on Prehistoric Times, a novel by Éric Chevillard, trans. by Alyson Waters (Archipelago Books)
The French novelist Éric Chevillard (b. 1964) is often categorized as an “absurdist,” an epithet frightening enough to send most American fiction readers fleeing. But to retreat from him is an absurd and sad mistake. In Prehistoric Times, Chevillard gives us a comically provocative narrative told by an archaeologist, seriously injured during a former excavation, who is hired as caretaker and docent for a cave painted with images from past millennia. His situation is his story. If historic time is linear time, the speaker (through his obsession with the subterranean) becomes our tour guide to the immensity of the instant – the erosion of history into circular time, and the erosion of linear plot into a moment of heightened reading.
The comedy begins immediately. His uniform, worn previously by his predecessor, doesn’t fit him properly. He is a procrastinator, having delayed the opening of a part of the cave. His speech begins and continues into mid-book as an extended postponement of action:
“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 proof of my credentials in this matter; its main purpose is rather the additional reprieve it allows me by justifying my reticence to get down to work, on the one hand, and, on the other, by making me temporarily unavailable by the very fact that it keeps me so very busy and does not leave me the leisure to carry out my duties.”
As his digression unspools, the archaeology cuts history, which is also linearity of time, down to size, the size of the moment of reading. Deprived of most of the standard novelistic scaffolding, the reader is stuck in an entertaining neutral gear while the narrator speaks out on the nature of art. As in the cave paintings themselves, the image of the human (in this case, the image of the speaker within his own story) is quite modest next to the objects he sees and speaks of. Man is “the most ill-favored creature ever in all his nakedness of a beast flayed alive … Time passed without giving any purchase to men. Rituals had to be created in order to control it to some extent so that man could orient himself, gain a foothold at last in a world that was very poorly organized, governed solely by the laws of nature, and in which intelligence was the too obvious trait of easy prey.”
A Chevillardian intention: to make us conscious of our reading, “governed” by wilder laws while we hear “lectures” on art that suggest a higher value for those works that are “poorly organized” as the world itself. Such works inform us of what is actual. “If you think about it,” the speaker says, “digression really is the shortest distance between two points, the straight line being so very congested.” A tart and true comment about artistic mainstreams.
“The bringing to light of these sanctuaries suddenly overshadows History and its humble chronologies,” he goes on to say. “It then becomes clear that we have exaggerated the importance of dynasties and revolutions.” The immensity time hovers over the modesty of art which, even though some of it remains after the artist dies, can’t be fathomed. The motivations and messages are long gone. His theory: “Never would man, endowed with the aptitudes both to reason and to laugh, the latter to counteract the former, never would man thus enlightened have entered History.”
Published in 1994, Prehistoric Times is one of more than twenty books written by Chevillard. Only two others, The Crab Nebula and Palafox, have been translated for Anglophone readers. Alyson Waters’ fine version of Chevillard’s prose allows the reader to register the style of his sinuous sentences, the prickliness of his ideas and the stylish tone of his comedy. Those who have objected to his techniques usually portray him as rather selfish, placing too much emphasis on the craftiness of writing. But in Prehistoric Times, he wants us to be disturbed by the shared stakes and difficulties -- for the speaker, the novelist, and the reader:
“The flow of this narrative is much better controlled than it seems, its inflexibility drives me to despair. In the end, the obstacles I put in its path turn out to be essential episodes, the story assimilates and integrates everything that could lead it astray, there’s no way out for me, no way to tear myself away from it, no more than it is possible to catch a glimpse of yourself from behind in a mirror by spinning around quickly in your heels.”
The makers of the cave paintings “took over the world” by creating one. A Chevillardian remark on the nature of art is also a statement on how the artist should approach his or her responsibility to wield such a power and magic. The speaker becomes the isolated workman in his cave; the new section is finally opened. He says:
“What do they know on high about how my work is progressing? How do they measure progress? Still, they cannot be unaware of the fact that a story of this sort never begins abruptly, that it is impossible to know or to locate the beginning of a story of this sort before knowing the ending: it is the end of a story that illuminates in retrospect the phases of its evolution and that slows one to infer its origins. These origins, however, are at times much older than one suspected. In truth, there is but one origin and that is why a story of this sort can never come to an end …”
Comic in spirit, Prehistoric Times also looks both compulsively and plaintively at the project of art, including during our own “late onset disillusionment.” It holds within itself – and gives a whiff of -- the mysterious, dank origins of the cave’s imagery, and the bodily smell of new energies expended to sustain a long story.
[Published July 15, 2012. 136 pages, $16.00 paperback original]