Gabriel Josipovici is an extremely prolific European author who has written fiction, non-fiction, literary criticism, and plays. The son of Jewish-Egyptian parents, Josipovici was born in France and his background is as colorful as his bibliography. He now lives in England, where most of his novels take place. Long-considered an “experimental” novelist, his recent novels relate very complicated and intricate storylines in unique and interesting ways that stimulate and challenge readers without becoming over-bearing or unreadable. His latest, Only Joking, was written after he had finished the complex Goldberg: Variations. In order to take a break from that more serious narrative, and in an attempt to cope with the “severe mental anguish” that plagued him at the time, Josipovici found comfort in the lively, punchy storyline of Only Joking.
This novel reads like a foreign game of Clue, with all of its well-drawn characters intricately linked through a web of deception, blackmail, and double-crossings. There’s the Baron, an aging man whose large fortune inspires the story’s conflict; his wife, Elspeth, a nervy woman who wants to stay rich; Alphonse, the smooth circus clown turned private investigator who seems to spend half the story trying to placate his anxious customers; and Isabelle, the blunt art student who charms and takes advantage every man she meets. Each character has their own secrets: Alphonse has a hidden stash of money within an accordion, Isabelle’s real name is Natasha, and the Baron seems to know, more or less, everything the other characters are up to. Written almost entirely in dialogue, the voice of each character resonates distinctly: there is the formal voice of the Baron, Natasha’s adolescent phrases like “no probs,” and Alphonse’s overuse of the reassuring word “really.” This is one of the more interesting aspects of the novel, and a testament to Josipovici’s artistry.
For the careful reader, Only Joking is a fun, comedic read despite the stealing, guns, and plans of murder that constitute its plot. The book is ironic and entertaining, and although it’s incredibly readable on a surface level, it requires an active reader capable of piecing together the story, which is meted out bit by bit in short fragments of encounters and conversations. The unpredictability, humor, and quirky style make Only Joking a book well worth reading, along with the other titles in Josipovici’s extensive backlist.
by Gabriel Josipovici
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