The publication of French novelist Benoît Duteurtre’s The Little Girl and the Cigarette feels impeccably timed. This month, France enacted a law to ban smoking in all public buildings, including bars and cafés. Asking the nicotine-loving French to give up cigarettes would seem like a form of social persecution. In Duteurtre’s novel, the persecution is real. This nasty little satire tells the story of two smokers (a death-row inmate and a government worker) who find themselves navigating a hazy legal dilemma: Where does their right to light up end, and the right of others to breathe clean air begin?
Though set in the future, the novel unmistakably draws on today’s cultural climate. Everyone is health conscious; corporations have insinuated themselves in nearly every corner of existence; and reality TV has become a global obsession. On the day of his execution, Désiré Johnson requests a last cigarette, but because the prison is smoke-free, his demand ignites a judicial debate that improbably leads to his release and elevation to international celebrity. On the opposite trajectory, a nameless government employee gets caught smoking in the lavatory by a preadolescent girl. His downward legal spiral assumes nightmarish overtones when the girl accuses him of sexual assault and he finds himself on trial.
Cigarettes end up providing merely a smoke screen for the author’s wider examination of a society gone mad. In this dystopian democracy, everyone is a potential criminal when our competing liberties keep treading upon each other. The novel’s cynicism can feel smug at times, especially in a subplot involving a reality show called A Martyr Idol, in which Arab terrorists submit the fate of their hostages to viewers’ votes. And the author is much too kind to Big Tobacco companies, consigning them to a rather harmless supporting role. The novel comes to fullest life when being as mean as possible to as many people as possible, which is quite often. As an unfiltered hit of misanthropy, the book goes down strong and bitter, leaving behind a craving for more.