The Adversary

by Ted on July 20, 2004

I recently read Emmanuel Carrere’s The Adversary cover-to-cover in one night. It’s the true story of a man named Jean-Claude Roland who takes a terrible path.

Roland missed an important exam at the end of his second year of medical school, but never rescheduled it. Impulsively, he told his parents that he had passed. Roland pretended to continue his studies. He married and had children, convincing everyone in his life that he was a high-ranking official with the World Health Organization. He paid the bills by defrauding his parents, in-laws, and friends. He told them that he was investing their money, or sold them worthless cancer treatments. He managed this way for eighteen years. Eventually, on the verge of being uncovered, he murdered his wife, his children, his parents, and made a (strikingly half-hearted) effort to kill himself.

I find his story fascinating for a number of reasons, but I’ll single out one: it was utterly irrational. On the stand, the judge asked him why he didn’t just reschedule the exam, and he wasn’t able answer. “That’s the question I’ve asked myself every day for eighteen years,” he said.

He could have just rescheduled the exam he missed. He could have gotten a job, rather than spending his adult life reading newspapers all day. He could have confessed, and taken his lumps- he knew all along that he’d come to a bad end sooner or later. Finally, if he was so concerned and embarassed about what he had done, he could have killed himself, and left his family alone.

I’m really not doing it justice; there’s a lot of food for thought here. Highly recommended.



Keith M Ellis 07.20.04 at 8:37 pm

I read a great deal about this story—I’ve been interested in reading the book. It’s enjoyable?


Ross Silverman 07.20.04 at 9:02 pm

Sounds like a ripper of a read. Someone I know recently started down this path: this Spring he failed a course in his last semester of college, leading to his not graduating, but because his whole family was coming to attend graduation, he didn’t tell anyone, accepted lavish gifts from them in order not to disappoint, etc., and the bigger the lie became, the more difficult it became to extract himself. I’m not sure if he has yet, and he was telling everyone he was going to start grad school in a couple weeks.


Jeremy Osner 07.20.04 at 9:09 pm

This book might make a fine gift for him.


Ted Barlow 07.20.04 at 9:19 pm

I told a friend of mine about this book, and she told me that her sister had gotten out of an exam by telling everyone that her father had died. When he came to visit, she had to hide him.

Ross, I agree with Jeremy; this kid could be screwing his life up in a serious way.


novalis 07.20.04 at 9:26 pm

Oh, sorry about that. He wouldn’t have missed the exam if I hadn’t stepped on that butterfly…


Maria 07.20.04 at 9:27 pm

I remember this story. It was made into a film a couple of years ago with the suitably hang dog Daniel Auteuil playing Roland. It’s pretty opaque, but worth a look nonetheless.

Here’s a link to the DVD – sorry, I don’t know what the English title was.


Maria 07.20.04 at 9:30 pm

Duh, sorry, of course it’s called The Adversary in English…


Kaveh Kh. 07.20.04 at 9:41 pm

I couldn’t find any English translation of it on
Any ideas?

The story sounds like a profound existentialistic trap for the soul.


Ophelia Benson 07.20.04 at 10:21 pm

What’s interesting (she said, pointing out the obvious) is the solipsism of it all. He doesn’t want to be embarrassed so all these other people have to be killed, so that he won’t be embarrassed. Kind of acting out Hume’s ‘it is not contrary to logic to prefer the ruin of the whole world to the pricking of my little finger’ or whatever it was. I mean – he must have thought the other people didn’t exist at all except as things that affected him. Bizarre way to think – and yet probably quite common.


pal 07.20.04 at 10:22 pm

There was a film made a couple years ago called Time Out (actually “L’emploi du temps”, a French film). It was a dramatic version of this story, and a movie I would highly recommend. It actually ends up being a bit less dramatized than “real life” (which is surprising), to excellent psychological effect. Worth seeing.


DC 07.20.04 at 10:31 pm

“Highly recommended.”

The book or the life-path?

“He could have gotten a job, rather than spending his adult life reading newspapers all day.”

He could have done both.

That’s me done.


Matt Weiner 07.20.04 at 11:02 pm

I think it may be even more common than you think–not just as a force for Evil, but for Good. I think a lot of moral behavior may come from a desire not to embarrass yourself–not to be called out in front of others.

But then, I’m much more likely to put off something I ought to be doing once I think I’m already embarrassingly late doing it. And the Millgram experiments sound kind of similar to me; the subjects may have (so they thought) tortured someone to death because they didn’t want to make a scene in front of the scientist who seemed to know what was going on.
Cf. also the reaction to Joseph Darby.


Keith M Ellis 07.20.04 at 11:04 pm

Ophelia: that’s astonishingly solipsist, isn’t it? It’s hard to imagine that many people could be that truly solipsistic.

Hmm. But it’s not truly solipsistic, when you think about it. It’s just necessarily very selfish. It’s isn’t necessary that he think of those people as only extensions of his person, but that he recognizes their autonomy but values it less than his being in a shame-free emotional state.


PG 07.20.04 at 11:45 pm

I see the existentialist element here, though: if we are left to make our own (im)moral way, what is to block us from being motivated by something as pathetic and universal as the fear of embarrassment?

Ophelia wonders at how other people could exist for this man only insofar as they thought well or poorly of him.
This reminds me of an argument I made to a friend last night, that most people surely would behave the same regardless of whether they believed in a deity or not.

Most of us don’t refrain from murdering each other just because we’re afraid of an old bearded man’s throwing us in hell, or even just because we fear the police; we realize that other people exist for purposes beyond our own convenience, so even if it would be simpler to have them dead, we don’t do it.

For Roland, however, there apparently was fear of neither God nor Government to restrain him, and no sense of other people as more than his audience. So he killed them when it became too difficult to avoid embarrassment through obfuscation and deceit.


vivian 07.21.04 at 1:40 am

Ophelia, Keith: Surely if he were a solipsist then he wouldn’t care what other people thought, believing that he could simply re-imagine them as more admiring. Roland sounds less philosophical than tv-confessional (antisocial personality disorder), doesn’t he? No impulse control, no ability to delay gratification or accept disappointment (or shame), not enough regard for others to, as Ted says, kill himself and spare the others.

Ross, help your friend to get some help, he’s not alone, though he probably feels like he is. I doubt he’s like the guy in the book though.


Shai 07.21.04 at 3:53 am

Ran into this cnn review/summary back in 2001 when I was reading several books on the topic of self-deception. It’s fascinating, not because the story is incredible, but a lot of us can identify with a lie, often to bolster our image, that turns into an elaborate web just to remain consistent, simultaneously wildly inconsistent with less tall tales your other friends know about you. And by chance you all happen to collide one day…


Matt 07.21.04 at 1:11 pm

I’m suspicious of the single incident that turns someone to a life of crime… Reminds me, in an admittedly weird way (I’ve taught and tutored mathematics), of people who claim they can’t understand math because they missed a critical lesson on fractions in the third grade and never caught up.


glory 07.21.04 at 4:12 pm

it was utterly irrational

well, maybe not quite utterly; there could be a reason :D

btw, there was a nice guardian interview with carrère a few years back!

also, the onion liked the movie! (i thought it was okay :)

oh, and it’s romand…


Ray Davis 07.21.04 at 7:53 pm

The “true story” is indeed worthy of contemplation. Unfortunately, Carrere’s treatment of it is painfully trite and obtrusively self-involved. For me, it chiefly served as a reminder that Patricia Highsmith’s prose deserves more credit than it gets.


Robin Green 07.22.04 at 3:11 pm

Ophelia – that degree of solipsism has a name. It is called “being a psychopath“.

The only thing that doesn’t fit is that psychopaths tend to be utterly shameless. Still, I expect they still try to avoid being found out.


cheryl b 07.23.04 at 5:35 am

This thread ties to the current search for Lori Hacking, the missing pregnant jogger whose husband was allegedly going to North Carolina to attend medical school. The police have found out that he had never applied. Life mimics fiction….


cheryl b 07.23.04 at 5:36 am

This thread ties to the current search for Lori Hacking, the missing pregnant jogger whose husband was allegedly going to North Carolina to attend medical school. The police have found out that he had never applied. Life mimics fiction….


cheryl b 07.23.04 at 5:36 am

This thread ties to the current search for Lori Hacking, the missing pregnant jogger whose husband was allegedly going to North Carolina to attend medical school. The police have found out that he had never applied. Life mimics fiction….


mc 07.25.04 at 3:26 pm

I didn’t read the book, but just watched the film, The Adversary – the one with Daniel Auteil. What a story. And aren’t the French so good at telling this kind of unsettling stuff in very ordinary ways, it makes it even more haunting.

I don’t know how faithful the film is to the actual events, but while it leaves you with uneasy questions, it does a very good job of giving you glimpses of how the protagonist viewed his own actions as inevitable. His choices were insane and destructive but you do get to see hints of how he justified them to himself. You get to see his own self-serving logic.

I really think the missed exam was only a pretext. It could have been anything else. He chose to miss it, chose to never take it again, chose to start this massive deception… but he never fully admits he made those choices.

The main impression I got is exactly what Ophelia said above – the solipsism, how other people were there for him as puppets in his play. Even as he seemed to care for their reaction and feelings, all he cared for in the end was that they didn’t interfere and that he could use them to prop up his act.

Also, he constantly played tricks with them to somehow shift (in his own mind) the responsibility for the hardest decisions on them.

Like when he starts telling the truth to his best friend, then somehow lets him derail the conversation – that was masterful, the way he did it. You could imagine him thinking, “there, I tried, I tried, but he just wouldn’t let me”.

And when he tries and convince his mistress that he can’t “invest” her money… he is not trying at all, even here, but he is pleading, “please don’t me make do it!”, as if it was her call. As if he was somehow condemned by others, or by fate, to do what he did.

It’s very fascinating, how he manipulated these situations to serve his self-justifications.

The other unsettling thing is indeed the role of other people. The question you don’t want to ask but feel compelled to is how on earth could those who were so close to him not pay due attention to his weirdness. When the police is nearly hassling his doctor friend with that question, you feel sorry for the guy, you see he is truly shocked and of course he has nothing to be blamed for. But while you feel annoyed by the policeman’s questions, you do see he has a point, you want to ask those questions too, not to blame anyone else, but just to try and understand, and imagine “what if they could have stopped him earlier”… That’s very tricky, also because you basically end up thinking like the protagonist there, you nearly fall in his trap on that very question. In the film, it’s a good trick because it does make you see things from his angle.

You can see how his deception mechanism was something that he viewed as inevitable, even if it was of his own making. He avoided acknowledging any responsibilities so he built something that would allow him to think of himself as trapped, and justify anything he’d do, and avoid responsibilities, and keep up the deception – all in a perfect loop. He liked to think he couldn’t stop lying, because what else was there apart from lies? nothing. It was easier to kill people than kill his own lies. If he didn’t kill them, and they exposed him, that would have made his whole construction pointless, to his own eyes. He couldn’t bear that. He couldn’t kill himself, either, as long as his family was alive, because that too would have exposed the lies, and made his deception pointless… so he felt trapped. By killing them, he did something so evil that it somehow justified in his mind all he had done up til then. That was the most inevitable outcome, in his mechanism.

He “had to” take decisions that were increasingly worse so that they could somehow vindicate the pointlessness of the initial one.

Totally insane, but with is own relentless inverse logic. It’s like he was addicted to that feeling of inevitability, even as he took the worst possible decisions, they had to appear inevitable to him, not his own choosing. Maybe that’s why he says even prison is more tolerable – the quote in that CNN review shai linked to. His own lies were not a perfectly self-enclosed mechanism, they were still open to that intolerable choice of the alternative, telling the truth. Prison is total inevitability with no alternatives, and no future choices to make. So paradoxically in prison he’s “free” and happy… It’s the ultimate in self-serving lies.

Oh well, maybe this is flattering the character too much with all this pseudo-existentialist reading, and the real killer was likely a lot less complex or interesting than the film (or novel) makes him look like. Auteil is just so good. But as a story, as a narration, it does haunt you with those questions, even at much more trivial and less tragic levels.


beluga 07.27.04 at 10:43 pm

note to cherylb: it’s life (perhaps) imitates *life* not fiction. the hacking case is still ongoing, of course, but the parallels are frightening. at least, the couple’s parents are unharmed, physically, but romand, the subject of the adversary, may have inadvertently done his parents a favor by murdering them & sparing them the pain of learning what their son/son-in-law’s been up to.

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