Title: The Travels of Daniel Ascher
Author: Déborah Lévy-Bertherat
Translator: Adriana Hunter
Publisher: Other Press
ISBN: 978 159051707 9
The Travels of Daniel Ascher by Déborah Lévy-Bertherat is a generally inoffensive, if slight, novel brought out just in time for Summer. According to a Publisher Weekly article, Other Press is marketing the title as a “YA Crossover”, which speaks to the awkward position the book occupies. The plotting and prose are not sophisticated enough to impress adult fiction readers, but the characterizations (and perhaps even some of the situations?) are too sophisticated (without being engaging) for tweens and early teens. In other words: the novel lacks the pleasurable appeal of genre, and at the same time offers no challenge to the literary fiction reader.
Hélène Roche is a 20-year old archeology student, invited by her Great-Uncle Daniel to stay with him while completing her studies in Paris. He is the author of a beloved series of children’s adventure novels known as The Black Insignia series. Novels everyone seems to have read and adored… except Hélène. Her relationship to Daniel is complicated. Even as a child she was critical – thinking his word games “dumb”, his adventure stories “all the same” and finding his behavior clownish. Whereas Daniel, in contrast, is inordinately fond of her. At holidays he never forgot to single her and her brother out from the other cousins with special gifts – exotic items he picked up on his travels. And, of course, inscribed copies of all his books. Still, despite his many kindnesses Hélène goes out of her way to avoid him.
Otherwise it’s a very convenient arrangement for her: she is given her own apartment on the top floor of Uncle Daniel’s building. Rent free. He resides on the ground floor and is frequently out of the country. He leaves her notes and sends her letters, planning for them to spend time together when he returns. Otherwise he leaves her to her own devices.
That evening she found a postcard of Patagonia in her mailbox. It was sent from Ushuaia, featured low-slung houses against a background of mountains, and had a really beautiful stamp. She recognized her great-uncle’s handwriting, the same writing as those dedications in the Black Insignia books, its sloping letters clinging to each other with tiny connecting hooks as if afraid of losing eachother. My dear Hélène, I hope you’ve settled into rue Vavin. It’s magnificent here. I’ll tell you all about it, but only if you insist… Affectionately, Daniel H.R.
Hélène is not the only member of the Roche family who has issues with Daniel. The adults in particular seem to have mixed feelings, his two sisters and Hélène’s mother and father seemingly the only ones who have a genuine affection for him. Which makes what happens next so odd. Hélène begins to probe into the mysteries of Daniel’s life. Daniel is Jewish. A war orphan, adopted by the Roches after his family was killed in the Holocaust. And while she goes to great lengths – even so far as to travel to America with her boyfriend to visit Daniel’s “Ascher” relatives – her sudden interest is inexplicable. Almost half-hearted. In fact, everything about Helene comes across as half-hearted. Her research is never presented as a means for her to become closer to Daniel, to understand him, or to learn about her family’s history. With one or two exceptions she does not engage with him in any meaningful way as she sets about excavating his life as if digging through an ancient ruin. Hélène moves through the world in a state of self-absorbed ennui. Smoking, brooding and thinking herself better than everyone around her. Déborah Lévy-Bertherat has done something worse than create an unlikeable character… she has written a thoroughly uninteresting one. One who has no more self-knowledge at the end of her narrative journey than she did at its beginning. This matters as, despite it being a third person narrative, the entire story is told through the lens of Hélène.
As for the ending and the mystery’s final resolution – well, to be blunt, it’s a bit ridiculous. My reaction to it all is very similar to my reaction to Antoine Laurain’s The Red Notebook, another French novel written in a similar vein. Neither book demands an emotional commitment from its characters or readers.
The redeeming feature of The Travels of Daniel Ascher is the amount of care and thought which went into publishing the English/American edition. Adriana Hunter has made a lovely and flowing translation (she was also the translator of Hervé le Tellier’s Eléctrico W) of the source text. The writing itself is really very fine with pretty flights of fancy – for example that line in the passage above describing Daniel’s handwriting. Other Press has created a lovely book in a style reminiscent of the Lemony Snickett’s Series of Unfortunate Events series and filled it with charming pen and ink illustrations by Andreas Feher. Included at the end of the book is a drawing showing the spines of a complete set of Black Insignia books and a list of the titles in the series “so far”. Overall the physical presentation is delightful – whimsical in a way which is normally just my style.