How to Become a Monster

By Jean Barbe

“Indifference” is a key concept in modern culture, and not only in reference to an electorate that is disengaged and apathetic. Political indifference is just one part of a bigger picture. That same sense that individual voices don’t really matter has been felt by artists for over a century now, their work overwhelmed by the entertainment products put out by the mass media, and ignored by a jaded public only aroused by the sensational and the extreme. And so indifference has become a subject of some concern for many novelists, a disease of the heart that threatens the basic premises of their profession.

How to Become a Monster by Montreal author Jean Barbe is a contemporary political allegory examining the toxicity of indifference. It tells the story of Francois Chevalier, a lawyer who travels to a nameless (though presumably Balkan) country to defend a war criminal named Viktor Rosh, “the Monster.” As Chevalier uncovers Rosh’s story, Rosh gives his own version of events in alternating chapters. Together they describe how one becomes a monster through a gradual loss of human attachment and feeling, a growing indifference that leads one to empathize not with others but with the meaningless abyss and the banality of evil.

The civil war that transforms Rosh into the Monster is likened to a sexual as well as political release. “Pent-up sexual energy has to be spent in some way, otherwise the motor blows.” Killing in war is even “better than an orgasm” though, because instead of relating us to “our mammal state” it “elevates us to the state of God”: “We kill for many reasons, but at first, when we kill, we feel a sense of power that deep down is just exhilaration: a sudden acceleration of your heart rate, a tidal wave of hormones that floods your brain and bathes each cell in your body.”

Once the killer comes down off this homicidal high, however, he confronts the fact of the universe’s indifference to his existence, his cosmic insignificance. From rising above his mammal state, Rosh falls far beneath it. Contemplating the night sky, he sees himself as shrinking away to nothing:

I was nothing but a tiny insignificant point gravitating around a star among billions of stars drowning in an infinity of nothing. My thirty-something years of life weren’t even a bat of an eyelash in the universe’s existence.

It goes without saying that this state of self-awareness amounts to seeing the lives of others as insignificant as well. Which leads to both an extreme narrowing and heightening of perspective that Barbe at one point brings to life in a sharply evoked battle passage:

Each building was a trap. Each doorway was a bunker. I felt as though I was butting my head against a perfectly transparent plastic film that didn’t stop my movements, but slowed them. I could see the imminent moment in which our advance would be stopped, in which we would get stuck in urban trench warfare as costly as it was absurd. The objective of invading the city was suddenly reduced to taking a candy store or a flower stand. Our ambitions were reduced to a portion of sidewalk, to a building floor held by a sharp-shooter. But as small as they may be, these objectives completely filled our field of vision. They took on an importance that someone observing from above could never understand. That piece of sidewalk and that candy store were everything to us because they represented life or death. In this brutal magnification of our vision, the rest of the world was relegated to a haze, to a larval state of existence, shapeless and patient, waiting for a sign in order to materialize.

This is very good, even in translation. And the novel is well structured, playing back-and-forth between the primitive Rosh, who descends by the end of the book into a ragged animal state and is symbolically captured in a bear pit, and the cultured Chevalier, who represents civilizing forces like justice and the family. The only mistake, and it is a big one, that Barbe makes is in putting too much emphasis on building a sense of mystery around Rosh’s greatest crime, the revelation of which is artificially, and annoyingly, delayed until the final pages.

Those final pages also come to a rather lame conclusion. Chevalier is redeemed by the love he feels for his family, and vows to defend that love “from the claws of hatred and indifference.” But with his new-found understanding that hatred and indifference can be as seductive and addictive as love he realizes this will be a struggle. He can give up on Viktor Rosh, but he can’t wash his hands of what Rosh represents. Becoming a monster is easier, even more natural and normal, than many of us would like to think.

Review first published online November 6, 2006.


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