Merging crime, espionage, and absurdist fiction, French author Pierre Mac Orlan (born Pierre Dumarchey in 1882)—a prolific writer of adventure novels, erotica, songs, essays, and memoirs—constructs a compelling novel of intrigue set in the murky shadows of Europe in the 1920s and 1930s. Written in stages over the course of decades, Mademoiselle Bambù comprises several pieces of writing, revised and consolidated into a single volume and reprinted in English with exquisite, original, sketch-like illustrations by Orlan’s friend, Gus Bofa, an artist who is best remembered for his book illustrations of French literary classics and his collaborations with Orlan.
Aaron Peck, in his afterword to the book, emphasizes the importance of Bofa’s contributions to Mademoiselle Bambùin serving to complement Orlan’s moody work and underline the obscure and shadowy characters who populate the story. “His drawings suggest the existential darkness that overtook a Europe defaced by war and modernization,” remarks Peck, noting that “his style is dark, almost resembling the aesthetics of film noir, though at times it is also goofy or playful.”
This handsome edition also features an enlightening introduction by Chris Clarke, responsible for translating the text into English, who describes the author’s particular take on the spy novel as a “poignant example of Mac Orlan’s blending of the social fantastic with the adventure novel and a dark and latent surrealism.” Opting to confine the main narrator’s role to “the odd polite interjection and occasional comments,” Mademoiselle Bambù—which examines the life of Signorina Bambù, a double agent in the service of France, and the diabolical career of sinister spy Père Barbançon—is told through wistful confessions by Captain Hartmann, an adventurer and accidental spy, and through the “observations and fabrications” of Paul Uhle, the odious proprietor of a boarding house in Brittany where Barbançon spends his final days. Philosophical, darkly humorous, and highly original, much of the book’s pleasure is derived from Orlan’s astute, comic observations and his colorful, if sometimes derisive, depictions of the larger-than-life main characters.
Nicholas Litchfield’s review of Pierre Mac Orlan’s story collection Mademoiselle Bambù is featured today in the Colorado Review.