Review of Contemporary Fiction
Wyatt Mason’s translation of Eric Chevillard’s third novel Palafox elegantly captures the style of whimsy of the French original. Sentences caper musically to intricate patterns of wordplay and shifting, characterized narration from the first hatching of the title creature Palafox. With the aid of four scientists, Palafox’s adoptive family attempts to keep the creature as pet and performing attraction. While the scientists fail to define him or predict his behavioral patterns, Palafox shifts between forms, ambiguously positioned between bird and fish, insect and mammal. He exists not as an embodied whole but in the shifting minutiae of his parts. Chevillard carefully catalogs the pieces of Palafox’s composition even as they contradict each other, for a fragmented, cubist vision that leaves the reader never fully able to envision the creature—instead he’s held together as a series of visceral fragments. Meanwhile each chapter turns on the meticulous description of process: either the scientific methods of the four experts, of that of Palafox’s daily life—his upkeep, his escapades, his environmental preferences, all dealt with in scenes of increasing absurdity. As the family becomes increasingly frustrated with Palafox’s ambiguity, their reactions become hostile, culminating in a stunning Palafox recipe section. Though Chevillard’s writing is often compared to Samuel Beckett, in Palafox it is more reminiscent of Julio Cort·zar’s absurd processes in Cronopios and Famas or Borges’s magical bestiary in The Book of Imaginary Beings. Indefinable and untamable, Palafox is an impossible pet even when on his best behavior; he remains a wild beast—wildest perhaps in his blurriness and uncertainty.