Before he wrote En attendant Bojangles (Waiting for Bojangles) in seven weeks at his parents’ home, the 35-year-old author had “failed at just about everything else”.
Dyslexic French author Olivier Bourdeaut makes debut with a tale that moves the nation
It is the literary sensation of the year in France: a first novel by a dyslexic author that has had readers crying – and laughing out loud – on the Paris metro.
Before he wrote En attendant Bojangles (Waiting for Bojangles) in seven weeks at his parents’ home, 35-year-old Olivier Bourdeaut had “failed at just about everything else”.
“I wish I was joking,” says the former estate agent. His last job was as a switchboard operator for an educational publishing company, “surrounded by all the books that tortured me as a child”.
Like the boy narrator in his book, Bourdeaut was always getting his letters and numbers mixed up.
But in the three months since his beautifully written tale of a boy growing up in a bohemian home where unopened bills pile up like mountain ranges in the hall, he has won three of France’s top literary awards and his book has risen to the top of the bestseller lists.
His story has charmed critics and public alike, with Johanna Luyssen in the Libération daily newspaper comparing it to Muriel Barbery’s 2006 international bestseller The Elegance of the Hedgehog.
Like that novel, about a quietly erudite concierge, “It appears that good intentions can also make good books,” Luyssen wrote. “For Bojangles, which you close crying your eyes out, is a lovely read.”
Jérôme Garcin, the host of France’s most-listened-to radio show about books, was even more evangelical.
“Remember the name Olivier Bourdeaut,” he wrote just days after the book was published by Finitude, a small imprint in the southwestern city of Bordeaux. “He deserves all the success that will cascade upon him for this extravagant and moving fable.”
From its opening line – “My father told me that before I was born he was a fly hunter, and that he hunted them with a harpoon”– the book takes the reader on a fantastical journey with a highly unusual family and their pet Numidian crane, Mademoiselle Superfetatorie.
Gallons of beverages are quaffed and creels of lobsters flambéd during frequent parties at the shambolic apartment, where the parents and their friends dance to Nina Simone’s song Mr Bojangles, the gently melancholic rhythm of which suffuses the whole book.
It does not take long to realise that this is also a great love story which, like all the very best ones, has a tragic ending.
While many have assumed that, in common with many first novels, Bojangles is highly autobiographical, Bourdeaut says nothing could be further from the truth.
“Really, they have nothing to do with my family,” he says. “The only crazy person in ours was me.”
Bourdeaut grew up in a good, middle-class, Catholic family in Nantes in western France. His father was a notary, while his mother stayed at home to look after his four brothers and sisters. While clearly part of a loving family, Bourdeaut was definitely the black sheep.
“I have failed a lot,” he says. “This is my first real success at anything. I was terrible at school from the start. I was made to repeat years and was expelled – and left with without any qualifications.”
His working life was not much better.
“I pretended to be an estate agent for 10 years, but I was a fiasco,” he says. “Since then I have been doing odd jobs to support my writing.”
Having slaved for four years on “a book that was the opposite of this – very dark, violent and cynical” – he found himself back living with his parents, who had retired to Spain.
“Paris had been cold and morose but in Spain, with my parents, I found this warm refuge of love,” he says. “Bojangles came out of that. It was written very quickly, in seven weeks, in that atmosphere – it was a really intense and joyful time.”
The book is being translated into 13 languages, including English, so that joy is about to spread.
“I just love it,” says reader Delphine de Sousa, clutching two copies she had just bought in a Paris bookshop to give to friends. “One day I was reading it on the metro and I realised everyone was looking at me because I was laughing and then a few minutes later I was blubbing.
“They thought I was crazy until a woman who was getting off said to me, ‘I was the same. I loved it, too.’”