Yoga by Emmanuel Carrère review – terror comes from within | Fiction

Ranging across novels, memoir, experimental biography and true crime, French author Emmanuel Carrère’s body of work doggedly problematises the rules by which it is understood. The opening of his nonfiction breakthrough, The Adversary (translated by Linda Coverdale), juxtaposes spree killer Jean-Claude Romand murdering his family with Carrère attending a parent-teacher meeting, as if determined to occupy, rather than bridge, the gap between author and subject. His biography of Philip K Dick, I Am Alive and You Are Dead (translated by Timothy Bent), eerily collapses that same distance, constructing for Dick a paranoid inner life so intimate that it feels claustrophobic. Now comes Yoga, with a cast both real and invented.

One way to understand Carrère’s oeuvre is to dispense with the idea of him as the author of discrete works. His books, each of which draws on and augments what has gone before, are a single, interrelated project, the subject of which is the project itself – its fraught emergence, its blurred limits.

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When we last saw Carrère, at the conclusion of The Kingdom, he was on a Christian retreat, finding solace in the ritual washing of a stranger’s feet. The version of him we meet at the start of Yoga is ebullient. The Kingdom was a creative and professional high-water mark. “I was full of myself,” he says. “I was happy. I believed it would last.”

He’s also, perhaps, trying to recapture The Kingdom’s alchemy of the personal and spiritual. Carrère, we learn, has long been a devotee of yoga and meditation. Now it has occurred to him that the subject would suit “a short, unpretentious book in a conversational tone” – one that, given yoga’s popularity, “could sell like hot cakes”. On the hunt for material, he signs up for 10 days of silent vipassana meditation, deep in the French heartland.

Initially, that “conversational tone” feels almost flippant. Apparently uninterested in differentiation, Carrère blitzes “eastern” thought into a distinctly beige stew. We get bits of Chögyam Trungpa, Patanjali, tai chi, Iyengar yoga. When he first hears the voice of vipassana meditation’s Indian founder, SN Goenka, Carrére is reminded, distastefully, of “the English of Peter Sellers in The Party”.

Carrère, though, is well attuned to his flaws. Directing his attention to the patterns of his breath, he finds a disturbing insight into his mode of being. According to yoga, says Carrère, “inhaling … is taking, conquering, appropriating, which I have no problem with at all. In fact, I can’t do anything else … Exhaling is different. It’s giving rather than taking, returning rather than keeping. It’s letting go.”

We can glimpse, here, the project Carrère envisaged – chatty, replete with bankable insights, destined to sell like hot cakes. It is not to be. When terrorists attack the offices of Charlie Hebdo, killing one of his friends, Carrère’s retreat is cut short. Briefly, yet another book seems possible, one hinging on easy oppositions between asceticism and engagement, pacifism and violence. But Carrère nods towards the reductive, only to reject it. The Charlie Hebdo attack is not, in fact, Yoga’s defining crisis. Nor is it Carrère’s. “My life,” he writes, “which I believed to be so harmonious, so well fortified … was in fact heading for disaster. And this disaster did not come from external circumstances, cancer, a tsunami or the Kouachi brothers kicking open the door without warning and massacring everyone with Kalashnikovs. No: it came from me.”

Carrère experiences a catastrophic mental breakdown. “Everything that’s ever mattered to me,” he says, “everything I’ve dreamed of, glory and mansions, love and wisdom, has lost all meaning.” He doesn’t just want to die, he wants “to be dead, to have never existed”. At the age of 60, having been happy for a decade, he is diagnosed with bipolar disorder, removed to a secure ward, and subjected to electroconvulsive therapy.

Now Carrère’s need to inhale becomes not appropriative, but pained and poignant. Alienated from the person he thought he was, he tries to breathe himself back in. He reads his own psychiatric reports, where his “moral suffering” moves with terrifying swiftness from “significant” to “intolerable”. He goes back over his own work, searching for traces of the mania that was to come. He even reviews a glossy New York Times profile of himself, worrying away at the veneer of professional success, exhuming the personal nadir it thinly conceals.

Carrère is drawn as if by sirens to extremes. Desperate for a “chance to get away from myself”, he retreats to a Greek island and finds himself teaching a small class of young refugees. From its deceptively glib beginnings, through the shocks and catastrophes that shake it, Yoga’s inexorable emotional arc has been obvious. And yet still the force of its final third, in which a fragile, agonisingly unhealed Carrère fills his psychic wound with the wounds of others, borders on the unbearable. One child recounts packing a small bag, alone, knowing he will never return home, and recalls his aunt telling him: “Stop crying, my boy. In life you have to leave everything, always, and in the end it’s life you have to leave, so there’s no use crying.” Another cannot even verbalise his trauma, and so simply hits his head repeatedly, wordlessly, against the desk. In Carrère’s helplessness, his stunned inadequacy, we finally see what he has offered us: not a self-portrait, but a collective one. Here, anatomised, is the white western capitalist everyman – wandering the aisles of the spiritual supermarket, shopping for garishly packaged bliss, in terror of a threat from without, blind to the threat from within, and wholly, tragically incapable of incorporating into his reality the very subject of all the diluted eastern spirituality with which he is so enamoured: the truth of suffering, the crushing inevitability of loss.

“Life,” Carrère observes, “is a machine for separating people.” What, then, is the machine that brings them together? Carrère offers no easy answers. He doesn’t need to. His singular, ever-expanding work, in which one pain need never obscure another, in which truths and half-truths are held not in opposition but in delicate, precarious balance, is an answer in itself.

Sam Byers’s Come Join Our Disease is published by Faber. Yoga by Emmanuel Carrère, translated by John Lambert, is published by Vintage (£16.99). To support The Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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