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Waiting for Monsieur Bellivier

by Britta Röstlund

At 73 Boulevard des Batignolles, Mancebo tends to his little grocery. He lives with his wife Fatima in a flat just two storeys up from the shop and spends every afternoon with his cousin Tariq. A contented life of long-accustomed habits and routines, where every conversation follows the same groove.

Then one day Madame Cat turns up at the store, giving Mancebo a mission. In exchange for payment, she asks him to spy on her husband, who she fears is having an affair. Surprisingly, even to himself, he accepts and in a heartbeat Mancebo's life if changed forever. The mission causes Mancebo to start noticing the world which passes outside his shop. He becomes attentive, curious, and soon aware also about other things around him, making him question all he's taken for granted about his loved ones.

Not too far away the story's ‘I’, a freelance journalist named Helena Folasadu is sitting at a café. She's in the middle of writing an article on ‘top sights in Paris’ when a man comes up to her and asks if she is waiting for Monsieur Bellivier. At first she refuses, but then an impulse makes her say yes. Next thing she knows she has accepted a job to forward cryptic emails to Monsieur B at a desk in an otherwise empty office. The prospect of a scoop attracts her, but perhaps even more so the considerable pay she has been promised at the end of the three week contract period. Every day she goes to the office, and every afternoon a large bouquet of flowers awaits her in the reception. To take it home doesn't feel right, so sometimes she gives it away, sometimes she leaves it on an unattended grave at the Jewish cemetery close by. But even an innocent gift such as a bouquet bears consequences and soon Helena is drawn into other people's lives and dramas, and new bonds of friendships are formed. And there is still the mystery of Monsieur B to reveal.

In chapters by turns we follow the two threads of the action as they weave together. The plot is funny and exciting in an alluring Godot-style, set in a well-captured and vivid Paris filled with interesting and unique characters. It is a genuine tale about a city and the people who live there, and about chance, suggestive of Paul Auster's early works and Short Cuts. Britta Röstlund's novel debut is a tour de force, and with heightened curiosity and fascination we follow Mancebo and Helena all the way to the surprising end.

From the sample translation:
‘Are you waiting for Monsieur Bellivier, madame?’ The question was asked formally, as if the answer itself were unnecessary. The question was more of a set phrase, a greeting or a message. Thinking back, the words were more of a code than a question. There was no hope in it, nothing personal, no emotional expression whatsoever. I shook my head quickly, almost instinctively. The man looked at me, as if to give me time to change my mind. He took several steps back and returned to his place in the middle of the café, then started scanning the customers again. I studied him, and became convinced that it must be a woman who was waiting for Monsieur Bellivier. All of a sudden he was at another woman's side, asking her the same question. She shook her head. I put a full stop at the end of a sentence and studied the woman. She had brown hair in a pageboy style, like me. /.../
The man was still standing in the café. He had decided to find out who was expecting Monsieur Bellivier. That was when I had the idea. It was a banal act in itself, but it both frightened and attracted me. The man was looking out over the café guests again. I beckoned him over. The first step. A slight movement of the hand. He did not look surprised, more embarrassed that I had not waved him over sooner.
‘Yes, I'm waiting for Monsieur Bellivier.’

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