Hap­py Are the Happy

Yas­mi­na Reza; John Cullen, trans.
  • Review
By – April 13, 2015

Yas­mi­na Reza, a renowned con­tem­po­rary French play­wright and nov­el­ist whose works have been trans­lat­ed into more than thir­ty lan­guages, has craft­ed Hap­py are the Hap­py, a nov­el set pri­mar­i­ly in Paris that relays sto­ries from eigh­teen dif­fer­ent view­points. Among the plot twists and vary­ing perspec­tives of the char­ac­ters, who range from doc­tors to lovers to chil­dren, the nov­el main­tains a mood of dis­ap­point­ment and lethar­gy that is present in each character’s stream of consciousness. 

Through­out, the char­ac­ters grap­ple with what it means to be hap­py. Iron­i­cal­ly, it is an insane char­ac­ter who is hap­pi­est: Jacob Hut­ner, an insti­tu­tion­al­ized young man who is com­plete­ly out of touch with real­i­ty and believes he is Céline Dion. At first glance, Reza seems to be mak­ing the dis­mal argu­ment that real­i­ty is an unhap­py place in which to live, and that only those who ignore it and live in a world of their own mak­ing are sat­is­fied. But it seems more like­ly that Jacob is the hap­pi­est because he active­ly sought out what would make him hap­py, where­as the oth­er char­ac­ters con­tin­ue their lives with­out alter­ation. Reza’s nov­el, then, is ulti­mate­ly a con­dem­na­tion of fatal­ism, and an argu­ment that peo­ple need to define their own hap­pi­ness to find it. 

Jew­ish­ness, while not overt­ly present through­out the nov­el, still plays a large role in shap­ing the char­ac­ters’ men­tal­i­ties. Many of them are not reli­gious, and God is seen as either impo­tent or uncon­cerned with their dai­ly lives. Cul­tur­al­ly, how­ev­er, Judaism plays a larg­er role, serv­ing as a means of identifica­tion, a cause of polit­i­cal dis­agree­ment about Israel, and a source of shared his­to­ry. Reza her­self is Jew­ish, the child of a Russ­ian and a Hun­gar­i­an Jew who both immi­grat­ed to Paris, though it is unclear to what degree her upbring­ing influ­enced the struc­ture and char­ac­ters of her nov­el. Nonethe­less, the nov­el has an authen­tic Jew­ish feel and seems to be ground­ed in real experiences. 

While the book’s many con­vo­lu­tions and char­ac­ters may con­fuse some read­ers, oth­ers will find it enrich­ing and inter­est­ing. In particu­lar, peo­ple inter­est­ed in French Jew­ish cul­ture, and what it sug­gests about hap­pi­ness, will rel­ish the var­i­ous per­spec­tives of the novel’s many characters.

Relat­ed Content:

Edyt Dick­stein is a grad­u­ate of the Joseph Kush­n­er Hebrew Acad­e­my in Liv­ingston, NJ and is study­ing at Har­vard University.

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