Another of the best places to go for excellent world literature is the Dalkey Archive Press, a nonprofit publisher ran from the University of Illinois. An interviewer once asked the founder, John O’Brien, for a description of the types of books the Dalkey Archive publishes—experimental, avant-garde, innovative? O’Brien said: Subversive. “My point was that the books, in some way or another, upset the apple cart, that they work against what is expected, that they in some way challenge received notions, whether those are literary, social or political.” The Dalkey Archive is also home of the triquarterly publication Context, which you can read on their website. It’s a valuable website for many reasons, but critical introductions to unknown authors (for example, Gérard Gavarry) make it invaluable.
Gavarry is entirely new to me, which makes sense since Hoppla! 1 2 3 (Hop lá! un duex trois, 2001; tr. from the French by Jane Kuntz, 2009) is the first English translation of one of his eight books. It will be available early June. It is the first book this year that when I finished I wanted to go immediately back to page one to read again, even without a short break. It is that interesting and complex. I’m really hoping some of you get a hold of the book so we can talk here about it. It is one to read, reread, and then discuss.
The title of the book comes from Bertolt Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera: “And as the first head rolls I’ll say: hoppla!” One can infer from this that things in this book lead up to an act of violence, and that is correct (though it is brief and usually occurs offstage). The 1 2 3, comes because, in a sort of triptych, we get to read the story—the lead-up and the violence—three times with three different sets of images, and to see the roots of violence as they begin to grow in three different perspectives.
The first section, called “The Coconut Palm,” begins with a beautifully rendered traffic jam. Yes, “beautifully rendered” and “traffic jam.” The radio is playing and tells the listening drivers about alternate routes:
This resulted in an anarchic swarm of automobiles filling up the entire local grid. Migratory flows intermixed, intertwined, increased, and multiplied, becoming long processions, wandering in slow motion, searching in the dusk for some alternate route. A cold rain began to fall, soaking the gray of the sky, the red of the brake lights, the white, yellow, and orange of headlights and suburban glare.
“The Coconut Palm” presents the roots of violence from a social or communal perspective. We watch the story unfold almost as if we were one of the many people wandering around the periphery; or rather, as if we are all of the people wandering around the periphery. There is an exceptional scene on a train heading from Paris to the suburbs. The passengers in the last coach are comfortably seated for their journey home until four rowdy youths enter.
At present, the other passengers are taking up less room in the compartment. They are also less individualized, bound together now by the fearful hostility they feel toward these unruly youths they’re being forced to ride with, having no idea what lunatic idea might now come into their heads, what new stunt they might improvise, whether their next move will be swift, precise, and brutal, or slow, expansive, and awkward . . .
The situation worsens when two young women engage in a scuffle with the boys. Nevertheless, the fellow passengers on the train remain uncomfortably immobile. Gavarry describes this scene in a strange and wonderful way that so effectively defamiliarizes the reader with the situation:
All around, some of the passengers wagged their heads, a sickly smile on their faces—which was their way of maintaining that all this commotion wasn’t really amounting to anything nasty. Others, as though barely restraining themselves from intervening, gave a slight wiggle of heroic indignation; while still others acted as though they hadn’t seen a thing, despite the mounting evidence that something disastrous was about to happen right under their noses. Because, despite multiple attempts by the as-yet-unmolested girl to intercede—”Come on, quit screwing around!,” “Cut the crap!,” or “Is this what you guys are like?”—the male excitement was growing. Worse, it was changing form. The four late adolescents, who together had foisted their physicality onto the scene in the train-car from the start, and whose subsequent movements, however varied they may have been from one boy to the next, had nonetheless composed a well-regulated choreography—these same four were not getting increasingly agitated, and each in his own way.
While Gavarry’s premise for the book is excellent, it is bolstered by an exquisite style that can be both abstract in an almost scientific sense, as in this example—
Between the epigastrium and the pelvic region, in among the meanderings of our entrails, there germinates Refusal. We don’t feel its corpuscular presence at first: only a thermal shift, and icy cold welling up from a place deep within us—deep, but nonetheless as far from the self as possible—and which, spreading unobstructed into our bodies, assumes the form of a thousand filaments merging with the complex network of our nerves. This intermingling disrupts the entire organism, all the way to the epidermal level, where, reacting to a phenomenon normally restricted to the viscera, the skin pales here, flashes there, and everywhere starts to crawl. Finally, when it outgrows the belly—as do pain or rage in similar circumstances—Refusal is externalized.
—or disturbingly, poetically, intimate, delving into lonely fears while remaining beautiful, as in this example—
As four hours Universal Time approaches, which in February is three o’clock Ris time, no harbinger of a new dawn emerges, but instead there is a deepening of night in the outlying suburbs. Not a sound to be heard. Nothing stirring. The nocturnal fog soaks the suburban lamplight, so that everywhere the same stagnant icy gray medium reigns, where earth and sky mingle, engulfing structures, sleepers, and vegetation alike.
There is a lot to think about in this piece. I didn’t even go into the fantastic groups of images Gavarry utilizes in each of the three pieces, giving each piece its coherence and completeness while further defamiliarizing the reader, eliminating bearings the reader used to orient him or herself in the other sections. Each section carries the same people to the same event. Each is still unique and compelling and important. Indeed, through this book not only does Gavarry reveal some excellent insights into the roots of violence but, in doing so, he shows the power and vitality of literature.