Going up in Smoke

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I don’t smoke. I’ve never smoked, beyond the occasional dutiful cigar on New Year’s Eve, and I don’t really understand why people do: it may, if you let your imagination run loose, make you look like a film star; it also turns you into a smelly, yellow-fingered phlegm factory with lots of lovely diseases to look forward to in later life and a hole in your wallet bigger than the one in the ozone layer. Yet despite all this, I cannot have been the only non-smoker to feel a twinge of regret when the ban on smoking in public places in Britain was passed. I felt as if a little bit of power to make my own decisions had been taken away from me and consequently experienced a strange and unprecedented urge to light up.

The dogmatic persecution of those whose unhealthy lifestyle falls below the high standards of the lawmakers is vividly and terrifyingly dramatized in Benoît Duteurtre’s novel The Little Girl and the Cigarette. The French writer sets his action in the near future – without saying exactly when – and in a familiarly Western democratic country – without saying exactly which. The story, or rather one of the two stories we follow through the book, opens with a distinctly modern dilemma. A prisoner on death row, a black man named Désiré Johnson, is to be granted a final request before his execution and expresses a desire to smoke one last cigarette before being stubbed out for good. A particularly simple and humble wish, you might think. Not in this world: as in all other public places, smoking in the prison is strictly forbidden. The authorities are thrown into disarray; he is legally entitled to his cigarette, but they are not legally allowed to give him one. Wouldn’t he like a nice cold beer instead? Think of the harm he’s doing both to himself and to the prison employees forced to inhale a thimbleful of his nasty second-hand smoke.

As witheringly spot-on archetypes of the spineless modern functionary, the jail administrators are morally unequipped to resolve the issue and it is soon taken before the courts – and, more crucially, before the courts of public opinion, as the mass media get their teeth into this irre

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About the contributor

Simon Heafield graduated in French and Spanish in 2005 and has spent most of the intervening time working in bookshops, browsing in bookshops, or doing both at the same time. His dream is to be a full-time writer – or failing that to own a sweetshop in Paris.

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