30 July 2016

Eric Cheviillard's Prehistoric Times

"The end of prehistoric times was precipitated by the advent of writing....in brief, prehistory comes to an end when the story begins." --  (all quotations are from Prehistoric Times by Eric Chevillard)

And the beginning of the rewriting of pre-history began in 1940 when an eighteen year old boy discovered an opening to the caves of Lascaux in southwestern France.  Historians had long known and studied the early Roman settlements in the Dordogne but the revelation of Paleolithic artifacts pushed the first known habitation back two million years.

After the caves were opened to the public, problems with the light, moisture, microbes, and fungi  that entered along with thousands of visitors a year began to degrade the antique wall paintings.  Eventually the French Ministry of Culture decided to create an alternative series of faux- caves for the tourists, complete with replications of the Paleolithic art.   When reality gets turned upside down, can fiction add anything to the story?  Cue Eric Chevillard.

The fictional worlds created by Eric Chevillard may begin by seeming distant from our own but then, without our noticing how it happens, their orbits either run in parallel or collide with ours.  Here their creator slyly reveals his motive: " the shortest distance between two points, the straight line being so very congested."   This is the world of the Prix Feneon winner The Crab Nebula (1993), whose protagonist is a man named Crab, who may be out of his mind but greets that possibility with as much curiosity as any other.

"This modest, off-the-cuff lecture does not have as its sole aim the clarification of the meaning of my trade, nor is it intended as the proof of my credentials in the matter; its main purposes rather the additional reprieve it allows me by justifying my reticence to get down to work..."

With these words  the unnamed protagonist of Prehistoric Times begins his address to us.   Was Boborkine an archeologist, a tour guide to the caves, or a clerk in the gift shop?  And what of Professor Glatt,  archeologist or art historian, but definitely "the most authoritarian authority in this field."   At the end of a novel that is both dilatory and succinct, we are no closer to the cave paintings than we were at the beginning..

Between the generation that gave post-war France the Nouveau Roman (Alain Robbe-Grillet and Nathalie Saurraute, etc.) and Eric Chevillard (b. 1964) is a generation of French writers that has attracted some attention since one of their number, Patrick Modiano (b. 1945) won the Nobel Literature Prize in 2014.   It is not for lack of translations that writers like Modiano and Pierre Michon (also born in 1945) may languish.  His detractors find  the same lack of structure in Chevillard's  novels that perplexed and annoyed readers of le nouveau roman but   Chevillard is a writer of cheerful absurdities whose answer  is elliptical but not indecipherable: "Man will only ever address himself to man, in a closed circuit, man finishes in man.  Let us add that the permanence of his fictive identity relies on a conscious effort that must not slacken at any cost, nothing objectively establishes it, it will remain fragile and contestable until the end."  The end, in Prehistoric Times,  is a man who closes himself  up in a room to contremplate the afterlife of paintings he has yet to create.

To read:
1. Prehistoric Times by Eric Chevillard, translated from the French by Alyson Waters, New York, Archipelago Books: 2012.

1.Maurice Thaon - Reproduction de peintures de la grotte de Lascaux, c.1965, Musee d'Archeologie nationale, Saint Germain-en-Laye.

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