Prehistoric Times by Eric Chevillard

Prehistoric Times by Eric Chevillard
Archipelago Books

Review by Alan Reed

First, I must confess to not being entirely impartial when it comes to Eric Chevillard. He is already among my favourite writers, he has been for years. I discovered him by chance‚ I was a student living in Toronto when I came across one of his novels on a display table at Pages. It was On The Ceiling, a translation of Au Plafond by Jordan Stump and published by Bison Books. It is a book I have made sure to always have with me ever since. It has crossed the country with me twice now, and once was even stuffed into a bulging suitcase to spend a year in England.

So it was with no small amount of anticipation that I sat down to read the latest of his novels to be translated into English: Prehistoric Times, a translation of Préhistoire by Alyson Waters and published last year by Archipelago Books.

If I were to speak of it as a story, it would be the story of an archaeologist who is no longer an archaeologist; because of an injury to the knee he is lame and, as the archaeologist turned narrator tells us, it is simply not possible for an archaeologist to work with such a disability. He cannot be an archaeologist any longer. Out of pity or a reluctant sense of obligation, he has been offered a different, but not entirely unrelated job: he has become the caretaker to a cave housing prehistoric cave paintings within it. And the novel is a series of stream of consciousness monologues that follow him settling into his changed life and the indignity of this reduced role.

It begins with his uniform, the uniform he has inherited from his predecessor in the role (a man named Boborikine), the uniform he is now expected to wear. It does not fit. This, he thinks, will not do, and he elaborates, he justifies his position; he lays out an argument that of absolute necessity inquires into the nature of the uniform, its form and its function:

…His uniform does not suit me, not in the least. I asked for a new one, made to measure. To be more efficient, I argued, convinced that this argument was sound; to be stricter, prompter, adding: and to represent the profession with greater dignity. I’d even go so far as to believe that my request will be heard on high and satisfied at long last, after al the dillydallying by the administration. Meanwhile, I am obliged to wear Boborikine’s uniform. It does not suit me at all.

It’s a navy blue uniform, as uniforms often are, with gold buttons, as uniform buttons often are‚ because, before a uniform can stand out among uniforms, it is essential for it to conform to the idea one has of a uniform and likewise the buttons of one uniform must not be too dissimilar from the uniform buttons normally used to button uniforms, lest the very notion of the uniform merge, in the bur of erotic innuendo, with the scantiest panties or those diaphanous chemisettes that evanesce like the first snowflakes upon contact with the ground. As for a uniform worthy of the name, it is, on the contrary, the man who dons it who fades into the background by taking it on, becoming one with the post he occupies and that preoccupies him no less. But Boborikine’s uniform is both too short and too wide for me. Clearly I am not the man it needs. (p. 9-10)

And he is rebuffed, in similar style:

From on high comes this sharp rejoinder: a uniform needs nobody except to make it stand, and one handful of bran is as good as any other to stuff a doll, Boborikine or me, what’s the difference? My request is unacceptable and is in fact based on an utterly depraved set of values since in all logic it should be up to me, rather, to adapt myself, to gain weight and climb down from my haughty height in order to pour myself into Boborikine’s uniform; already my habit of flowing out of it on all sides could very well be considered a disciplinary infraction, a serious error, insubordination, and as such I am grotesque in this uniform, I disgrace it to the detriment of the entire profession…. (p. 11)

The joy of Chevillard’s writing is the writing itself. There is a playfulness animating it, a playfulness and an inventiveness run amok and from this Chevillard conjures elaborately wrought absurdities the likes of this. And he delights in it‚ I cannot help but imagine him laughing out loud as he writes. He takes such pleasure in the worldliness of his novels: how it is that each constitutes a world of its own, operating according to its own fanciful logic; how his writing is the following of this logic wherever it may lead. And laughter, always laughter.

I have come to think of Chevillard as a writer who thinks through the novel‚ that to understand how his writing works the form of the novel should be thought of as a method, as a particular way of thinking and imagining. This is perhaps too speculative, but I would say the free play animating his writing cannot be separated from the words embodying it. It would not be what it is if it were not written and if it were not written this way, if it did not emerge from a particularly playful way of putting words to the page. How he writes is essential to what it is that he writes. While I was reading Prehistoric Times for this review, David Buuck was discussing the concept of performance writing on Jacket2, and there is something about Chevillard’s writing I am tempted to describe as performative‚ putting it this way speaks to how closely engaged with the act of writing his books are.

But most important is his sense of play. Prehistoric Times uses archaeology as a point of departure to speculate about whatever happens to be within reach of Chevillard’s imagining. On art, primitivism, and stoically living in accord with nature, for example, the novel somehow has this to say:

Art preceded agriculture by some twenty thousand years, so that the old collective dream of fleeing civilization to renew our ties with primitive values and with the first passions of human beings does not entail, as one could be led to believe, buying a little ramshackle farmhouse and its fallow land, the practice of painting would be more pertinent‚ any monochrome painting is more rustic, typical and authentic than a row of potatoes. (p. 94)

And there is this game he invites any potential translators of the book to play:

Professor Glatt gave me the clef that opens the gate, for I am not a man to write cléf when it is possible to write clef, even if in doing so I compel the translators of my tale to slow down‚ and I trust they see no malevolence where none is intended; I would gladly let them have a full page to express this slight difference in leisurely, creative circumambages… (p. 37)

(And, I must add, Alyson Waters rises brilliantly to the challenge in a footnote appended to this passage.)

Chevillard is mischievous and wickedly clever, and to follow along with the strange leaps and twists he makes on the page is a pleasure I highly recommend. And I think Prehistoric Times is, of the five of his novels so far translated into English, a very good place to start . Its absurdity does not entirely overrun the constraint of the novel form, as it does in The Crab Nebula, Palafox and Demolishing Nisard, and it is more free ranging than On The Ceiling. In this sense, Prehistoric Times sits nicely in between the other of Chevillard’s books available to us in English. Depending what you make of it and on how it tickles your fancy, it is possible to go one way or the other‚ though really, in all honesty and in keeping with the spirit of Chevillard’s writing, I encourage you to embrace paradox and go all ways at once.

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