The Man Who Didn’t Exist

Books

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It’s rare that you encounter this problem, where the very act of writing a book could play into the hands of the true-life character it concerns, but author Emmanuel Carrére has had to cope with such an issue. His subject in ‘The Adversary: A True Story of Monstrous Deception’, is Jean-Claude Romand, who lived on the Franco-Swiss border and wanted to please people, so he began lying at an early age. He lied well and believably, and constantly, to the point where nothing that emerged from his lips was true. He had a happy family life with an adoring wife, loving children and doting parents. And in 1993 he murdered them all, deliberately and systematically.

You may remember reading about the case in European newspapers. Romand appeared to live a perfect life, but everything about it was fake. What lifts this account from being another true crime tragedy is Carrére’s determination not to merely recount the facts but to concentrate on Romand’s mind, showing how he reached a point where his web of deceits was so panicked and complex that it could only entrap him. His family believed he was a qualified doctor working at the WHO; lies – he had never passed an exam in his life. They believed that he had invested their money safely; lies – he spent it on his mistress. That he was a faithful, honest family man; everything was a lie.

Romand was – as remains – incapable of telling the truth because he needs to be thought well of, he needs respect but cannot understand that respect is earned by the provision of proof. He has no other way of living, and now in jail plays the model prisoner seeking redemption. He uses the language which people want to hear, and I have a sense that even the Catholic author, who is answered in terms of reaching an understanding through faith, is being played.

The fascinating part is that even after his incarceration for mass murder he continues to lie to himself, because there is no-one inside him at all, just a dark, empty void, and he can’t accept that. And he lies so convincingly, to the point where a gullible prison visitor falls in love with him, believing fresh lies. Carrére’s prose is simple and clear, the better to reveal the underlying truth about a man people still insist in looking for the good inside. It’s an illuminating, deeply disturbing read, less for the descriptions of the crimes but for what it reveals about unimaginably damaged people operating in ‘normal’ society.

My attitude throughout reading this did not change; it’s that Romand is simply a spineless, cowardly creep, and that the book could only increase his ego. Mercifully Carrére addresses this problem too. For anyone interested in crime, it’s a finely crafted, essential read.

One comment on “The Man Who Didn’t Exist”

  1. Helen Martin says:

    That is beyond disturbing. Lots of people have created false identities to protect themselves or to protect someone else but to build layers around oneself to the extent that there is no self at the core is the strangest form of suicide.

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