The Adversary

By Emmanuel Carrère

On the morning of Monday, January 11, 1993, the upscale neighbourhood of Prévessin awoke to a tragedy. A fire had destroyed the home of the Romand family, killing Florence Romand and her two small children. The only member of the household to survive was Jean-Claude Romand, who was rescued from the blaze and quickly taken to hospital.

It would hardly be an exaggeration to call Jean-Claude a pillar of his community. In his day job he was a researcher for the World Health Organization in Geneva. As a family man with two young children he took an active interest in the operation of the local school board. He associated with some of the biggest names in the French medical establishment and had a reputation among both family and friends as an expert financial manager.

Soon after the fire, however, the story of Romand’s life began to unwind. It was discovered that Florence and the children had not died in the fire, but had been murdered, along with both of Jean-Claude’s parents. Jean-Claude Romand did not have a medical degree, was not a doctor, and had never worked for the World Health Organization. His upper-class lifestyle had been maintained by spending all of the money he had been given to invest. Everything about Romand’s life had been a lie – a fiction he managed to maintain for an incredible eighteen years.

Like any true crime case study, Emmanuel Carrère’s account of the Romand story is concerned with trying to answer the question of motivation, the “Why?” behind every crime. But the more difficult question The Adversary leaves us with is “How?” Con-men throughout history have pulled off some spectacular frauds, but how did Romand create an entire life that was a lie, and manage to live that life for nearly twenty years?

One of Romand’s closest friends, for example, was a doctor living in Prévessin who went to med school with him. What the friend did not know was that Romand had never passed his second year exams, but had instead simply re-applied every year while he continued to hang around attending lectures. His World Health Organization cover story was maintained by arranging it so his wife could never contact him at his “office.” When he claimed to be away attending international conferences he would go to nearby hotels and stay in his room watching TV.

But these measures still don’t explain how Romand managed to pass as normal in society, and for so long. The answer to that has to be more general, involving a consideration of the way modern life has become compartmentalized, allowing the kind of radical separation between professional and domestic duties that Romand was able to exploit, and the way the superficiality of our relationships with others, even family members, leads us to simply accept how people present themselves at face value.

For Emmanuel Carrère, a novelist and literary critic, getting to know Romand must have been like trying to understand the ultimate unreliable narrator. Readers will be hard pressed to find a single statement of Romand’s that can be believed. From what can be said for certain, Romand, who is currently in prison, seems only to be a self-centered, lazy, shallow creature whose controlling character trait is a pathological cowardice that makes it impossible for him to confront others, or himself, with the truth.

And if truth is impossible, it has to imitate fiction. Throughout The Adversary Carrère identifies himself as an author with Romand’s fraud. He even uses a novel he has written about a murderous father as a calling card to introduce himself. And it works.

But such analysis overstates Romand’s importance. He is not, as Carrère initially imagines, a figure out of a French Naturalist novel, “pushed to the limit by overwhelming forces.” Nor is he some kind of Wildean artist-killer-hero, or a man possessed by the devil (the Adversary). These are all fictions, more interesting and stranger in this case than the prosaic truth.

Review first published March 31, 2001.


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