Prehistoric Times – Eric Chevillard (translated by Alyson Waters) – Best Translated Book Award 2013

Talk about going from the absurd to the ridiculous, I should have thought about my next reading journey a little deeper than just picking up Chevillard and saying “this will do”, from Krasznahorkai to Chevillard, now there’s a journey. Quarterly have described Chevillard as “France’s foremost absurdist”, even Wikipedia says “postmodernist literature”, yep I’m in for a surprise.

Our novel opens with our unnamed protagonist/narrator telling us that he is unfit for the job of guard/guide of the Pales caves as the uniform is too small, the cap is too large and the shoes too big. The caves contain Palaeolithic paintings, and our protagonist has been “demoted” to the role of guide/guard as he injured himself falling whilst on an archaeologist tour (he’s is an archaeologist without a kneecap).
This is where our novel takes a turn into the land of “strange”, our writer doesn’t want to actually start our protagonist’s story, our guide doesn’t want to go to work as a guide, procrastination and delay are the themes, our hero is potentially unevolving (?), disevolving(?), evolving backwards, is he slowly becoming prehistoric?
No two skulls are alike, as any peasant growing his turnips on the site of an ancient necropolis can tell you; no two turnips either, even if an exhumed skull is sometimes so similar to a turnip that you can mistake one for the other. When you think about it, it might even be that our particular casts of mind – each unique – depend solely on the shape of our skull, individual thought testing itself first against the bone of its brainpan, like music molding itself to the geometry of a dome without regard for the musician’s intentions. Just a hypotheses I’m throwing out here. Indeed, I’m going beyond the call of my duties. But since I haven’t yet taken them up…Let’s grant for a moment that this hypothesis is correct, in which case we can legitimately claim that one’s thoughts will develop more freely in a huge-domed skull – but with the risk of getting lost or confused – than in a narrow, pointy skull, unless, on the contrary, they become sharper and burst forth, which is not impossible. My starting hypothesis thus branches out into diverging subhypotheses: this is how webs are woven; truth cannot be caught by the hand.
Our protagonist delays and delays his actual role as a guide – showing people through the caves – as well as his role as a guardian – protecting the caves – which causes no amount of angst amongst his superiors. Quite simply, they are not impressed. But then again he’s writing this book:
My younger brother, who joined me three years later, travelled the same, though somewhat wider route and, once I got started, I kept on like that for some time, opening the road for the two of us in the enchanted world of childhood. We progressed slowly, it’s raining serpents’ heads, the flora has the reflexes and appetites of fauna but the animals resemble broad green leaves, I’m clearing my path through it all with a machete, my brother tags along behind, there are so many mosquitoes around us that all the seats are taken, the air is saturated with them, I cut into the flesh of fat steaks bleeding with our blood, believe me or don’t, I’m not making anything up, I’m writing fiction; apparently that’s a job, I could see myself doing it, it seems pretty easy, besides all the seats are taken, decidedly, must I also cut into that, I’m a bit reluctant, I’m not used to this, I don’t have the experience. In truth, our childhood was hardly adventurous at all. We learned with difficulty how to speak, with difficulty how to walk, and then, once that was done, we were ordered to shut up and sit still.
As you can see an absurdist dream, where our protagonist/writer draws further and further into himself, and during this journey the writing becomes more and more obscure, more absurd, our novel disintegrates around us, evolution is put in reverse as we return to the world of the prehistoric.
After a lifetime of experience and daily practice, we instinctively expend the precise amount of energy we need to open a drawer, but the difficulties I just experienced have completely distorted this sense of moderation acquired over the years, assimilated by nerves and muscles, so that the third drawer yanked too brutally goes off the rails and falls on my feet. It’s painful but I’ve read Epictetus’s Art of Living.
I don’t really want to give away the ending of the book so you’ll just have to read it yourself to see how far backwards can our writer go? This is a fantastic romp through a surreal mind, one that slides between the fantastic and the real (for example, I was wondering how long it was going to take our writer to start the novel when I realised I was actually reading the novel!!!) A work I can imagine would have been very difficult to translate, given word plays, snide remarks and views that could well be lost through language.
Another absurd mind from Europe that I have entered – yet again translated fiction pushing the boundaries, it’s not always going to come off but in this case I think it does. Yet again a challenge from a foreign language.

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