Palafox by Eric Chevillard
Eric Chevillard’s Palafox exudes French-ness. From the book’s sleek, elongated shape to its thick pages of modernist/Paris-in-the-1920s/stream-of-consciousness prose, every aspect of this novel is evidence of its having been written in the land of baguette and beret. What other country, after all, could produce a text centered around an indefinable animal — one who, during the course of its 136 pages, changes from a chick to an insect to a jellyfish to a rhinoceros to a whale — without its human characters ever expressing confusion? Only in France, home of the Theatre of the Absurd, could an author pull off such a feat.
Chevillard’s novel is a sort of animalian version of Orlando, Virginia Woolf’s great “biography” of a character who changes gender, personality, class, and profession many times during the course of the work. Like Woolf’s protagonist, Palafox is pathologically chameleonic. It begins its life as an adorable creature, pecking its way out of a delicate egg at a dinner party and charming its owner and his guests in the process; forty pages later, it escapes its pen and goes on a killing spree, eating every animal it encounters. The creature alternately spends time in a circus pen and sails into the oceanic horizon with a woman on its back, wins dog shows and decapitates terriers, is loved by its owners and slits the throat of one of their parakeets. This is an animal that furiously resists categorization.
And yet, the novel’s one constant is the four scientists who follow Palafox around, a team of bumbling men busily attempting to classify the creature. Each of the four have completely different understandings of the animal, depending upon their academic backgrounds, and each is unable to see Palafox for the enigma it is. The message — that science regularly misses the point, and often studies things according to the way scientists understand the world rather than the way the world really is — is well-taken, if a bit heavy-handed, but such is often the nature of the messages in this type of concept-book.
First published in France in 1990, Chevillard’s third novel wasn’t translated into English until late 2004, when Wyatt Mason made what I’m sure was a Herculean effort to render the novel’s fluid, complex, and subtle stylings into English. Mason’s translation is stunning — the book’s prose is simultaneously smooth and startling; its long, comma-filled sentences dart in different directions but somehow manage to maintain an internal logic that, incredibly and crucially, keeps this rambling absurdity of a text together. All of this combines to make Palafox a lot like the modernist novels I read in college — formally experimental, beautifully written, aggressively toying with the line between real and surreal — and it does these things surprisingly well. If my knowledge of absurdist plays extended beyond the Beckett-inspired Waiting for Guffman, I would compare Chevillard’s novel to those too, and, if I agreed with the majority of the French press, that comparison would be favorable. To my knowledge, not many writers are still writing this way — keeping alive the delightfully bizarre style made popular in early twentieth century avant-garde Parisian literary salons. That Chevillard does this, and does it interestingly, makes this novel a curious and pleasantly anachronistic read.