The bare – and true – facts are these. Jean-Claude Romand, the son of a well-to-do forestry official in the Jura region of France went off to study medicine. He never took any exams, but fooled his parents and university administrators into believing that he was – for years – on the verge of qualifying as a doctor. He pronounced himself a fully accredited physician. He married, had two children, and went to work for the World Health Organisation as a researcher into the causes and treatment of arteriosclerosis. As his career developed he became closely connected with several important figures in the world of international politics and medicine. His was a glittering career, except for one small problem. It was all a fantasy. He never qualified. There was no job. No connections with influential decision makers. No international conferences in exotic locations.
To this farrago of lies and deception add fraud on a grand scale. Romand was able to keep himself and his family in relative prosperity by claiming that he had access to investment opportunities which would pay handsome dividends to those fortunate enough to be ‘in the know’. He relieved relatives and members of his wider family of hundreds of thousands of French francs – every one of which went into his numerous personal bank accounts. Separating his mistress and her vast personal fortune was his undoing. She was sharp enough – eventually – to call him out and, with his fantasy world on the verge of unraveling, Romand, on an icy weekend in January 1993, killed his wife, two children, and both of his parents.
Jean Claude Romand is portrayed as a shabby Prospero, and the Caliban he commands is a breathtaking fantasy world of warped imagination and fraud. Such was his belief in his own plausibility – and the gullibility of others – that he had one final trick to play. He returned to his house (and the cold corpses of his family) and set it on fire. Suicide in a fit of remorse? Carrère – and the French criminal justice system – thought otherwise. Romand was carried alive from the inferno. The flames were real enough, but Romand calculated that he would be rescued. At the point where he had recovered enough to speak to the police, he would then tell of the masked intruder who killed his family and left him for dead.
Inevitably, Romand was found guilty of murder, and in 1996 was sentenced to life imprisonment with no chance of parole for at least twenty two years. Prior to the trial, Carrère had begun a correspondence with Romand (right) with a view to writing an account of the case. In this account, aside from the factual detail, Carrère invites us to ponder the true nature of evil and insanity, and makes us wonder if the two states are totally separate, or whether or not they are actually bedfellows.
Carrère does his best to keep a neutral tone of voice as he describes the road Romand took, from his eighteen years of astonishing duplicity, via the terrible murders, through to journey’s end where he seems to have rehabilitated himself in prison, at least in the eyes of some. It would have been cheap work to write a bloodthirsty piece of tabloid jornalism, where shock falls upon shock, and adjectives become ever more spectacular, but Carrère is flesh and blood, and a compassionate human being; there is a note of bemusement as he describes the tortuous labyrinth of deception Romand builds around himself. The killings? He does no more than lay out the facts. The callousness, the brutality, the sheer casual depravity of the deeds speak for themselves. Carrère saves his contempt for the captive Romand, who seems to have cast a spell on many otherwise decent people who have been profoundly impressed with how the killer has turned to God.
Carrère (left) concludes:
“He is not putting on an act, of that I’m sure, but isn’t the liar inside him putting one over on him? When Christ enters his heart, when the certainty of being loved in spite of everything makes tears of joy run down his cheeks, isn’t it the adversary deceiving him yet again?”
Up to this point, I had wondered about the book’s title, but reality dawned as I recalled the vivid and terrifying image from the first epistle of Peter, chapter 5:
“Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour:”
L’Adversaire was first published in 2000, and has been the subject of several films and documentaries. This new edition, translated by Linda Coverdale, is published by Vintage Books, which is part of the Penguin Random House group of companies.