The Weirdest Show on Earth

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– Seahorses certainly aren’t the strangest thing in Raymond Roussel’s mind.

Regular readers of this blog will have noticed that I’m a fan of rather strange narratives. Magic realism, absurdism and surrealism all get a hearty thumbs-up in my books. If you were to tell me I was about to read a book that was too outrageous to be truly enjoyable, I would probably splutter, “too outrageous!?”

I also never would have expected such a novel to be a 1914 offering, from long before all the literary flights-of-fancy and experimental whimsies of the 1960s onwards. Raymond Roussel’s Locus Solus is that book however, and it is truly redonkulous.

The premise: Famed inventor/scientist/curator Canterel invites a group of guests to come see some of his scientific curiosities in the grounds of his country retreat Locus Solus. The narrative is focalised through an unnamed guest, as he is led with the group to witness a variety of bizarre experiments / artworks.

Firstly, we are shown a baked-mud statue of a child complete with plaques evoking a medieval folktale. After zooming out from the statue, we are greeted with the tale of its construction by indigenous African tribes, and then we jump to 11th century France to be treated to a bizarre tale about inheritance and dreams that is illustrated in the plaques.

The artwork is therefore explained in terms of the stories and histories that it evokes and that led to its production. This is the main framework of Locus Solus: we are shown a ‘curiosity’ and then the narrative leaps back to all of the histories, folktales and events that lead to its invention.

This is rinsed and repeated six times, for each of the inventions that Canterel unveils to his guests. It’s important to keep this structure in mind, because the inventions are going to get a whole lot weirder than just a baked-mud child with some engravings…

The guests are next shown a bizarre pneumatic air-balloon that guided by pre-determined air currents, creates a mosaic out of human teeth. If the weirdness sounds intriguing, it is Roussel’s prose-style that renders it tedious. This contraption is described in painstaking scientific detail for around twenty pages. We are told about the chronometers on it, the properties of the materials used in its construction, the process through which the teeth were extracted from willing volunteers. All of course detailed using the unrelatable terms of early twentieth century science.

After the scientific detail has been taken care of, you get treated to the folkloric detail. What is the picture of the mosaic this machine is making? Well, it depicts an event from a Norwegian fairy-tale contained in a rare tome about a princess being turned into a bird and protected by a floating globe of water. This tale is wrapped in another fable, since it is read by an imprisoned kidnapper in Norway several centuries later. Wheels within wheels. You get the picture.

The craziness continues to escalate, demanding more and more from your ability to suspend disbelief. This is obviously the process through which all fiction works to some extent; if we were constantly trying to assess its truthfulness and point out inconsistencies, literature simply wouldn’t have any appeal. But this is what I think Canterel is playing with in this novel: how much B.S. is a reader willing to put-up with?

I don’t mean this in a flippant way; I believe this is a worthwhile literary experiment and tells us something about our capacity for belief and the demands we make on veracity. Canterel’s contraptions are outrageously absurd, we know that, but they are introduced through the dual means of painstaking scientific accuracy and rigorous historical grounding. All the usual methods that we use to determine validity are applied to the most unimaginable creations. The reader who wishes to dismiss the novel in terms of scientific inaccuracy (from an early 20th century perspective) can’t fault the method: but the madness is nevertheless still glaring.

So, Roussel’s creations manage to fuse the most insane surrealist art and science together; which is an impressive feat given the traditional polarisation of these two camps. The 1959 ‘two cultures’ debate that had literary critic F.R. Leavis foaming at the mouth against science-advocate C.P. Snow was yet to happen, but similar issues are evoked by Roussel’s novel. Can artistic and scientific methods be reconciled? It would appear that they can in the world of Locus Solus, but only when applied to the most bizarre of inventions.

Needless to say, there is a lot going on in this novel then. But is it enjoyable to read? For the most part: no. Even if we can get a sense of what Roussel is trying to achieve through his clunky, tedious style, it doesn’t make the novel enjoyable or even rewarding on the whole. It is certainly amusing and downright bemusing at points, but this doesn’t balance against the verbose methods of justification that Canterel employs.

Despite the persistence required though, it is hard to argue that this book isn’t unique. It will truly stretch the limits of what you thought fiction could conjure up. Before tackling Locus Solus, you’ve got to ask yourself a few questions:

Do you want to see a skinless cat swimming in a diamond-shaped water tank electrocuting a severed head so that it recites political speeches?

Are you curious about why a reanimated corpse would weave a miniature bonnet out of pear-fibres for a porcelain baby Jesus?

Ever wanted your fortune told by a cockerel that communicates by coughing up blood onto a miniature easel?

Ever wondered what would drive a man to create a ruler out of bacon?

If so, Locus Solus awaits…

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Who Wants Eternal Life?

- Death at Intervals, José Saramago

Death at Intervals, José Saramago

Portuguese author José Saramago deals in big concept books. His well-established classic Blindness is about a bout of contagious blindness that sweeps a nation after all. Death at Intervals, a more recent 2008 novel, works in rather the same vein…at least it appears to at first.

There is only one single named character in Saramago’s novel, and they are introduced more than halfway through. So what happens before that? Well, it’s all very macro really.

“The following day, no one died” opens the novel, as miraculously the citizens of an unnamed country seem to have evaded death. People are pulled out of car-wrecks with horrible wounds that nevertheless don’t kill them, and old people on the brink remain forever in a vegetative state.

For all its wonder and whimsy, Saramago’s novel focusses on the immediate social issues that this strange turn of events leads to. It starts with the funeral homes going out of business and having to re-jiggle their business plans, providing elaborate and expensive funeral services for parrots. Soon, the care homes get overfull and need a new strategy. Not the mention the ironic crisis experienced by the church: if people live forever, then God can’t provide eternal life after death. Needless to say, the country finds itself in the grip of some rather serious issues.

I will say no more of the plot, as it has some interesting and innovative departures from convention, and instead dwell on what makes this book great. Mainly, Saramago’s prose style, which will either have people enamoured or throwing their copy out of the window in frustration. Clearly, since I retained my copy long enough to write this post, I fall into the former category.

Saramago writes huge paragraphs that can often span over two pages, and strangely he doesn’t even use speech marks. The wall of text looms. But why does he do this and why should you put up with it? Well, his run-on style feels strangely out-of-control. Like a snowball rolling down a hill and rapidly gaining mass and momentum. This lends itself perfectly to his content, which charts a situation of increasing volatility, careening out of hand.

He also chucks his speech marks out because he’s one of those ‘meta-’ authors. He likes to highlight that his speech isn’t directly reported; it’s all part of his undifferentiated account of events. This often makes you unsure as to who is meant to be speaking a particular sentence, which chimes with the chaos gripping the city.

These sound like horrible impediments to an easy-read, but they work oh-so-well in evoking the muddled panic that the plot describes. Importantly, the prose is hilarious, crammed with digressions that the narrator gets angry with himself for, absurdly unnecessary details and bizarre personifications, which in this case, includes a rather bitchy scythe.

The first half of the novel is impressively wide in scope, assessing all of the fallout effects of mankind’s greatest desire: to live forever. The country is analysed as if from different disciplines: economic, geographic, political, philosophical, spiritual, and televisual.

Then it suddenly changes tack, and we are greeted with a completely different novel. For all its concentration on mass-movements and concepts, we suddenly plunge into the world of a single individual. Saramago’s prose becomes delicate and emotive whilst fleshing out their psychology. What follows couldn’t be simpler…a love story. In the midst of the mad, cerebral clutter so far this is hugely disarming. As if When Harry Met Sally was suddenly cut into the middle of Blade Runner.

This leaves you with a novel of two halves. Of two very refreshing halves. Each amplifying the other by their stark contrast. From the macro, we get the micro, but no further indication of what to do with the tale. It’s up for us to generalise the moral of the story out from the second-half and realise its ramifications in the context of the whole.

And most importantly, it leaves you feeling really nice and squiggly…which is the last thing I was expecting from a book about death by a conceptual author. Saramago takes an abstract concept, and through all his flights of fancy, condenses it into something that we can not only make sense of, but emote with.

Even though I expected this to be a gem, it defied my expectations. A must-read for anyone interested in kooky concepts; yet for all its eccentricities, you’ll leave with a universal message.