“Only amnesiacs have no regrets” is perhaps one of the most profound statements in Jean-Michel Guenassia’s The Incorrigible Optimists Club. It holds particular relevance with the novel itself, as the club is made up of members who fled from behind the iron curtain, leaving jobs, wives and children behind them for the sake of their lives and freedom. Each has their own regrets and things they might have done differently had they had the chance- though it’s a chance that few of them will ever get.
The novel is light-hearted at times, with these moments coming from the portions of the novel rooted in the present- Paris between the 1950’s and 60’s. The protagonist during this time is a teenage boy named Michel Maroni- a keen player of baby-foot (mentioned several times throughout the novel, this term refers to foozball or table football) a vicarious reader and an honorary member of the Incorrigible Optimists Club. This sometimes masks from the reader the truth that the novel shows in the individual stories of its members- the darkness of the communist regimes and the long-lasting effects they had on those who escaped them. Through the novel we see the families torn apart, the careers ruined, the relationships broken and the friendships ended. Yet as the title itself suggests, there is something optimistic to be found in the novel.
These men, from various communist regimes and various religions, all belong to something together, a club of their own creation. They visit the Balto cafe, drink, eat and play chess, and discuss their lives just as anyone who had lived an entirely commonplace life might. They’re survivors, and make the best of the lives they have now- even if their degrees aren’t recognised, and their job prospects significantly lower, the majority manage to keep relatively upbeat attitudes, which are inspiring for both the reader and for Michel. For Michel, his problems can always be taken to the club for discussion and solutions- their wealth of knowledge on life, family and women benefits him, and his presence in some way benefits them.
The novel on a whole is a wonderful read, and at over six hundred pages will keep you occupied for some time (or a day, if you’re a read-in-one-sitting type of reader!). It’s very enjoyable and gives you a lot to think about along the way- and Michel will give you plenty of recommendations for books to add to your reading list throughout the novel.