in North Korea:
And first of all, Pierre Michon, a question that seems to me central to your work: the style, by which I mean that singular manner that is your own, does that provoke the content or is it the consequence of that content ? I don't know if I'm making myself clear. Absolutely, absolutely, answered Michon after a long silence, but it's perhaps a little more complicated than that. It's not binary, you see. He was about to say more when the bedroom door opened without warning
       Don't expect a standard thriller -- but that's one of the pleasures of the text, that it continually defies expectations. It's an odd novel, certainly -- but in all the best ways. It's certainly a fun read.

- M.A.Orthofer, 29 November 2017

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Special Envoy: Reviews: Jean Echenoz: Other books by Jean Echenoz under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       French author Jean Echenoz has won numerous literary prizes.

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© 2017 the complete review

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